Thursday, September 11, 2014


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. – Carl Sagan
There are times in life when we are reminded of how little control we have over the everyday progress of our lives. When we see clearly that the Earth is but a speck in a vast universe, for a moment we better understand the fragile nature of life and our relationships to the natural world and to each other.

I was reminded of this in the Fall of 1991, when I saw Grand Canyon, a film directed by Lawrence Kasdan that revolves around the lives of a small group of people in southern California. From a wealthy Hollywood accountant who finds himself threatened by a group of black youth when his luxury car breaks down late at night, to an African American tow-truck driver who arrives in time to diffuse the situation, their lives are brought together through a series of random life-changing events. The characters, though separated by race and economic status, are each in their own way struggling to find meaning in a world that is often broken and divided. At the end of the story, they journey together to the Grand Canyon, where they encounter monumental wonder and the majestic beauty of the natural world. The experience allows them to step out of time and culture to discover something much larger than their individual and collective selves; to become united in a place that puts into better perspective their personal struggles, exposing the myth of separateness in their lives.

All of us, I suspect, have taken similar journeys when we have encountered the glory and grandeur of the universe. Perhaps, like me, you witnessed a star-filled sky from the top of a mountain on a clear night in New Mexico, the galaxy visible from a small segment of Earth below it. Or you walked along the shores of Lake Michigan on a cool September morning and watched the sun reflecting off the gentle waves of the clear-blue water stretching to the horizon. Or you stood in the well of the Sistine Chapel and admired the wonders of Michelangelo’s artistic and spiritual masterpiece. With each experience, we are challenged to take something more from the encounter than the visual alone; we take some meaning that enhances the remainder of our life’s journey.

“We are placed in a delicate network of vital relationships with the divine, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation,” said South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “We violate nature only at our peril, and are meant to live as members of one family.” It is an important lesson that challenges the cynicism and depression confronting us on a daily basis, for we live in a time of heartbreaking news, endless conflict and despair. If, instead of always magnetizing what is bad and broken we attempt to see what is good in this world, we can step outside of ourselves and appreciate the beauty of life, the diversity of the world’s humanity, and the decency that takes place every day amidst tragedy and defeatism.

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“The planet does not need more successful people,” said the Dalai Lama. “The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” As the world becomes ever more complex and broken, it becomes more difficult to process and to maintain a sense of hope and idealism. Every day we learn of civil wars and foreign conflicts, the terror of ISIS and Islamic extremism, televised beheadings of American journalists, displaced refugees, homeless children at our borders, environmental degradation and melting polar ice caps, all part of a world divided by religion, politics, and cynicism.

So how does one process the tragedy and heartbreak we read about and listen to each day? In a world of unlimited information and mass communication, with negative and hysterical noise bombarding us from all directions, how is it possible not to occasionally shut it down? Courtney Martin, a weekly columnist for NPR’s On Being, suggests that to remain an informed person in today’s world we must immerse ourselves in “the eternal stream of rubble, corruption, and death that is the daily news cycle.” It may explain why only a small percentage of us follow the news of political violence and religious strife in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and other of the world’s trouble spots.

It is understandable that people choose to shield themselves from news that has little obvious effect on their daily lives. Frequent consumption of negative news stories serves only to heighten our personal worries and anxieties. And yet, informed citizens are an important check against the abuse of state and corporate power. “If we, the relatively safe and privileged reader, don’t act as witnesses to the world’s violence,” asks Martin, “how can we fight against it? Is our mental comfort more important than the motivation that our discomfort might produce?”

It is a sense of perspective that is missing from most of the news we consume, a context in which the world’s events fit into a larger historical and geopolitical picture. I am troubled that the media fails to report more positive responses, people and organizations working to bridge misunderstanding, organizations such as United Hatzalah in Israel, where Jews and Muslims work together to provide medical assistance to those in need regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity; The Water Project, Inc., which brings sustainable water projects to sub-Saharan Africa, where access to clean water and proper sanitation radically transforms lives and brings hope to the people who live there; Aware Girls, which trains young activists in Pakistan to challenge violence and extremism; and Yakjah, a project of Peace Direct in India, which brings together young people from across Kashmir’s different religious and ethnic communities to learn about each other’s cultures and promote social harmony. 

There are so many more – Doctors without Borders, Lutheran World Relief, Church World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, the list goes on. Peace and harmony is hard work, but those who strive for it every day rarely make the news. It is not the stuff of newspaper sales or television ratings. 

Only with a sense of perspective and context can we truly understand the significance and long-term importance of certain world events, and the relative insignificance of personal obstacles and setbacks. The world may be full of conflict and suffering, but it also is full of  love and wonder. It is at once cruel and kind, tragic and beautiful, corrupt and creative. Amidst all of the desperation that surrounds us, there exists the transformative power of light and hope and decency. “We must shine a light on the darkness,” says Martin, “but we must also cease overshadowing the light.”
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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