(Delivered at UUSF on July 30th, 2017. Listen to the audio here.)
When Mom was diagnosed with a virulent cancer in 2009, I took a leave from my job with the UUA in DC to come back to San Francisco where my parents still lived, and watched helplessly while the cancer tortured and killed her over the course of seven weeks.
Shortly after the funeral I was weeding the yard, and I noticed that a plant was growing from underneath the building. Somehow, against the odds, a seed had landed through one of the small holes of a ventilation grate, taken root under what I imagine are not hospitable conditions, and then sent a stalk back through the grate to reach the life-giving sunlight.
After returning to DC in June that year, the worst accident in the history of the DC metro happened at the station nearest my house. Nine people died and scores more were injured. By the time I got to the station it was twilight. To my left, the lights of emergency vehicles flashed surreally in the growing dark. Turning and walking the other direction, dozens, maybe hundreds of fireflies flashed gently on green lawns, lighting my way home.
When Mom died so quickly and horribly, the world as I knew it ended. And yet it didn’t. I felt like the world should have stopped spinning and faded to black - and yet... the sun still shone, birds still sang, and fireflies still lit up summer nights.
A couple of weekends ago a fellow climate change activist exclaimed in despair, “The world has never faced a crisis like this before!” I’m not sure how convincing my response was to her then, or how it will be to you now, but what I tried to reassure her was that while the world may have never faced human-made climate change before, the world HAS faced crises LIKE it before. Humanity has suffered and survived global plagues and world wars that killed tens of millions and displaced many millions more, my parents included. I would not be here were it not for such a crisis. We are currently in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction and it is going to get a lot worse. But the fact that we’re in the middle of the sixth means that there have been five others before, and the world survived. Moreover, had there not been five mass extinctions before we humans would not be here today.
Changing climate patterns will and already have created new niches, which living beings will fill in ways that we cannot predict, for worse AND for better. As Buddhism recognizes, all that exists is the result of causes and conditions. Under changing conditions, creative, new ways of being will come into existence. New behaviors. New species.
To be clear, I am NOT saying that everything is going to be hunkydory so we don’t need to do anything, or that global upheaval is “all for the best” because it will provide new opportunities, or any other Pollyannaish nonsense. To talk like that ignores that tens of millions of people died in those plagues and wars. That among humans who suffer and die, it is more often people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups. That even tho living species including us will adapt, the conditions may change so fast that we won’t be able to keep up. So many have already succumbed.
I am NOT saying that everything will be ok. That would be a lie. But if history and biology can be our guide, SOME things will be ok. Something will survive, and hopefully thrive again. What the weed growing from under the building taught me was that while any one life is incredibly fragile LIFE as a whole, LIFE as a communal web is incredibly resilient. What the fireflies taught me was that even in the face of great loss and sorrow, joy and beauty still exist along side.
We are in the midst of a great deal of turmoil, ecologically, socially, economically, and politically. Y'all know what I'm talking about. And many of us have our private crises not known to all. You also already know that the future of the world depends on what we do right now. I don't need to remind you of that. What I’d like to add is that the quality of our lives right now also depends on how we react. It is ok to smile at beauty even when you’re grieving, if you want to. (Obviously, if you don't want to that's ok too.) It is ok to do things that bring you joy even in the midst of turmoil. In fact, that's probably the only way we're going to get thru this. Have faith that while the world needs you to act, it also needs you to care for yourself too and to enjoy the gift of your one precious life.