September 18, 2016
By Linda A. Dove
Today we are going to think about our collective purpose as humans and as UUs in the tough circumstances of our shared life in the 21st. century. Most of the time we focus on our own life-paths. I certainly do. And I am grateful for my life. But every few years, I feel restless. This is my intuition nagging me to refresh my sense of purpose towards a meaning that expands beyond myself.
I am not talking about fate here. Fate is when things are out of our control—or in the hands of the gods. Destiny is when we choose to make our lives meaningful. Emerson put it in a nutshell: The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.
In my experience, there are three stages in life when we feel the need to radically redirect our paths. You could describe them as youth, middle-age and elderhood. But, really, the stages vary in timing for each person. Some young people are old souls wise beyond their years. Some mid-life people behave like goofy kids. Some old folk, sadly, wonder whether their lives have had any meaning at all.
So, in life’s first stage, we begin to forge our destinies as persons. Let me share a little of my experience here. As a child I felt alone. But now I see this helped me think for myself and set my own goals early on. I made my first conscious decision to forge a purpose for myself when I was 12 years old in high school. I decided to focus on being a nerd—the pinnacle of ambition in my world at the time.
By adulthood most of us reach a stage of autonomous goal-setting. The choices we make—be it commitment to family, job, community—put us on the path towards forging our unique personal destinies and reaching beyond ourselves.
In young adulthood, I became passionate against global inequalities. Looking back, I see my choices—volunteering in Africa, marrying someone of a different race and continent, teaching and researching, then working in the poorest countries—all these choices shaped me as a unique individual, doing what gave my life purpose.
In the second stage of life, I suggest, many of us become restless and feel we are not enough just doing what we do. Teilhard de Chardin put it well. He said: Constructing a soul is the great human enterprise and responsibility. I see constructing a soul as the work of seeking a spiritual destiny in life’s second stage.
That was my experience. In my late-30s, something was missing and I yearned to find meaning in something larger than myself. I experimented with different spiritual traditions. But none were the whole answer. And whether or not my three peak experiences were “real” or in my brain’s biology, they inspired me to persevere in constructing a unique soul in touch with the ineffable beyond myself.
To recap so far. In life’s first stage I see the task of becoming a human doing as our consuming focus. Our personhood matures from the activities we choose.
In life’s second stage, our spiritual self begins to spark when we seek to identify with something larger than ourselves. We begin to develop as spiritual beings. The quality of who we are becomes as important to us as what we do.
Then comes life’s third stage. I suggest that this is when we begin to marry our individual identity as a human doing with our emerging spiritual being. And this stage is never finished. To paraphrase Richard Bach who said: Here is the test to find whether your [purpose] on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.
I had thought I was well into my third stage, but this year that restless feeling returned. I was irritated at first because I resist making new choices once more that will demand my attention. This summer I have spent a lot of time arguing with my intuition as it nags me to work yet again on adjusting my personal purposes to my evolving spiritual self. Stay tuned.
Most of us take a while to find ourselves and our destinies. A few of us start life with a strong sense of noble purpose: great benefactors like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. A few choose an evil destiny like the cult leader Jim Jones or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. President Teddy Roosevelt was driven as a boy by a strong sense of destiny—but what?. As a young man he tried being a frontier cowboy and failed. And he was ambivalent about a political path. All the same, his ambition and his patriotic passion for the USA and progressive causes drove him on.
Let me turn now to the challenge I mentioned at the beginning. That is, rethinking our collective destiny as humans and UUs. I put it to you that it is no longer OK, no longer acceptable, no longer viable in today’s world for any one to pursue only individual purposes.
We need to learn how to develop our sense of a collective destiny through all three life-stages. This then gives us the opportunity to be in touch with, to be part of, the divine principle, the life-force. And then we also begin to understand ourselves as part of the larger cosmic problems, and as responsible for solutions too.
The divine principle. The life-force. Now, this all sounds impossibly grandiose, but here are some facts that keep me humble. I put them in simplistic numbers for those of you who, like me, are not scientists:-
- Newton worked it out that our sun is a vast 10 million miles away from us.
- And according to NASA, the Milky Way, our Sun’s home-galaxy, is a giant spiral of about 200 billion stars, maybe 300 billion.
- And it takes one ray of light 100,000 years to travel across our entire galaxy.
- But more. Do you realize that, in a jet at a normal 500 mph cruising speed, it would take us five million years to reach the nearest star beyond our own solar system, so the science journalist lan Lightman says?
- And, today, the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighbor, are rushing towards each other at 70 miles per second. That means we will collide in about 4 billion years from now.
- However, the most distant galaxy is one we on earth will never have to worry about. Hubble observes that it is about 13.1 billion light years from earth or this many miles away—100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. We will have burned out long before then.
- Finally, contemplate this. The totality of living matter in all the stuff visible to us in the universe—humans, animals, bacteria, pond scum—makes up about 0.000000000000001 percent, that is, one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent of all the stuff.
An observation by Lightman caught my attention. He wrote, “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life.” He went on, “Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.” Alan Lightman, Our Place in the Universe, Harper’s Magazine, 2012, 32-38.
Cosmic intelligence. Life as an afterthought. Life as random processes. Lifeless matter evolving into particles of life. All this certainly helps me not get too self-absorbed about my own little life.
As you know, scientists call our age the Anthropocene Era. Humans are developing technologies that can perpetuate life, alter and improve living forms, and even create entirely new ones. But human power may well be short-lived because our tools also empower us to kill all life, destroy Planet Earth, and pollute the atmosphere, other planets, and perhaps even outer space. We can destroy the interdependent web of all existence.
Now, most spiritual traditions over the millennia have viewed creation and destruction as the ultimate power of the gods. But, and I am not the first person to say this, we are no longer subject to fate dictated by gods external to ourselves. Rather, we humans are now the gods. And we have to decide collectively whether we will become creators or destroyers.
I repeat: the scary point is that, we are the gods—at whatever life-stage we are—young gods, middle-aged gods or old gods—and we can destroy or save all existence. The biggest challenge facing us, then, is to learn group cooperation so that together we can pursue a life-preserving, collective spiritual destiny—and to do it fast. As little individual gods we do not have the power to contain the challenges facing the 21st. century cosmos. Only as a group do we have a chance. And it is no longer the public good in communities, in nations, on this planet that we must pursue, but the good of the entire cosmos. So, before we can have an impact on the destiny of the cosmos, we have to learn how to work together as a human collective united by a common vision of a healthy cosmic future.
I end with these challenges:-.
- what steps do we take, the generations alive today, how do we learn to cooperate collectively?
- how do we help all humans grow up to act as wise older souls to forge a collective human purpose on behalf of all life?
- are we Unitarian-Universalists ready to recognize the critical importance of our seventh principle?
This is the spiritual responsibility that Teilhard de Chardin challenged us all to take a century ago.
Finally, I repeat the inspiring words of the Reverend Carter Heyward. She says: We touch our strength, our power…when we are most fully in touch with one another and with the world…. [Then] we are participants in ongoing incarnation, bringing god to life in the world. For god is nothing other than the eternally creative source of our relational power, our common strength, a god whose movement is to empower, a god whose name…is love.
Thank you and Namaste.