Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
This is dedicated to Dr. Jane Goodall to mark the 20th anniversary of her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.
“Yes, we are destroying our planet.” The celebrated ethologist Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzee behavior in Tanzania, affirmed the destruction, years ago, in Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (1999).1 In her book, Goodall made an appeal for investing maxim effort in our moral and spiritual development. Several years earlier, the irreverent comedian George Carlin also had addressed the seriousness of the destruction, but using a sharper barb. Readers who saw Jamming in New York (1992) at the Paramount Theater will remember how Carlin leveraged nuance to impale us with a painful point: “The planet is fine; the people are . . . it will shake us off like a bad case of fleas—a surface nuisance.” 2 Profane and correct, he was: A destroyed biosphere will not impinge on Earth’s planethood. The audience applauded his attempt to upend us as we shuffled along, sleepwalking.
Carlin failed, and we went on threatening the planet superficially and accelerating the human biosphere project. He probably expected unresponsiveness: Before his death in 2008, he had concluded that we lacked the capacity to effect behavioral changes quickly and globally.3 Since writing Reason for Hope, Goodall has carried on with a spirit of optimism. Our intelligence, our indomitable spirit, and the energy and enthusiasm of young people, these human assets give her hope, as well as the biosphere’s resilience.4
As a young Baby Boomer, when I read her reasons for hope, I noticed that she singled out one demographic: the youth. She passed over the older generations silently—and fairly, in my opinion—even though many of us have silver and ivory crowns of hair and craniums packed with experience and knowledge. With older Traditionalists standing at our side, too many of us spectated as today’s crises—the congressionally superfunded military-industrial nightmare, climate change and mass extinction, uncaged neoliberal capitalism, and the chasmic divide in wealth between billionaires and ordinary workers—slowly heated up from a simmer in the 1980s to an excited boil in the 21st century.
“There is a powerful force unleashed,” Goodall wrote, “when young people resolve to make a change.” 5 When I survey the American landscape, I see too many old snags with roots wrapped around the sources of power and money. I am thinking of public figures like Rex Tillerson, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence, and others. Deadwood has neither the energy nor enthusiasm that the youth possess; nor can it come close to matching young people’s creativity, imagination, and pursuit of inclusive justice. Moreover, deadwood policies for managing the crises of our day cast doubt on a direct and proportional relationship between age and wisdom. Bargaining away the future of our children in exchange for more power and extra money is a rare cocktail of tomfoolery, self-absorption, and greed.6
Michel de Montaigne, who died in 1592, and before doing so, wrote three books of essays, rejected the age-wisdom correlation. In his third book, this French son of minor nobility wrote:
Mais il me semble qu’en la vieillesse nos ames sont subjectes à des maladies et imperfections plus importunes qu’en la jeunesse. . . . Mais, à la verité, nous ne quittons pas tant les vices, comme nous les changeons, et, à mon opinion, en pis. Outre une sotte et caduque fierté . . . . et un soin ridicule des richesses lors que l’usage en est perdu, j’y trouve plus d’envie, d’injustice et de malignité.7
But it seems to me that in old age our souls are subject to more troublesome ailments and imperfections than in our youth. . . . But in truth we do not so much abandon our vices as change them, and, in my opinion, for the worse. Besides a silly and decrepit pride . . . and a ridiculous concern for riches when we have lost the use of them, I find there more envy, injustice, and malice.8
In addition to pride, a concern for riches, and a few other repellant habits, Montaigne accentuated envy, injustice, and malice. He made this comparison of the condition of our souls in old age with their youthful state during the last decade of his 59 years of life. Perhaps unaware of its enduring applicability at the time, Montaigne’s piquant remark has retained its fizz for centuries. These age-related traits aptly characterize senior representatives of America’s corporate-political leadership class of 2018.
Back to Goodall—in her book, she aimed to do more than disclose four reasons for hope. She also wrote to convey a message, which she discussed on various pages and occasionally in different chapters. Let us take a look at that message, starting with a conversation that she had with a young man working as a bellhop at a large hotel in Dallas, Texas:
It honestly didn’t matter how we humans got to be the way we are . . . . What mattered and mattered desperately was our future development. Were we going to go on destroying God’s creation, fighting each other, hurting the other creatures of His planet? Or were we going to find ways to live in greater harmony with each other and with the natural world? [That was important] not only for the future of the human species, but also for him, personally. [The young man] would have to make his own decision.9
Her retelling of the story accentuates two intertwined themes: focusing on our future development as a species and aligning individually with a new trajectory of development by taking personal responsibility for changing one’s own destructive habits.
Having been trained as a scientist by the legendary paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey, this ethologist understands extinction. Goodall could be described as a realistic idealist. She knows that a long timeline favors biological evolution, but time now works against the moral and spiritual development of our species because we face an approaching deadline.
I do have hope for the future—for our future. But only if changes are made in the way we live—and made quickly. We do not, I think, have much time. And these changes must be made by us, you and me. If we go on leaving it to others, shipwreck [of Spaceship Earth] is inevitable.10
Again, she emphasized the need for each person to take personal responsibility for changing his or her way of life. The agents of change are you and I—not others. Furthermore, in her opinion, time was short—20 years ago!
In another chapter, Goodall explained more about accelerating our moral and spiritual evolution.
We had to learn to understand and love this Spirit within [i.e., the flame of pure spirit in each of us] in order to find peace within. And only then could we reach out beyond the narrow prison of our own lives, seeking reunion with the Spiritual Power that we call God, or Allah, the Tao, Brahma, the Creator, or whatever our personal belief prescribes. Once we had attained that goal, our power to connect with others, so that together we could create a better world, would be immeasurably greater.
The ability to reach beyond their upbringing, their culture, and their immediate surroundings has always, I realized, been a characteristic of the greatest spiritual leaders and saints. Our task, then, if we would hasten our moral evolution, progress a little more quickly toward our human destiny, is obvious—formidable, but in the long run not impossible. We will have to evolve, all of us, from ordinary, everyday human beings—into saints! Ordinary people, like you and me, will have to become saints, or at least mini-saints. The great saints and the Masters were not supernatural beings; they were mortals like us . . . . And they all believed in a Spiritual Power, in God. That enabled them to tap in to the great spiritual energy “in which we live and move and have our being.” [They breathed this energy] into their lungs so that it ran in the blood, giving them strength. We must strive, each of us, to join them.11
And a few pages later, she returned to the theme of saintliness:
I had no doubt that, given time, we humans were capable of creating a moral society. The trouble was, as I knew only too well, time was running out. . . . And I knew the direction in which we were headed. But we did not have the luxury of millions of years for all humans to become true saints. Not if we continued destroying our environment at the present rate. . . . we would simply have to try, each and every one of us, to become just a little bit more saintlike.12
Two key religious themes run through these paragraphs.
First, to seek “reunion with the Spiritual Power” reminds me of repentance as it is expressed in the Hebrew language and understood within Judaism. The word for repentance teshuvah (i.e., תשובה) literally suggests turning around or a reversal. The core sense of the word is to return; the desired destination, namely, to God, is implied. For those who are familiar with Jesus’s parables, the return of the prodigal son to his father (i.e., to God) metaphorically captures the idea.13 Goodall opted for similar language: reuniting with God. Once a person returns—to Allah, God, the Great Mystery, the Name, Mother Earth, or perhaps merely to common sense—that person becomes more effective at coordinating, cooperating, and working with others to create a better world. In other words, repentance enhances fraternity and solidarity.
Secondly, she is calling on ordinary people—you, me, and other regulars—to reach higher, toward the likeness of a saint. She urges each of us to become, at the very least, a mini-saint. One characteristic that saints have in common is a highly developed sense of self-awareness. We sorely need more awareness of this type. The full weight of the fate of Homo sapiens and many other species collectively hangs on all of us as heavily as it individually hangs on each of us. A person whose self-awareness is high can accept this assertion.
When reading biography, memoir, and other historical genres, I am struck by the number of highly self-aware people who heard the Voice. Socrates and Jesus’s disciples—Peter, James, and John—heard the Voice; Gandhi and Mother Teresa also heard.14 The Voice spoke to Mother Teresa on a train in September of 1948, when she was traveling to Darjeeling, India, where she had been sent to recover from tuberculosis.15 To each of these hearers, the Voice conveyed an instructional message.
Goodall also wrote about the Voice and the message that she received. In essence, that original message—or urmessage—which she associates with the Voice, underlies and supports the more public reiteration that we discussed at length above.16 In 1974, she visited Notre Dame de Paris not long after her first marriage had ended in divorce. While gazing at the cathedral’s Rose Window and listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, she had an ecstatic, mystical experience that renewed her contemplative life.17 Listen to her describe, over two decades after the event, her reflections on what had happened:
[That experience] was a sort of call to action. I think I heard, in a form suitable for mortal ears, the voice of God . . . . And I did not hear any words, only the sound. Words or not, the experience was powerful, and served to jolt me back into the world into which I had been born, the twentieth century with all its problems. It helped me to realize that the spiritual power that I felt so strongly in the wild and beautiful world of the forest was one and the same with that which I had known in my childhood . . . in the days when I used to spend long hours in ancient cathedrals. Indeed, as I look back, my visit to Notre Dame was a milestone along my path. Eventually, when the time was right, I would remember that glorious experience and the words would be revealed. But that would not be for some time to come.18
Since the publication of Reason for Hope, she has done many lecture tours to share the message—the essence of which “comes to [her] from outside; as if [she were] an eolian harp with strings vibrating to an invisible wind.” 19 The message that Goodall shares publicly has its origins in the urmessage that she received while gazing at the window and listening to Bach inside Notre Dame.
Only quite recently did I begin to wonder whether there had been some specific message for me, wordlessly conveyed by the powerful music, a message that I absorbed, but was not yet ready or able to interpret. And now, through experience and reflection, I believe that there was indeed a message. A very simple one: Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference. . . . We all [hear the Voice of God]—that ‘still, small voice’ that we speak of, telling us what we ought to do. That, I think, is the Voice of God. . . . Whatever we call it, the important thing, I think, is to try to do what the voice tells us. My experience in the cathedral of Notre Dame was dramatic, awakening. It is the still, small voice that I hear now—and it bids me to share.20
The action that the Voice bade her to take has been difficult. Through her 70s and into her 80s, she has lived an itinerant life with an exhausting tempo. As a scientist, she was one of the earlier ones to grasp the scale and scope of the harm that humans are doing. She also carried the burden of prescience: She envisioned the ultimate consequences of our behavior. These challenges, Goodall accepted to remain faithful to the Voice.
Yet the Voice may ask more—sometimes a person receives instructions that involve high levels of risk, as well as big personal sacrifices. Socrates understood that, by remaining silent the morning of his trial, the Voice had sanctioned the verdict before it would be given later that day. The men of Athens returned a verdict of guilty, and Socrates received the death penalty. Mother Teresa understood that she must enter the slums of Calcutta to live among that city’s poorest and sickest residents. And consider the lesser known William Wylie Tomes, Jr., whom gang members from Chicago housing projects called Brother Bill. The Voice spoke to him, repeating the same instruction three times: “I will lead, you follow; I will lead, you follow; I will lead, you follow.” Brother Bill then heard: “Do not be afraid; give all your trust.” The message proved to be applicable, particularly the fear and trust part. Fifty-three times, Brother Bill walked into the crossfire of gang warfare; fifty-three times, the shooters stopped shooting, and he returned neither punctured nor grazed.21
As we move into the third decade of the 21st century—inhabiting a compromised biosphere, dependent on a precarious economic system, governed by political leaders with vision dimmer than that of a rhinoceros, and praying that nuclear weaponry is never used, on purpose or by accident—the next decision each person makes, the next action each one takes, and every decision and action thereafter, carries escalating consequences. Recognition of this reality requires high self-awareness. Listening is one way of elevating self-awareness. What would happen if the Voice were to broadcast the message: “Be still”? A global and massive response to that simple instruction could create an existential opportunity. I also wonder if the Voice may be bidding listeners of all ages to act benevolently, nonviolently, peacefully—and more creatively, more extraordinarily, and more radically. Even with the stakes so high and with relatively little time to effect sweeping change, I keep a tenacious grip on hope, holding on largely because of the energy and enthusiasm of young people and the Voice who speaks—in the past, to Socrates, to Jesus’s disciples, to Gandhi, to Mother Teresa, and more recently to Brother Bill and Dr. Jane Goodall.
- Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, with Phillip Berman (New York: Warner Books, 1999), 230.
- George Carlin’s comedy contains profanity. I punctuated the quotation and added the italicization.
- George Carlin’s interview contains profanity. The interview was done in December of 2007, and George died 7 months later.
- Goodall, pp. 233.
- Goodall, pp. 242–244, 267. The quotation is found on page 244.
- If a reader thinks that I have been too hard on the generation of Americans to which I belong, take a moment and listen to the 17-minute video of Jane giving an address in 2018, at Simon Frazer University, during the fall convocation, after receiving another honorary degree. The relevant part of the video starts at 11:30. I winced a couple of times before she stopped speaking.
- Les Essais are available online. See Livre 3, Chapitre 2, 816–817.
- Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, Donald M. Frame (London: Everyman’s Library, 2003), p. 752.
- Goodall, pp. 177–179. The quotation comes from page 179.
- Goodall, p. 232.
- Goodall, p. 199–200. I added the italicization to help the reader.
- Goodall, 203.
- Luke 15:11–32. For our purpose, the important verses are 18–21. I am assuming that Jesus originally told the parable in Hebrew. As a literary genre, parables are unique to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and to Rabbinic literature (midrash, mishnah, and talmud).
- Regarding Socrates, see the earlier blog post The Anthropocene: A Time When Scientific Priorities and Religious Values Converged, note 14. Regarding Jesus’s disciples, see Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35. See also Acts 10 and the story of Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius. Regarding Gandhi, see William L. Shirer, Gandhi: A Memoir (New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1982), pp. 87, 216.
- Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, compiled by Lucinda Vardey (New York: Ballentine Books, 1995), p. xxii.
- Goodall, xi–xii, 92, 94–95, and 265–267.
- Goodall, 92 and 266.
- Goodall, 94–95.
- Goodall, 266.
- Goodall, 266–267. I added the italicization.
- Ron Stodghill’s article “In the Line of Fire” (2002) is available online at time.com.