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Earth Day and Cosmic Concerns

Updated: Apr 19

"You see the Earth with a sort of global consciousness, a global love. It's a phenomenon that fuels you emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually." - Edgar Mitchell

"When any act of charity or of gratitude is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also." Thomas Jefferson

The point of this blog and almost every blog I write is to cultivate compassion.  Compassion includes understanding, connection, and care.  It’s about alleviating suffering and promoting flourishing in ourselves and in others.  It includes caring for creation.

Why am I committed to compassion? People often seem surprised that we have a compassion circle which has been meeting weekly for over six years.  Who would do that?

Here's some of the why. People who are skilled practitioners of compassion experience better physical (lowers inflammation for example) and mental health (like decreasing anxiety and narcissism); they have better relationships. They use their cognitive powers more effectively. They make the world a better place where we can all live with joy and meaning.

There are other experiential states which are both similar and supportive of compassion like gratitude, awe, and moral elevation – these are often thought of as transcendent states of being.  (Even certain types of humor fit here). Being in a transcendent sort of state lifts us up, moves us, and expands our sense of who we are, yet our ego is quiet. These experiential states warm our chest cavity, they make us want to help each other, make life more meaningful.  They build resilience.

When astronauts like Edgar Mitchell journeyed to the moon, he was literally awe-struck.  Not at the moon, but at the view he had of the Earth.  Shiny, dazzling, wondrous.  He experienced a warming of the chest and a compelling desire to take care of the Earth and its inhabitants.  He sought out people to try to explain what happened to him.  Later astronauts also experienced transcendent states of awe. It became known as “the Overview Effect.”

A few days ago I was listening to astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson speak about the difficulty of these times and he started to talk about what he felt was an anti-dote to all the hate and division – he mentioned awe and the Overview Effect.  Then Tyson quotes Mitchell, Apollo astronaut and moonwalker.

[When you look back at Earth from the Moon] "You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"

Tyson reflects on how incredible it must be to look back from the moon and see this little gorgeous orb floating in the black sea of the cosmos.  He talks about the effect this rare view creates in people. He rather vehemently echoes the sentiment of Mitchell, "Yes we need to get all these blankety-blanks up there where they can see the Earth, and make them LOOK. Really experience the beauty of Earth, its fragility, and get that sense of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything.”

Well, I wish.  I try to use my imagination.  It only takes me so far.  But awe in any form can help us experience transcendence and get those prosocial, elevated feelings. In fact researchers say that is probably why those transcendent feelings evolved in humans in the first place, to make us more cooperative and compassionate.

And even though awe and moral elevation are relatively new areas of research,  they have been around for a long time. And they’ve been recommended for a long time, even by people like Thomas Jefferson.  I remember reading a letter in which he tells a friend to read not only science and math and economics, but also those books which elevated the best in us as human beings. Stories true and fiction (which may not have happened, but hold truth and inspiration) which tell stories of humans helping each other. Jefferson, too, felt it wasn’t just healthy for the individual, but also for society. These uplifting stories move us to do good and be good.

Often, morally elevating stories are of heroism – courage, bravery, setting our selfish aims aside. Sometimes they are stories of people like Mother Teresa who sometimes cause people to tear up just to look at her picture. When samples of saliva are taken from people who watch Mother Teresa caring for others, they find increased levels of oxytocin and feel-good hormones.  These hormones seem to nudge us to love each other, to care for each other, to trust each other, to feel connected, cooperative, and calm. Sometimes they are about caring for someone on the margins of society.

I heard what I thought was a morally elevating story a couple of days ago.  See what you think. Then reflect on why it may have or have not “touched” you.  By the way, this is the heart of what we do in our compassion circle – share stories (or poems or passages) of where we have seen, heard, received, or given compassion, or care, or connection, or kindness.

The story comes via Methodist minister, Martin Thielen, Party for a Prostitute . It takes what might be morally disgusting and turns it into a morally elevating story.

Years ago, well-known author and speaker Tony Campolo traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, to speak at a conference. Upon arriving, Tony went to his hotel and fell asleep. He woke at 9:00 a.m. his time, but in Honolulu, it was 3:00 a.m. Wide awake and hungry, Tony walked to a small diner near the hotel and ordered coffee and a doughnut. At 3:30 a.m., a group of provocatively dressed prostitutes walked in the door. Their loud and crude talk made Tony uncomfortable, so he prepared to leave.

But then he heard one of the women say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”

Her friend responded, “So, what do you want from me, a birthday party? You want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

“Come on!” said the woman. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?” 

When Tony heard those words, he made a decision. He stayed in the diner until the women left. Then he said to the owner, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he said, “You can set your clock by it.”

Tony said, “What’s the name of the woman who sat next to me?”

“That’s Agnes,” he replied.

Tony said, “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

A smile crossed the owner’s face, and he said, “That’s great! I like it! I’ll even make the cake.”

At 2:00 the next morning, Tony went back to the diner. He put up crepe paper decorations and a big sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” The workers at the diner obviously got the word out because by 3:15, just about every prostitute in Honolulu crowded into the place. At 3:30 sharp, the door swung open, and in came Agnes and her friends.

Tony had the entire group scream, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes, absolutely stunned, felt so overwhelmed her friend had to hold her up. Everyone in the diner began to sing, “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Agnes, Happy birthday to you.” 

When they brought out the cake covered with thirty-nine candles, Agnes began to cry. Too overcome with emotion to blow out the candles, she let the owner of the diner blow them out for her. Before she cut the cake, Agnes hesitated. She asked if she could take her cake down the street, show it to her mother, and then come right back. The owner of the diner said that would be fine, so she did.

When the door closed behind Agnes, silence filled the diner. Tony broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” It probably seemed a strange thing for a roomful of prostitutes to bow their head in prayer, but that’s what happened. Tony prayed for Agnes and for the other prostitutes in the diner, affirming that they were beloved daughters of God with great value, worth, and promise.

When Tony finished the prayer, the owner of the diner said, “You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

In a moment of divine inspiration, Tony said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Thanks Rev. Martin Thielen for spreading these morally elevating stories; thank you Neil de Grasse Tyson for urging us to see the power of awe in the Overview Effect…because sometimes we all need a little help in finding our way out of hate and despair.

Recently, one of my granddaughters said her class must come up with some approach to deal with hate actions at her school.  Some students carved Nazi symbols on a beloved Jewish teacher’s desk.  She was at a loss of what to do.  She'll come up with something. Maybe awe, or compassion, or moral elevation can lead the way. We have seen it happen in our own Wenatchee Valley.

John and I thought of people like Abbie Gunderson, Margie Kerr, Chris Hockett, and Gene Sharratt. People who started or participated actively in groups aimed at creating worlds of love and care where hate and division lose their grip. I am thinking of groups like Kindness Counts, Make a Difference Day, Random Acts of Kindness Club, and Only 7 Seconds. (I have shared stories of these folks before, check the archives if you are interested).

They will be out there on Earth Day, inspiring - helping us step back and see the good in human beings. Making the world a better place.

To further inspire and motivate ourselves we can look up some videos on youtube of Earthrise and the Overview Effect. We can take advantage of our special opportunity coming up in a few days to witness and maybe even participate in the good life.

How might we take opportunities, like Earth Day, to journey together to the Good Life by sharing and experiencing transcendent states of awe, compassion, and moral elevation?











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