James Ishmael Ford
21 September 2014
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world
And yet, and yet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity of late.
In particular I find myself thinking about my recent visit with some thirty or so UU ministerial colleagues at a district clergy gathering. A handful of those present were retired. To a person they spoke of how they were struggling with their sense of self now that they no longer were working parish ministers, some more recently, others even after a number of years. I felt a pang of anxiety run through me, knowing how much I, too, identify with my work as a parish minister. And how soon I will move into that “retired” bracket, as well.
What made that moment even more poignant came when another of the retired colleagues described with near clinical detail his diagnosis of dementia, and what his near and longer-term situation was looking like. The word bleak comes to mind. We truly are all of us composed of parts, and looking deeply at it, as I have, there does not in fact appear to be any part of me that is untouched by the great play of cause and effect, and will escape dissolution as circumstances change.
We are many things, and it is probably wise to not identify too closely with any one aspect of that construct which we, with equal parts of courage and hubris call “I,” call “me.” That “I,” that “me,” changes. Across our lives we gain and we lose. I think of my colleague at the beginning stages of a certain path of fragmentation as the whole ball of yarn unravels. Who we are is a fragile thing.
The poet Kobayashi Issa summarized much of what this means for us, in a poem written soon after the death of his child.
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world
And yet, and yet
I have no doubt about the flux, the change, and I understand deeply the and yet, and yet. Then in the way one thought might lead to another, thinking of this I found myself thinking of those various parts that are me, even if each is only temporarily part of the mix, and the mix itself will one day pass away. Unitarian Universalist minister, yes. And also a Zen practitioner and teacher. And, also, right there crowded up at the top, of who I think I am, husband, and right behind that nephew. And, also, near the top of the list, writer.
I am a writer of nonfiction, as many here know. And again, in that monkey mind thread of thought, a novel I’ve been playing with writing for decades popped into my mind. Not the murder mystery, the details with which I’ve annoyed many of you over the past years. The thought that has bubbled up in a considering of who who we, of who I am, is a science fiction story, which takes place in a dystopian future New England. While not the major point of the novel, it takes place in a world where the consequences of climate change, and most significantly, human caused climate change, is a driving plot device.
Actually, these thoughts of our dynamic reality, yours and mine, and the reality of the earth’s fragility, and our human culpability in an ecological crisis; are connected by more than the stream of my monkey mind. Many in this Meeting House belong to this congregation, we are a part of something that has existed for near three hundred years, and looks to continue on long after, not only after me, but after every person sitting in a pew here today. We are parts of families. We are parts of nations. And, we are parts of life existing on this planet, this planet that changes, even as you and I do. So, I find it hard to not consider the many parts of me, and quickly to realize how I am part of something, as well, of this magical and fragile planet I think of as my mother.
Most of us in this Meeting House know the broad strokes of what is going on today, and that it isn’t good. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarized the consensus of the scientific community about this when they reported, “Human activities… are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents… that absorb or scatter radiant energy. Most of the observed warming over the last fifty years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” This view has been endorsed by our American National Academy of Sciences as well as the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
People who object to the relentless truth of climate change and the harsh truth that the cause is largely in our human hands are with a few exceptions outside the scientific community, and rather are motivated by religion, politics, and, let’s face it, some enormous near term profits.
So, the novel takes place in a world where we’ve not addressed the issue and a pretty nasty tipping point happens. And, well, it’s a love story, of a sort. But, not exactly where I’m going today.
While I was doing some research about the worst-case scenarios of climate change for that novel, particularly as it touches on sea level, I found myself looking at various maps. Actually if the rising seas hold to ten feet, here in New England it isn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Well, that is if you don’t live in Boston, which pretty much goes away. Okay, big parts of Providence, too. People like to build on the water, and, well, for the long haul you probably shouldn’t buy too close to the coast, unless its pretty high up. If you run a scenario where the ice caps fully melt, a not totally unrealistic long-term possibility, well, let’s just say don’t buy Florida real estate.
Now, let’s pause a moment. What does identity, remembering and forgetting, composed of parts now one leading, now another, none permanent and then on to a larger perspective focusing on how we’re also part of the world, and with that climate change and ecological catastrophe, all have to do with one another? A lot, I suggest. A lot. Getting a sense of who we are within the great play of things within ourselves and upon this planet, opens a clearer view of what is and is not, and we might with that find a way, a path through the great mess and toward something worthy.
So, who are we, really, in a bottom line sort of way? A couple of days ago I was quite surprised to find the UU World’s Facebook page was using a quote from me as it called people to consider the climate conference and today’s demonstration in New York. While the words are mine, the sentiment, the thought, the heart behind it holding the secret of our possibility, is actually our shared insight as religious liberals today, as contemporary Unitarian Universalists.
While it is true we are each of us composed of parts and will someday, each of us come apart, we are also part of something bigger. Our insight into that truth is expressed in the first and seventh principles: of our preciousness as individuals and how we are all connected. This is the truth. We are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself. That’s the meme on Facebook. Bringing it home: We are completely woven out of each other and the world itself.
Seeing this reality, questions tumble from our hearts. How do I act within this circle of life and of death of which I am a precious part? This is a question we are called to respond to from the depths of our being. With knowing comes responsibility. It is that knowing, conscious or just deep in the body, crystal clear or through a glass darkly, that has driven many of us, Unitarian Universalists, as well as many others of good heart to that march in New York.
One is we can’t just sit comfortably with this knowledge we’re all connected. Well, actually we can. One of the more offensive anecdotes I can recall that illustrates the problem with some passive we’re all one position was the story of Minamata, a Japanese city that was poisoned by mercury dumping into the town’s bay. The event claimed over two thousand victims, most tragically many children born with horrific birth defects.
When, belatedly, the corporation that committed these horrible acts was brought to justice, one of their central defenses was claiming how they and what they did was all simply part of the natural order of things. We’re all one, so what’s the problem? This argument did not hold water in the Japanese courts, and it shouldn’t hold water with us.
And so, back to identity. Here’s the mystery of it all. We are ourselves, beyond all doubt. You. Me. In the momentariness, preciousness, and passingness of it all. And we are the mountains, the rivers, and the great ocean. We are one and we are many. Also. We are the victims and we are the perpetrators.
And yet. And yet.
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world
And yet, and yet
Who are we truly?
Nothing lasts forever. But, in the dance of life, the great and lovely dance, we each of us have a part. It comes out of our seeing ourselves, and each other as part of the family, as part of the one.
We are not only the animal that can see. We are also the animal that can act.
Let our actions be informed not by greed, or hatred, or, blind ignorance. Which right now is poisoning the planet. Rather let our actions be informed by knowing who we truly are. Which can be the way of healing, for ourselves, and for our planet, that planet, this planet, of which we are each of us a part.
Let us join together into the great healing.
Let us live fully into that and yet, and yet.
May that be our aspiration, our prayer, our possibility.