by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?* * *
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The living tradition we share draws on many sources. The second of the six sources we Unitarian Universalists explicity identify is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of loveWhen we talk about the prophets, when we speak of our prophetic mission, or our prophetic voice to the world, we are drawing upon a tradition that goes back to the ancient Hebrew prophets -- figures like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea. We’re thinking about how these figures spoke as the social critics of their time. Standing outside the structures of power, they called the ruling regime to task for failing to live up to its principles, for breaking the covenant.
Sometimes they predicted what the consequences would be for having strayed from the right path. Thus the popular understanding of prophecy as predicting the future is not entirely without basis. But the core of what made them prophets was speaking truth to power, the call for social justice -- not predicting the future.
When we Unitarian Universalists today call upon this tradition of prophetic women and men we mean to honor the voices for social justice, those who call us all to courage: the courage to stand up to oppression and harm, the courage to witness to and embody the transforming power of love.
The prophets of old, ventured into predictions of the future, and they used fear. Amos is one example of a prophet who warned the people of Israel that their corrupt religion and disregard for the poor would result in destruction of the nation. He called for Israel to repent or face a fearful judgment of wrath. Indeed, how, today, can we speak out against harm to our environment, to our eco-systems, to our climate, to our planet without ourselves playing that same game, invoking predictions of doom and destruction? Can we speak prophetically without fearmongering?
To answer that question let’s look at how fear works.
Today, fear surrounds us. We are awash in scared people earnestly talking others into being scared.
Fear of airplanes went up after 9-11, as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. It took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, and in the meantime, people were putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. As automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed just shy of 1600 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was 1,595. Those were people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many.
Some say we live in a culture of fear: Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, contaminated water, contaminated air, climate change, carcinogens, breast implants, the obesity epidemic, pesticides, West Nile virus, SARS, mad cow disease, flesh-eating diseases, road rage, pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms, Satanic cults, crack cocaine, herpes, school shootings, genetically enhanced bioweapons, self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo,” weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole sucking in and destroying the planet. (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, 6-7).
There seems to be an awful lot to be scared of. It’s the defining slogan of our times: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens, “Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations. (Gardner 13)Fear, of course, has its purpose. In human evolution, we needed mechanisms that would grab our attention and steer us away from danger. Every human brain is two systems attempting to operate side-by-side. There’s Head (reason), and Gut (feelings and intuitions). If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think. But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you. Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked. Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and some one else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand.
It was a pretty good and adaptive system for hunter-gatherers who never traveled very far. If there was a vivid memory of danger ready to hand, then it was probably a memory of something that actually happened in your presence and not far from where you are right now. If you’re facing a situation that looks similar, it makes sense for that fear reaction to be triggered.
Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square. That is [your Gut], amazed, confused, and struggling to make sense of the world around him. (Gardner 17)Gut is a really good system for helping our ancestors deal with the world they found themselves in a million years ago. But a system that grabs our attention, gives us quick-reaction intuitive judgments, and overrides reason is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in “a report you can’t afford to miss” about “a danger that could be lurking near you.” It grabs attention, and that’s what they need for their ratings. And the overall fear in our lives ratchets up.
We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, fire, and flood seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease are much greater but get less of our attention.
Head and Gut are competing for control. Consider this question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The immediate impulse is to say 10 cents. It feels right. It’s wrong, and if Head has a chance to come in, it can offer a helpful corrective. In a nonthreatening scenario, dealing with math, Head has a pretty good chance to get called in, and to be paid attention to. Head will say: “Oh. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat cost $1.05.”
Suppose I ask you two questions: Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old when he died? OK, right. He was older. Forget that. How old was he?
Now suppose I ask you a different pair of questions: Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old when he died? OK, right. He was younger. Forget that. How old was he?
People who were asked the first pair of questions, guess an average age of 50. People who are asked the second pair of questions, guess an average age of 67. See, this is the Anchoring Principle. The brain starts with an anchor number, and then revises up or down to compensate for numbers that are obviously off. But our brains don’t compensate enough. The nine – or the 140 – is stuck in our brains, and even though I say “forget it,” it’s there. How can we live with brains so irrational?
Suppose I ask you to estimate the probability of an event: What’s the chance that Tiger Woods will be able to set aside the distractions and win a major golf tournament before the end of the year? What’s the chance of an al Qaeda terrorist event on US soil before the end of 2010? If I ask you to take a minute to vividly imagine the event before you guess, you’re going to estimate much higher, though vividness of imagined detail has nothing to do with probability.
One lottery’s slogan is ‘just imagine’ – they do more than invite us to daydream. They ask us to do something that elevates our intuitive sense of how likely we are to win the jackpot – which is a good way to convince us to gamble. (Gardner 52)People who are told a certain device will save 150 lives are not terribly impressed. Oddly, they are more impressed if they learn the device will save 98% of 150 lives – why that’s almost all of them, and, for Gut, it feels like a nearly full cup. You could even say it saves 85% of 150 lives, and still get a more favorable reaction than if you say it saves 150 lives. See what Head is up against?
Suppose I tell you that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death of children. Is that good news? Oh, my god, that’s awful, says Gut. But if Head gets a chance, it’s going to say, hey, wait a minute. That’s great news. Every single other cause of death is less. Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, school shootings, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, pesticides, all the other fears of our time: much less. In particular: infectious diseases. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, polio, cholera, small pox – these things used to kill huge numbers of children, and now motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death? That’s great news.
Anyone who has spent an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear. (Gardner 293)You may remember the stories in the mid-1990s about silicone breast implants leading to connective-tissue disease. Out of about 100 million women, 1 percent had breast implants, and about 1 percent get connective-tissue disease, so by coincidence alone, that’s 10,000 women with both. The FDA said there was no evidence of a correlation between implants and disease. Activist groups were outraged. “We are the evidence,” became their slogan. But if we put the many-more-thousands-of-women who had connective-tissue disease without breast implants together with the many-more-thousands-of-women who had breast implants without disease, they might have claimed that they were the evidence that implants prevented disease, and there would have been a lot more of them.
When the epidemiological surveys came in, they repeatedly confirmed that, while some women with breast implants were very ill, they were not more likely to be ill than women without the implants. But Gut pays attention to stories – it’s not so good with numbers, statistics, probabilities. “Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)
Some stories just happen to get traction and then they take off. In Europe, they never had the breast implant scare that we did. Meanwhile, genetic engineering of food has caused immense concern in Europe while being a nonissue in the US, at least until recently.
Advertisers know that fear sells products, from home security systems to pharmaceuticals. Newspapers know that stories about things to be scared of sell newspapers. Politicians know that fear scenarios get them elected. And as the media, and the advertisers and manufacturers and politicians compete with each other to get our attention, the fear appeals grow more and more urgent-sounding. The cumulative effect is that we begin to feel like the world is coming to an end. Apocalypse is in the air.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a novel about a father and son wandering through a future America devastated by an unknown catastrophe – was released in 2006. A year later came Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, a novel about two people wandering through a future America slightly less devastated by an unknown catastrophe. When two renowned authors working in isolation come up with near-identical plots, they are tapping into the zeitgeist, and it is grim, indeed. (Gardner 297)But we have been living with disaster predictions for some time. Do you remember 1967? Perhaps you remember the summer of love, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. You probably don’t remember that there was a book, a bestseller that year, by William and Paul Paddock: Famine 1975. It was full of detailed scientific data and reasoning.
The next year, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb appeared, predicting huge die-offs from outstripping our food supplies. 65 million Americans will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, Ehrlich predicted,and by 1999 the US population will have declined to 22.6 million. Harvard biologist George Wald predicted in 1970 that
civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing [humanity].In the same year, Life magazine reported that
By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.In 1987, fears of AIDS spreading through heterosexual contact led Oprah Winfrey to tell her audience that
research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That’s by 1990. One in five.In fact, go back to 1832 when cholera epidemics happened.
In a matter of hours, perfectly healthy people would collapse, shrivel like a raisin in the sun, and die. (Gardner 297)“It was like the end of the world,” wrote German poet Heinrich Heine.
Doomsday has a poor track record.
At the same time, we truly are not living in a way that is sustainable. It’s just that no one knows how long we’ve got, or what level of catastrophe will come.
So what are we inheritors of a prophetic tradition to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we cry out for justice and reasonable environmental protections?
With Head and Gut vying with each other, we can cultivate habits that give Head a little bit more of a fighting chance against Gut. That’s one thing we can do. The more we know the way that fear works, the more we understand how the quirks of evolution made our brains this way, then the more we can recognize our built-in tendencies toward certain kinds of error and the better able we are step back from a Gut reaction when we see it arising.
Giving the Head side as much boost as we can does help. But there’s more. Head and Gut are not the only players here. What about Heart? What about Spirit? What about the fact that we cast our prophetic tradition as centered on the transforming power of love? When we act from love – a deep love of our planet for itself rather than a fearful protectiveness of it – and a love for other people, even the ones we might be inclined to call the “bad guys” – we aren’t attached to outcome.
Whenever there’s attachment to outcome – “I’ve got to have this result” – there’s fear at work. When you act from love, your action is simply the expression of who you are, and not an expression of desire or fear. Follow the strategy most likely to succeed, and then forget about whether success or failure happens.
Heart brings a whole new perspective – a radically different way of looking at things. When I ask, how old was Gandhi when he died, we noticed that Gut can get skewed by whatever numbers it has recently encountered, and Head tries, usually in vain, to correct for that – but heart – spirit – says: Gandhi never died. He lives right now in me and in you, in every blade of glass, every breeze, every smile. And he tells us now, as the body we once identified with him told us years ago, “the victory is in the doing,” not in the results.
Death, the very thing that sparks so much fear, is the reminder that we are temporary, that all things are temporary. The gift of mortality, when we set aside the fear, is the beautiful lesson of the ultimate futility of all outcomes. Constant awareness of death liberates us from the fear of this or that result. The very worst is already foreordained for all of us, and this fact frees us to confront afresh Mary Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” To spend that life in fear, trying to protect it, is no good. The true prophecy, the true transformative power of love, lies in transforming the urge to predict the future into the energy to be fully present. Prophecy without fear is a way of living in which your every move is a gesture of blessing – a simple giving of the gift of who you are to everything you encounter.