Who Is My Neighbor?
Updated: Apr 18
Fifty-three years and counting. That’s how many years it’s been since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. On that day, Walter Cronkite reported that citizens of “a bountiful country” came together for the “common cause of saving life from the deadly byproducts of that bounty.” We’ve since made great progress in “saving life.” Rivers that caught on fire are now safe for recreation. We can see the sky in cities that were once choked with smog. The Bald Eagle and other bird species have returned from the brink of extinction caused by DDT and related pesticides. Gasoline and household paint no longer poison soil in our neighborhoods with lead. Even the ozone hole is shrinking.
And yet, the title of Walter Cronkite’s news special is still relevant today, “Earth Day: A Question of Survival.” New environmental crises seem to pop up as soon as we pass laws and create technologies to solve old ones. Today we’re “saving life” from collapsing insect populations, microplastic contamination, drinking water contamination, the effects of climate change, and many other environmental threats.
Why do we keep finding ourselves in these situations?
I wonder if it’s because we keep trying to solve the problems with the same “tool” that causes the problems: a belief in our human knowledge and technology’s ability to make the world the way we want it to be for us, without the wisdom and understanding of what the world is and our place within it. Our current hubristic worldview grew out of the renaissance period, when there was a shift in the way humans saw themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Norman Wirzba describes this shift in his book, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World.
“Modernity represents a decisive shift in world- and self- understanding because it is at this time that the world’s intelligibility and value are increasingly seen to depend on a meaning-bestowing rather than a meaning-discovering self. Sense and significance cannot be grounded in God because God is inscrutable. Whatever sense the world is thought to have must therefore come from us. René Descartes’s philosophical program reflected this fundamentally new orientation: the foundation for knowledge of any kind, indeed the meaning of all things, is grounded in the thinking subject. When humanity is the source of the world’s meaning and value, a momentous practical transformation occurs, because we at the same time ‘render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.’”
This worldview is reflected in our actions of colonization, industrialization, and the modern science and digital revolution. It’s heard in the words we use to describe humanity’s accomplishments.
We “conquer” the wilderness and make it fit for civilization.
We make arid lands “productive” by building water projects for agriculture and industry.
We “harness” wind and sunlight to make energy for the consumer lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my modern life. I don’t want to go back to subsistence living. I don’t want to go back to hand washing clothes and using a wringer. I don’t want to go back to not being able to connect with family and friends who live across the country. But I do want to get off the treadmill of one environmental crisis after another.
I think the answer lies in a both-and approach, replacing our hubris with humility. It requires a willingness to see ourselves not as “masters and possessors,” (i.e., “God”), but rather as biological beings within an interdependent community of creation. It’s a community on which we depend for everything in life.
To even begin down this path, we first must see the whole of creation. It’s easy to not do so. We’re naturally self-centered, driven by the amygdala’s focus on our own survival and well-being. Our country’s hyper focus on individualism and marketing’s appeal to our emotional desires don’t help. Maybe the greatest barrier to seeing the whole is that except for 4% of people with outdoor jobs, we spend our days almost entirely within a human-built environment. We seldom interact directly with the community of creation. By some accounts, we on average only spend 8 percent of our life outdoors.
Like many people, I want to think of myself as above average. Until recently, I was sure I spent more than 8% of my time outdoors. I love outdoor activities: working in the yard, going places to watch birds, walking, hiking, and camping. Then I started a new spiritual practice on January 1st. Every day I try to notice something of beauty or interest outdoors and post it on my Facebook page.
The first thing I learned is that I don’t go outside nearly as much as I thought! My outdoor activities consist of occasional large chunks of time, like working in the yard for an afternoon or going on an all-day hike. There were many days and sometimes weeks between these activities. Life, work, chores, and other responsibilities keep me inside. My new practice requires me to prioritize stepping away from it all and make myself go outside for at least 10-15 minutes each day.
At first it was easy. I saw all the obvious things of interest around the place where I live. Then the real practice began. What is new? What is small? What’s in overlooked nooks and crannies? What has changed? What’s in the sky or on the ground? Each day I had to look more thoughtfully. I started to incorporate noticing whenever I went somewhere and planned outdoor time into my work trips and errands around town.
All of this led to a deeper understanding of why noticing is a spiritual practice. It takes a lot of practice to see the wonder of our world everywhere, especially in places some might call ugly or not “nature,” however that might be defined. It also led to a deeper understanding of why noticing is part of the spiritual discipline of creation care. It’s taking a lot of discipline for me to develop a new way of seeing and being in the world.
Noticing has yielded many gifts. Within the first week I felt calmer and more hopeful after spending a few minutes outside each day. Then, the spiritual part of the practice started working on me. I felt myself changing in a way I didn’t expect. I was getting out of my head (and the endless to-do list in it!), turning away from myself and toward the world around me. Being outside led to more encounters with my human neighbors. Looking to notice things around town opened me to seeing my neighborhood in new ways and engaging with more people. As I opened myself more and more to the world around me, I saw the presence of the Creator in everything I noticed. I’m now seeing neighbors everywhere! By noticing, I’ve “heard” their story of the place where I live and what’s happened to it over the years.
I’m still on the journey of noticing and learning how I fit into this place’s on-going story. It’ll soon be spring planting season. Instead of planning the way I want the land where I live to look, I’m now wondering how I can work with my non-human neighbors to create a place where we all thrive. It’ll take more time and patience, and I may need to give up some of my wants, but I’m hopeful about the life it will bring.
This year, like every year, Earth Day will be a day of public demonstrations and speakers who call for new laws and technologies. There will be clean-ups, tree plantings, and picnics. I’ll be participating in some of these. This year, I’m also inviting you to join me in doing something more radical: open yourself to becoming a humble member of the interdependent community of creation where you live. If enough of us do this, maybe one year the only thing to do on Earth Day will be to celebrate the life-giving, beautiful place where we live.