August 19, 2018
The Arc of Consequential Living
Volker Brendel: I truly appreciate everyone participating in this hour. There are many things we can do in any given hour, and all of us have made a deliberate commitment to be together in this way now. Presumably for us it is the most important activity we can think of for now. Sometimes it could be that the thought crosses our mind that we have nothing better to do ("might as well participate"), but looking at our overall record and commitment, I think it's obvious that we all value our participation.
More generally, presumably we value our time and any contribution we can make into the whole in any given situation. This of course relates to the questions that Bill Isaacs posed in his talk a couple of weeks ago: "Is what we do of consequence? Do we matter? Is anything that I do significant?" Personally, I find the considerations we have every two weeks quite exciting. There is the benefit of the regular schedule of spiritual consideration and clarification. The regularity of it does provide structure in my life, even some comfort that I'm not alone in my thoughts, and in some ways even a social context although we are overall rather split up into different locations. I think these are all useful attributes of such regular activity, and that usefulness has of course been recognized in many other contexts. Almost all major religions provide such regular meeting points whether it is on Sundays or Fridays or Saturdays. I have had some experience in my upbringing with church services, and I've always appreciated that regular pulse and the sense of ongoing continuity, moving forward from hundreds of years of tradition.
However, there is something else to be considered, which is to continue that arc of tradition into the needs of the present moment and the future. If our considerations stop at rehashing words of those who came before, then that would be an implicit assumption that everything has been said already and that there is nothing else to be discovered. Of course, there can also, and should be, the suggestion to live those words of wisdom and to prove them out in our own daily activities. But the idea that everything is done already and all that remains is to follow some prescriptions of the past seems shortsighted to me. The implication would be that the Lord, the Creator of it all, is either a very busy being and forgot about this Creation, or He or She has no sense of adventure. The assumption beneath all this (and a very odd one at that) is that God set up the creation as a well-oiled machine with all the moving parts knowing their place and functioning perfectly in harmony. The state of affairs we now see is obviously far from that. So, what should we conclude? That the original design of the machinery was flawed, allowing for errors, that everything has fallen apart to some extent, and that the Good Lord has no time to fix it? Or could we say that part of the Creation is a design that includes many degrees of freedom, particularly for us as human beings or as incarnate angels in human form? Every day, every hour, we appear to have the ability to make choices: we can do this, or we can do the other thing; we can pay attention to one thing or the other; we can put our energy into one or the other activity. In my view, creation is of this fashion; it's a living creation, an evolving creation, a creative process with an overall direction and yet many degrees of freedom for participants to choose how to join in the creative activity.
With respect to our considerations, part of my excitement of signing on every two weeks is that I never quite know what to expect. Typically, I have no idea what my fellow speakers have thought about and will present. I am confident in their overall tone and expression, but the excitement is about the particular directions they sense at a given time, what needs to be revealed on a given day in a particular cycle, what is their sense of priorities, in which direction might we want to take our collective thinking? The responses to the talks and subsequent contributions by email or mail are similarly exciting as they represent a collective effort of steering the ship of humanity and contributing to the vision of the Lord's creation.
Where do our thoughts come from in the first place? We recognize that there are many contributing factors. For example, Bill in his presentation acknowledged an op-ed piece in a newspaper that had opened up his line of thought on what matters. Obviously that presentation has influenced my thinking, and so this morning my effort is to continue that arc and develop some further thinking along those lines.
Typically, it is difficult to convince people that everything they do matters and is of consequence. In the overall picture we may seem small and insignificant. We see overwhelming forces of society and nature pulling humanity and the planet in this direction or that, and in the overall scheme the question arises, "what could I possibly do to make a difference?" There have been some fanciful ideas summarized as the "butterfly effect" that have been popular for a few decades at least. The idea is that a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, and the consequence of that is a tropical storm on the North American continent. These illustrations came out of mathematical discoveries known as "chaos theory" that showed that even in highly deterministic systems small changes in factors can have downstream repercussions of tremendous magnitude. It may not be a butterfly's wing that causes a tropical storm, but obviously what results in a tropical storm starts as a much smaller weather pattern.
Now that is something we all familiar with. For example, I live in woodlands, and I can see among the living trees also quite a few dead trees. Some of them have been dead probably for many years, well before I came to live here. We know that eventually those tree trunks will fall to the forest floor. In fact, one of them came down a couple of months ago right outside our window. What determines when exactly that happens? Well, we have many woodpeckers here, and they keep hacking at the old wood. There are ants and termites that climb up these tree trunks and feed on them. And there are weather patterns like wind and rain that may create pulling forces on the tree trunks. Eventually, it will be one last small action that topples the tree trunk, whether that is the woodpecker making one last peck or a termite eating one last fiber; one last small effect leads to a major visible result.
As another illustration I am sure all of you can all relate to: you may remember trying to open a tightly sealed jar, and you may have labored, trying to twist the lid, and it wouldn't budge. Then you turn around and give it to somebody else; they try for a second, and magically the lid opens. This might have been the result of the other person's superior strength; but more likely all your prior work loosened the jar lid sufficiently so that a little bit of extra force did the trick.
Thus, we are familiar with many examples of an overall effect produced by many small contributing parts. In science that was recognized more than hundred years ago as "Brownian motion," where many individual parts may have an apparently random motion, but an overall force is moving the parts in an overall direction that we can directly see. Again, this is very easily recognized in our daily lives. For example, in traffic patterns, say the traffic in and out of a big city. Typically, people come to the city in the mornings and leave the city for the suburbs in the afternoon or evening. The overall pattern will be traffic in the direction towards the city in the morning and out of the city in the afternoon, but there will be a car here and there that goes in opposite direction of the common pattern, even maybe sidewise or around the city. So, we have overall effects from small contributing parts. That may give us an inkling that our own individual actions, even though they are embedded in activities of many people, actually do matter.
A couple of years ago I experienced a small incident that has remained with me. I had a visitor on campus, and at the end of her visit, I took her to the shuttle stop where passengers get picked up and taken to the Indianapolis airport. This shuttle stop is outside a nice little courtyard in front of a limestone building, with some beautiful landscaping, a fountain, and some benches for people to sit on. On that day, it was hot, and there was no wind blowing. A small van from the shuttle company pulled up, and the driver went inside to look for other passengers. He left the engine running. This truck had what seemed to me an excessively large exhaust pipe pointed directly towards the benches in the courtyard where the people were waiting. It was blowing incredibly uncomfortable, nauseating, and definitely unhealthy fumes. The driver didn't come back for quite a while, and when he did eventually return I spontaneously approached him and asked whether he would mind coming over to take a few deep breaths. Of course, my idea was to demonstrate what I thought of as very bad consequences of his actions. Well, the driver didn't take kindly to my suggestion and brushed me off by saying he did not have time for that. So, I explained to him that by leaving the engine running, he potentially and likely factually put a lot of people at risk for their health. Again, he brushed me off and said he had passengers in the car who needed the air-conditioning and it was time to leave. According to my friend he was muttering all the way to Indianapolis, so maybe I had some impact after all! But this is one illustration of consequences of our actions. In this particular case, this gentleman drew a small circle around his activities. His job was to take passengers to the airport and to keep them comfortable. They were sitting happily in the van with the air-conditioning running, likely unaware of the consequences of that action for everybody outside who was exposed to the van's exhaust.
Now we could call my story just one small incident, but small incidents add up. If you want to convince yourself of the poisonous impact of exhaust, stand behind a running car for a short while. Mind you not for too long, because it is so poisonous that inhaling these gases is one way of committing suicide. So, I think everyone would easily agree that the exhausts are is toxic, but people need transportation, and on average as a society we have decided that the benefits outweigh the negative effects. But in each small case, we as individuals have to make a choice: Do I switch the engine off? Do I have to take this particular trip? Should I as a buyer demand a car that has less exhaust generation, is more fuel-efficient, and so forth? In aggregate, all of these individual choices and activities add up and could have (as Bill addressed in his talk) enormous environmental consequences for the health of our communities and the planet as a whole.
If you are not convinced by the car exhaust example, take the use of plastic bags. They are a small convenience for the individual shopper but have large negative consequences for the health of the planet. Because plastic bags are composed of materials that do not naturally degrade, we find them now accumulating in the oceans and destroying ocean life. Going back many decades, in the chemical industry and in public policy circles, there was a popular slogan: "the solution to pollution is dilution." This is a very simple and in part truthful idea: If we release a toxic substance but then dilute it largely by water or other non-toxic substances, then the effects of that toxin will be insignificant. One problem with that approach is that some of the toxic factors cannot be measured accurately. More dramatically, the possibilities of large-scale dilution have now largely come to an end. In many ways our planet has shrunk because of population growth and the subsequent impact of human activities have gone beyond the planet's carrying capacity. So, what may have seemed like a good approach some years ago would have devastating consequences now.
Another angle here is that being associated with what dilutes ill effects is aligned with doing the right thing. We see this for example in some reactions to isolated incidents of hate crime. Many times, in communities where this occurs, people experience an outpouring of love and support for the victims of such crimes, and the presence of the toxic agent is mitigated by the enormous power of the love response.
The considerations that I have listed here may seem like a call to activism, but this is not the direction I am pursuing. Every spiritual approach to life does have to be proven by one's actual living, and the ramifications of our spiritual ideals do translate into everyday experience. But the question here is whether our individual activities have consequences. I would argue, absolutely that they do, and that these consequences not only impact us as individuals but go much further. The ultimate question relates to our individual identity. If my identity is wrapped up in the swirls of world currents, following this and that trend, be it as a good consumer or being an activist, running along in the rat race, trying to make a living, then my actions provide fodder for all those currents. They are of consequence, but ultimately, we are interested in our reawakening to our identity as co-creators of this magnificent creation that we perceive as the universe, and more locally as our own Earth.
As I reawaken to that identity, naturally I will do the right thing, I will participate in the overall creative and re-creative process. As with any of the examples we have discussed, my actions in the moment may not show large-scale effects quickly. There may even be few visible effects as an immediate consequence. But we can rest assured that everything comes back to us. That is the law of the universe. In physics we speak of action and reaction: for every force exerted there is an effect that comes back. And so, we can be assured not only of our identity as co-creators but also of our power in the overall process. We've said so many times: "Never underestimate the power of spiritual expression." But it doesn't hurt to hear it one more time. It's a profound recognition that any individual in any given moment is perfectly equipped to find out for themselves. We do not presume that we know. What we do know is that acting out of the recognition of our divine identity provides the explicit answer for each one. Our activism, if you want to call it that, is enough if it consists of recalling first our own identity and divine nature and second providing in as many ways as we can for others an incentive to find that identity for themselves. The identity is there; guaranteed! It is a question of bringing it to the forefront of the sleeping human consciousness.
How many awake people it will take to awaken humanity to true identity, we don't know. But as every tropical storm has small beginnings, as every change of direction of an ocean liner starts with a very small adjustment of the rudder, so is the overall direction of creation and mankind ultimately brought about by small individual creative actions. Let our actions be counted amongst those. What could be more fulfilling? Nothing! That is our mission, and I am thankful again for all of you who recognize that and are engaged in this process of clarification in ourselves and use specific actions wherever we are.
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