Recently a physical therapist I was working with told me this story of her little 2-year-old granddaughter. The girl’s parents were separating, her dad had moved out, the household was full of turmoil and conflict. The toddler looked hard into Grandma’s eyes and said, “Something is wrong, but I don’t have the words.” The dilemma of this child has haunted me.
I remember the story of Helen Keller whose life of darkness inside of her deafness and blindness was broken open one day when she realized there are WORDS for things. Water! This is water, her teacher finally got through to her. A word to match a thing. After Helen learned that first word, life was never the same for her. She grew by leaps and bounds, becoming highly educated, and became a writer and an educator herself.
I think I and my fellow humans are in need of just such a breakthrough. I have been looking at the news every night these last months and feel choked, without the words for what I see. Devastating storms, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, droughts, floods – every time I tune in I am interested to hear more about how people are faring in regard to yesterdays disaster, only to learn that there is a new one just as horrific today. Something is REALLY going on. I feel like that little girl. Something is wrong, but I don’t have the words.
Speculation is frequently offered that perhaps such has always been going on but that news reports were more sparse so we simply weren’t as aware of it. I think collectively we sense that there is more to it than this. It is natural to believe that nature herself is in charge and all we can do is attempt to protect or defend ourselves, that we are not responsible for how she behaves; but even that notion is weakening. From scientists to the people on the streets the disturbing realization that these effects are a result of human choices and behaviors is being voiced more clearly, with more conviction. The denial we have been involved in is cracking.
How do we find the words to learn how to think about this? Albert Einstein says that we cannot solve a problem at the same level of thinking that produced the problem. Attempting to solve the issues by applying more legislation, more government, more corporate innovations, inserting anger, accusations, finger-pointing — or the opposite — have another drink and look the other way, these are thinking at the same level and will not help us.
I remember vividly hearing one of my greatest teachers, Thomas Berry, speaking at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993. He was as lucid a speaker as any I have ever heard in addressing pointedly what I feel we need to know as humans in this era. Speaking to people interested in the world’s religions, he suggested that we cannot save the human without saving the planet. The ecological issues have to become the primary concern of the religions, of economists, educators, and absolutely every field of human activity. Humans will have to take a back seat. If we do not have air to breathe or water to drink, the rest of what we concern ourselves with will not matter anymore. We must figure out an integral Earth economy that preserves the possibility of life.
The natural systems of earth are given no “rights.” They cannot speak for themselves. They do not have words, I’m thinking. So maybe their words now are fires, floods, tornadoes, droughts. How else can they get our attention?
Thomas Berry asked – why do we need to have writings to express the depths of religious experience? Why not go to the Earth? We do not need a new religion, he says, but new religious sensitivities. When we can no longer see the sky and the mountains are torn up, what will evoke our sense of the divine?
These eloquent thoughts pierced my soul in 1993 when I heard them. I made an unspoken commitment to live with and into the responsibility that they suggest, and my life became an experiment with learning how to respond. Nature more than any other notion became my religion; I resigned from the religion I was then a minister of to pay more attention to what I felt this revelation asked of me. Just after completing my doctorate, I moved to the wilderness to listen to Nature with less distraction, and started a retreat center to bring others into the experience.
Now I live in town again, wanting to bring along with me what has been gathered. But I do not have words. I listen to the news at night and know something is wrong, and like that little girl I don’t have the words.
I hope we humans can listen deeply, reach for new levels of thought, and find the words together. I commit myself still, and once again.