We all come from different places
We bring different attitudes, perspectives, and stories
We converge here and now, in this place and this time
Despite our differences, our shared commitments make these times especially troubling for most of us
We worry about the news from here and elsewhere
We lean toward despair at the seemingly endless barrage of the hurtful, the chaotic, the cruel, and the selfish
May our being together bring a light to the shadow of our distress
May it open our hearts to see the good there is, to regain perspective on the way change happens, and to the strength we can find in one another’s embrace
Reading: from works by Barack Obama
Making your mark on the world is hard.
If it were easy, everybody would do it.
But it's not.
It takes patience, it takes commitment,
and it comes with plenty of failure along the way.
The real test is not whether you avoid this failure,
because you won't.
It's whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction,
or whether you learn from it;
whether you choose to persevere.
Reading: Song of the Builders, by Mary Oliver
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
We are living through challenging times. They are not the worst of times by any means, but there is something to jolt us and knock us off balance every day – sometimes multiple times.
No deal is likely. No it’s not. There will be a general election. No – not yet. Tories being tossed out. Boris’ brother resigning. Do we need to stockpile medicines and loo roll? Yes? No. Maybe…
And looking beyond our borders to our so-called ally across the pond gives little comfort – quite the opposite. Constitutional crises are appearing in what we think of as stable democracies. Far right parties are gaining power around Europe.
And nothing much has happened to reduce the certainty of devastating climate change that will make all of the conflicts worse and maybe, in the longer term, make all of it irrelevant because of the collapse of our civilisation.
Woah… how do we handle this? This is not the Blitz – we are not cowering in bomb shelters. We are not dying in the streets. And yet the stress of it is huge. The challenges seem enormous. How do we respond and how can we cope with the constant negative news and the reality of the enormous and intractable challenges around us?
I would say that many of us respond in a similar way. We learn something about a problem, we get energised and excited, we take some action. But very few of our actions have immediate or large impacts, and so we get tired. We get disillusioned. If we put a lot of time and energy into our activism, we may become burnt out. What then? We might despair and become depressed. We might start to ignore the problem and pretend it’s gone away or that someone else will deal with it.
Or we might take actions that make us feel good but don’t stand much of a chance of making a difference. Changing all of our light bulbs to LEDs is an action where we can feel a sense of completion. We can feel we’ve done something. But we also know that to really make a difference, we would need to convince others – many others – to do the same.
If I want to contribute seriously to the end of climate change, I need to contribute to changing the actions of governments, major industries and millions of people.
If my aim is to end racism, putting up a sign and having good hiring practices is not enough.
And many of us, faced with the enormity of the challenges, understandably despair and look away from injustice. We bury our heads in the sand or turn to actions that just make us feel better.
Our struggle with the distress of facing the world’s woes is not new. A wise Rabbi who lived between the first and second centuries – nearly two millennia ago – addressed it, saying: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”
Rabbi Tarfon makes it clear that it is our responsibility to make a better world. It is the hands of those who live in each era that bend the long arc of the universe toward justice.
Engaging in this work is the essence of true humanity and provides us with the greatest meaning and purpose in life. If there is anything I would want said at my funeral, it would be: “He helped to make the world a better place.”
At the same time, Rabbi Tarfon also recognises the temptation to turn away – toward distractions that shield us from the tension between the way the world is and the way we know it should be. We turn away from our feelings of powerlessness, away from the pain of disappointment and frustration.
Wisely, Tarfon reminds us that it is not up to us to finish the work. It is not up to us to do it alone either.
Once – in our own time – there was a person who learned more and more about climate change. This person was an activist – a person who is keen to take action. After recognising the terrible extent of the danger, they got on the web and placed an order for one million tree seeds.
One day, the parcels arrived. There were sixteen one kilogram bags. One million mixed tree seeds. It would be enough to plant two thousand hectares of forest – 8 square miles of healthy, carbon-fixing trees.
It was autumn, planting season for trees, so the activist set out planting. They found open spaces wherever they could and planted the seeds lovingly a few metres apart. Each seed was given a bit of nice compost and a marker so people would not mistake the future tree for a weed.
Over that winter, the activist dreamed of trees. They thought often of how the seeds would germinate in the spring and grow strong and tall.
When the spring arrived and many plants began to sprout and grow, the activist headed out to check their progress. They were disappointed to find that about two thirds of the seeds did not sprout at all. Maybe they had been eaten by birds or moles. Maybe fungus took them.
Of the ones that did sprout, some had already been badly damaged, perhaps stepped on by a human or chewed on by a squirrel or a rabbit. And they realised that even if the rest grew, they would be small for so long that it would not make a difference for at least a dozen years.
The activist had held the image of a million trees in their heart for so long and so passionately that they fell to the ground and wept bitter tears. After a while, they started to feel angry. And finally, they decided to give up.
Just then, one of the activist’s dearest friends happened by. “Wow,” she said. “This is amazing - there must be a few thousand new trees right here.” And the activist realised that there were probably at least a hundred thousand new, undamaged saplings growing. It wouldn’t change everything, but it was a tremendous improvement.
And then a second friend, who was tapped into the satnav signal of the first, showed up. “Wonderful!” he said. “This doesn’t change everything today, but our children and grandchildren will sing your praises forever. These new trees matter and they may cause others to do the same. You may have started something here whose fruition you will not see, but that will change everything.”
And then a third friend arrived. The third friend looked carefully at the activist and said: “This must be so hard for you. Can you tell me about it?” And, after listening, he said: “I will help you. Let’s order even more seeds this autumn!” The first and second friends also agreed to help.
This story doesn’t have a happily ever after ending, and that is how the work of making a better world is. We can’t see the impact of our actions from where we are, and there is always frustration and uncertainty.
So they all lived hopefully ever after, celebrating the changes they could see, supporting one another through the frustrations that arose. Working for the happiness of all.
There are three ways to avoid the distress and pain that comes along with our efforts to make a better world.
First, we must focus on and celebrate the small victories.
Second, we must remember that change is a long and slow process. As Van Gogh said: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” We do our part to create our piece of the great structure that is the future.
And third, we need to be together to strengthen and support one another. We must be together to amplify and combine our small efforts. Marian Wright Edelman put it this way: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
This is how we work together. This is how we strengthen one another and bring together many small efforts in the great scope of time over which progress happens.
As Mary Oliver put it: “It will always be like this, each of us going on in our inexplicable ways, building the universe.”
May it be so.
We are here for each other
For the others of today and the others who are yet to come
Our lives are given purpose and meaning and satisfaction by the work of building the better world
Don’t turn away when it gets hard and frustrating
Turn to each other for strength, for perspective, and for allies
And then return to the great work.