In November 2000 four pioneers in the field of organizational learning gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were not studying graphs and charts. They did not analyze statistics. They came together to share their experiences of collective awakening and to explore how those moments transformed social systems. These were times like the ending of apartheid in South Africa. They wanted to understand that process of profound transformation and the forces underlying such lasting change.
What they noticed was that at such times it seemed as if a huge knot had come untied and broken apart (Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future). Those four organizational change pioneers were Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers. What they discovered is that the process begins when individuals and groups learn to see from the whole.
Most people aren’t particularly good at seeing from the whole and understanding systems. Without realizing it, individuals and organizations fail to see that “Everything is in everything,” as physicist Henri Bortoft puts it. All too often, humans and institutions miss the connections between the parts and the whole. Rushing out to change the world before changing oneself is a too common example.
Just think about Unitarian Universalism’s engagement in the struggle for racial justice. How is it possible to go out and do this work well if we ourselves and our congregations still unintentionally perpetuate systems of oppression? It has been difficult for our congregations to recognize and admit our need to start by changing ourselves. Programs like Beloved Conversations ask members to do just that. In small groups, members listen, share, and reflect on issues of race, oppression, and multi-culturalism. If you were here last week, you heard from individuals who have already participated in the program. You can sign up now for the next program beginning in February.
The ultimate goal of the program is to transform the religious community as a whole. But it begins with each of us. Participants learn to see through an anti-racist anti-oppression lens. Anyone who has done deep anti-racist anti-oppression work knows that afterward you will never see yourself or the world the same way again. But no matter how much work you have done, there is yet more to learn.
The failure of humans to do the work to connect the parts and the whole is having dire consequences. Humans face the possibility of mass extinction if we don’t awaken to our shared fate. Warnings have been flashing all around us for at least the last century. The threats of nuclear war, eco-disaster, and more recently 9/11 in this country, are among them. Some individuals have referred to the prospect of human extinction as a “global requiem” (Presence).
The prospect of a global requiem is quite real to me. I was born a few years after the Centralia mine fire that continues to burn in the near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. I visited once as a young adult, ignoring the danger signs of gases, collapsing ground, and serious injury. It wasn’t all that unlike the apocalyptic images of ghost towns we see in Zombie or eco-disaster movies. I was in college when the threat of nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island loomed. I took seriously the prospect then that I might never be able to return to my childhood home in Central Pennsylvania.
Those fears, thankfully, did not materialize. But those two experiences made real to me the possibility of grand-scale destruction. I came of age in a state that still bears the ravages of ecological disaster. The fracking in Pennsylvania is only the latest assault on the state’s environment.
Nationally, the risks associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which endangers water, human life, and sacred lands, are all too real to me as well. These environmental concerns are all part of one larger global system. They flash their warnings of global requiem.
An article in the Atlantic this year reports that “A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash.” (Human Extinction Isn't That Unlikely, Robinson Meyer, Apr 29, 2016, theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/a-human-extinction-isnt-that-unlikely/480444/) That’s a provocative claim. And it’s a sobering thought. That statistic becomes much more understandable when we view poverty, future impacts of the recent election, violence, genocide, racism, and environmental degradation as extinction events.
I know a lot of us are feeling particularly discouraged right now. Talk of a global requiem may make us feel even more hopeless. As odd as it may seem, it doesn’t need to leave us feeling hopeless. In fact, such profound threats can galvanize renewal and spur an awakening. Jack Miles says, “The last days of the human race may be, not to speak at all flippantly, our finest hour.” Miles sees the prospect of extinction as an opportunity for spiritual and artistic growth. (www.Crosscurrents.Org/Milesrequiem.Htmglobal, Requiem: The Apocalyptic Moment in Religion, Science, and Art, Jack Miles)
Perhaps global catastrophic risk is the alarm bell that needs to be rung more loudly in order for people and institutions to break out of their collective stupor. Just consider how coming face-to-face with mortality changed one individual, Fred. Fred was diagnosed with a terminal illness confirmed by many experts. He was told he had a few months to live. After a period of denial, he decided to stop doing everything that wasn’t essential. He stopped doing anything that didn’t matter.
He said, “I started working on projects with kids that I’d always wanted to do. I stopped arguing with my mother. When someone cut me off in traffic or something happened that would have upset me in the past, I didn’t get upset. I just didn’t have the time to waste on any of that.” Fred began a new romantic relationship. And then he sought out more opinions from doctors. He discovered his rare illness was in fact curable. In response to this good news, Fred wept. Who wouldn’t. But perhaps not for the reason you might think. Fred said, “I cried like a baby – because I was afraid my life would go back to the way it used to be.”
When Otto went out to the bluff in the great cathedral of nature, he fell to his knees and wept. He saw and felt a kinship with those whales, with those sentient beings. So often we live in a state of separation – from ourselves, from God, from nature, and from each other. When those boundaries break, all of a sudden, there is a willingness to make sacrifices for strangers. People will travel across the country to be human shields for other people and for the integrity of the water that gives life to this planet.
Confronting mortality can certainly give us a new take on what’s important. It can dramatically awaken any of us to a new way of being, a way of connecting beyond our divisions, a new way of connecting the parts and the whole of life. Once the boundaries that separate people and sentient beings are crossed, the categories of “they” and “us” no longer exist. There comes the realization that Joseph Campbell said involved a metaphysical knowing “that you and the other are two forms of the same life.”
When Otto Scharmer went out onto that bluff and watched the whales, he felt “his whole heart was completely open and had merged with those of the whales. There was no separation between [them].” He could not help but want to protect them. “Oh God,” he said, “what if we harm these whales? … What if we harm this coast? What if we did that?” He says he knew he would never be the same again. “You and the other are two forms of the same life.”
I recently experienced something like this. I have been working on immigration issues for five years, since 2011. That is the year I offered a two-session workshop on immigration. In 2012 I went to Phoenix, Arizona, for the General Assembly focused on social justice, and specifically immigration justice.
Soon after that UUPLAN – our statewide legislative network - began its work related to immigration. It wasn’t long after that before members of this congregation started to become involved in work at the Berks Detention Center in Leesport. They got me involved in that work. I went to several vigils and offered prayers. Then Make the Road asked our congregation to coordinate a vigil. That night, something changed in me. When we lit candles and sang, my emotions took me by surprise. I already had an intellectual knowing. But I didn’t even realize that my heart wasn’t fully in it yet. I could not yet see from the whole. I had not myself yet been transformed.
It was that night that the women and children in detention became real people to me, the “same life” as my own. I can’t tell you exactly what it took to move from my head to my heart, or why that night changed me. But it did. I felt the sadness of human separation – the literal and metaphorical fences that loom between us, the fences that separate living breathing beings. Up to that point, I had not visited the women inside the center. After that, I found I was being called to do more, to make a greater sacrifice. This past week, I visited with two of the women for the first time. Since then, I keep asking myself, “Oh God, what if we don’t set these women and children free? What if we keep imprisoning them or deport them? What if we fail to care?”
I can’t tell you whether the planet has reached a point of no return. I can tell you that some people and some systems are reaching a point of no return. The thought of our individual and collective mortality is not a distant threat but an imminent reality. Some people and some systems are already facing mass extinction right now. They are the Standing Rock Sioux, the women and children in the Berks Detention Center, and the children living under siege in Aleppo. They are people of color in this country who have been shot by police without provocation or who have been incarcerated at alarming rates.
They are us. We are them. “[We] and the other are two forms of the same life.” Deena Metzger writes:
There are those who are trying to set fire to the world.
We are in danger.
There is time only to work slowly.
There is no time not to love.
(from Looking for the Faces of God)
This month, in the season of lights, at a time when we consider what it means for the holy to be present in us and in the world, may we learn to see. “There is no time not to love.” May we see that “We and the other are two forms of the same life.”
Amen. Blessed be.