Reflection by Dr. Greg Hitzhusen, M.Div., OhIPL Board Chair
My wife showed me an amazing video last night that was posted on Facebook; many comments have followed from families in our neighborhood, because the video shows a spontaneous act of collective kindness and spirit that happened during the Colonial Hills Elementary School field day races. The Today Show picked up the story, and apparently now it is popping up all over cyber space, from Runner’s World to “most watched” video sites.
My son Eli is enjoying his last day of the first grade at Colonial HIlls today, and he recently dedicated his “published book” assignment to his gym teacher, Mr. Blaine, who is an important part of why this video exists. Among Colonial Hills parents, Mr. Blaine is affectionately described as “old school” – with a heart for kids’ growth and development, and an expectation of responsibility and discipline that leaves many of us wondering how he can get our kids to behave so well.
The video shows the 400-yd dash, and follows one student, Matt, who has spastic cerebral palsy, as he labors through the two lap race, far behind all the other competitors. But then an amazing thing happens, as first Mr. Blaine begins to walk beside Matt for the duration of the race, and then, well, you can see it for yourself:
I don’t know anyone who can watch this without being moved. This week I’m wrapping up my “Religion and Environmental Values in America” course at Ohio State, and just was discussing with my students yesterday the great prospects for humanity that are possible when we live our best lives – when we let our light shine – when we are attuned to others instead of being selfishly preoccupied. If the kind of spontaneous acts of encouragement and unity like Matt’s friends and schoolmates show here are possible, then perhaps we are capable of meeting any of the list of challenges that currently challenge our culture – unemployment, childhood obesity, war and violence, the health of our planet and its peoples and all life.
On the other hand, some of those challenges may carry a distinct disadvantage. We may be biologically hard wired to root for the underdog, and even if we often doubt it, at our core, humans seem tuned to want to help the struggling (are justice and fairness woven into our hearts?). If we see someone struggling, giving it all they’ve got, we feel inspired to cheer, to help, and to drop what we are doing to join the effort to bring success. But if we see our climate changing, slowly, over long periods of time, evidenced by graphs and charts that reveal great risks looming in a projected future, the same surge of action, unity, and spirit tends not to follow.
As recent Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala notes, in the era of advanced human civilizations, it would appear that biological evolution cannot act quickly enough – “conservationist genes” or “peace genes” will not multiply within human populations fast enough to change our collective behavior toward more sustainable economies, industries, and individual behaviors (unless perhaps widespread environmental catastrophe hits, and the only survivors are those who cared for the planet, or the time comes, as the book of Revelation states, for “destroying those who destroy the earth”? (Rev 11:18)).
Rather, following Ayala, it is cultural evolution that now provides greater agency to provide flourishing and fitness and enhanced survival – culturally, we must find the will and the vision and the hope to change our patterns of living away from what is destructive and unsustainable, and toward that which is life-enhancing, healing, redeeming, wise, and able to provide sustainably for our flourishing (and not just the flourishing of the very wealthy). Put another way, we must choose life, not death – and for this to mean anything, “choose” must assume that we then act accordingly. And that is hard to do when our everyday actions, especially as Americans, are so disproportionately consumptive and polluting but in ways that we can’t easily see and feel.
And so I challenge my students, and I challenge my fellow parents, husbands, children, and friends: if we are going to come together to succeed in our unlikely endeavors, to meet the challenges we face in handing down as good a world to our children as what we received from our parents, then we will need to find the inner courage, strength, and will to stand for the things we know are right. To actually live the way we believe we should. To deal with climate change and long-term questions of environmental sustainability, we will not likely suddenly see some single effort, or piece of legislation, or public works project whose struggle to the finish line will suddenly inspire us to stand up and rush together to some end point. As we know, it will take many solutions, on many fronts, collectively creating and forging a better way. As poet Wendell Berry says:
“The real work of planet saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”
For those wondering what role religion plays in this, I believe the implications are clear. Religions in America have too often shrunk from their prophetic, liberating, redeeming and virtue-multiplying role within the culture. It will take our best science and best policy and best will in shifting our culture into better and healthier ways, but like most important moments of social change in America, those factors will not rise to the challenge without the inspiration, convictions, faith, hope, and cultural transformation that our religious communities bring.
And in case we are tempted to shrink from the challenge and the moment because we sense that this effort may be perennial – that the “finish line” may always lie a bit beyond us, from generation to generation, as one challenge or crisis replaces the next — then let’s let Matt’s determination inspire ours, and remember that we are not alone — “Let’s go!” says our coach and our friends. It may just be that the good fruits of our good efforts will make the journey all the more a blessing.