Our 11th Emotion: Awe, Climate Change & the People's March

Sermon by Nicoline Guerrier, 5 October  2014

You know the emotions: love, fear, sadness, embarrassment, curiosity, pride, joy, despair, guilt, anger – and perhaps a few others.  Together, the emotions bring colour and shade to the events of our lives, to how we react.  Some of us work at becoming less attached to our emotions, and for others, our task as we get older is to figure out and express the emotions that lurk beneath our rational, thinking selves.  But what about awe?  Do you feel awe to be an emotion?  An experience?  And what would it be like to hold awe front and centre as you move through life, to really live a life of awe? This is the question we’re being asked to reflect upon this month.

Think with me for a moment: when was the last time you felt awe?  Don’t be surprised if even as you return to this moment in your mind, your body takes on some of awe’s trademark characteristics.  You might be holding your breath.  You might feel like you’re seeing, hearing, or feeling things more intently, as though all your senses are alive.  You might find your jaw starting to drop, or goosebumps rising up on your skin.  And if you were trying to tell each other about the experience, you might notice yourself stumbling to find the right words.  “It was …” people tend to say, and then look around, as though words alone don’t quite do justice to the place awe takes you.

The psychologist Paul Pearsall calls awe “our eleventh emotion.”  After interviewing hundreds of people about their awe experiences, he concluded that awe plays the unique role of “blending and intensifying” the other emotions in a way that leads us to find new and deeper meaning in life, if we choose.  It’s about taking things to another level.  No surprise that some people see awe as the basis for religious feeling and, ultimately, the religions.  

What I found myself wondering about this month was less about what awe is, and more about what awe is for.  And the conclusion I’m testing out just now is this one:  awe is a gift; awe invites us to stop, to get a glimpse of the bigger picture, and – if we choose to do so – to recommit to things of ultimate value.

Let me give you an example.

A block or two from my office, there’s a house with an unusual front yard.  It’s a tiny place, no bigger than the space that’s taken up when the children gather round the pulpit here for the Time for All Ages.  What makes it unusual is the way whoever lives there combines flowers, trees and other green and growing things with all kinds of found objects, different ones each week.  They’re mainly plastic, and mostly of the kind my French co-workers would call “quétaine.”  One week Bambi stood in the yard, staring at a garish Kewpie-type doll against a backdrop of plastic Hawaiian leis hanging twisted together with real vines from the upper balcony.  Another time there was an ancient baby carriage, its rubber tires long since rotted away, and in the carriage: earth, a stuffed bear with one eye missing, and some faded pink plastic daisies.  Sometimes there are hand-lettered signs in wobbly block letters.  DÉFENDRE NOTRE PLANÈTE.  DIEU VOUS AIME.

And then, last week: something that ended up stopping me in my tracks.  Standing up out of the freshly turned soil was a brilliant yellow flower, tall, and bobbing slightly in the breeze.  Imagine something like a long-stemmed Chrysanthemum, its face turned up to the sun.  At first I’d thought it was real. An instant later I felt foolish, seeing it for what it was: a very detailed plastic copy.  And then – and this is what brought me back for a second look – I saw four large and very real black wasps, busily searching for nectar (or perhaps just drinking water) all over the greenish gold plastic center of this brilliant yellow flower.  They were hard at work.  It was surreal.

I was taken aback.  I was shocked.  I was in awe.  Although later on I wondered whether the garden’s designer had poured a sugar syrup or something into the flower to attract those wasps, I still felt awe when I looked back at the scene.  I felt awe at the human brains that designed something so life-like it could pass itself off as real, at least to someone who wasn’t looking too closely.  I felt awe and a kind of sadness that the wasps had to bring their wonderful aliveness onto this inert plastic object - though perhaps you’ll tell me this should be a story about wasp resilience, not tragedy!  And I felt awe and a kind of horror at the idea that in the encounter between wasps and the human made world, even if their habitat continued to degrade, those wasps would probably just continue doing what they’re programmed to do: working, seeking out yellow plants, doing what wasps do best until the planet became entirely inhospitable.

Now, there’s probably someone in the room right now with enough scientific expertise to give me a better explanation of what those wasps were up to.  I’m willing to admit that in that moment, my awe and horror might have been misplaced.  But the awe I felt seeing the persistence of their natural behaviour, even as they interfaced with an unnatural, human made world, turned my attention to the bigger picture of the climate’s interface with us, the human community.

My very simplistic understanding of it is this: over millions of years, decaying plant and animal matter lying deep under our oceans and under the ground underwent processes transforming them into coal, oil, and natural gas. These resources are finite: they won’t get restocked once we take them out of the ground. We humans have been taking out the oil and transforming it, using it to create plastics and other synthetic materials.  We use oil to manufacture all kinds of awe-inspiring things.  Some of these have revolutionized life on this planet – think of synthetic gloves used to stop disease transmission in surgery, for example.  Others have no more long-term usefulness to the human community than plastic flowers or plastic Bambis.  And, we’ve been burning that coal, oil and gas – which we commonly call fossil fuels – to provide energy for all the busy, busy things we humans have been doing on this planet, especially over the past 30 years.  The problem with burning these fuels is that the process releases carbon into the atmosphere.  And, as I understand it, greater concentrations of carbon cause the earth’s temperature to rise – with all of the other problems we know about as a result.

I don’t have words to describe how I feel about this.  It’s kind of like awe, but more like horror.  So when I decided to attend the People’s Climate March in New York City last month, it was a way – for me - of publicly recommitting to the things I cherish most deeply.  The living world is where I most often get stopped in my tracks and experience awe.  Like many Unitarian Universalists, being out in wilderness or simply witnessing the glory of the changing seasons is what feeds my sense of the sacred.  Like the girl whose story I read to you earlier in the service, being in wilderness has led me to believe that I – you – we – are all “part of some great unity.”  Because of these moments, I no longer feel that nature – or global warming, for that matter – is “out there” and separate from me.  And so, when a member of this congregation announced that world leaders would be meeting in New York to perhaps hammer out plans to tackle global warming, I decided it was time to attend, and make my sense of connection and my beliefs visible.

Five of us traveled to New York to represent this congregation, though I know that many more marched in one of the satellite events here in Montreal.  And, as some of you have reminded me, not everyone can walk!  I was so inspired by hearing that one of you, for whom walking is difficult, created her own way to participate online by spending the day sending “tweets” about the event.  You might be surprised to know that though there were some unforgettable moments, an awful lot of time was spent dozing uncomfortably on buses and then standing around waiting in a crowded “staging” area with 10,000 or so other people representing the faith communities.  After three hours waiting inside fences there, two of our group actually had to turn around and head back to Montreal without even joining in on the official march!

It was great to finally begin walking together, but for me the awe came later, when I looked back at what had been accomplished: a gathering of 400,000 passionate people from all walks of life, and not a single arrest!  From within the march it was hard to get a feel for our numbers. Now that it is done, I feel awe when I look at the pictures and see how many, how diverse, and how we were able to come together around this one issue that concerns us all: American UUs with their showy, bright yellow Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts; people who travelled 4 days doing a climate-change teach-in on a train from California; a small delegation from Bangladesh, the country the most immediately threatened by climate change; trade-unionists and singing, running, Latino/Latina teenagers; grandmothers and elementary school children with hand-painted signs; the collection of cross-legged meditators sitting in silent witness on a small rise across the south side of Central Park; a mysterious, turbaned man greeting marchers with a parrot on his head and then, at the end of it all, the countless buses loading up and then pulling away to begin the long journeys home back to Chicago, Toledo, North Carolina, Toronto, Montreal.

I can’t think of a better way to sum it up than with the words a colleague wrote to accompany her album of pictures from the march: “Such a lovely, exhausting, exhilarating, complicated day … So grateful to be a human among other wild, weird, wonderful, scared, determined humans.”

Good thing we were so many.  Bill McKibben, the dynamic founder of 350.org, one of the organizations behind the march, has said: “The problem with climate change is that it seems too big for any of us ourselves to take it on … and indeed it is – it’s only when we’re working with other people – and as many other people as possible – that we have any hope.”

Our Unitarian Universalist communities come together around a set of principles that we agree to affirm and promote.  The seventh of these is “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  To me, “respect” is too lame a behaviour in the face of a world – our world - whose future is dissolving before our eyes.  To me, it’s a question of love, and love in action.  So, if this world awakens your awe – be it because of wasps and their industry, the boldness of a neighbour who dares to decorate his yard with signs reading SAUVONS NOTRE PLANÈTE and DIEU VOUS AIME, or the crazy, zany ability of over half a million people to tell their leaders that slowing global warming needs their attention now:  write to your MP and tell your neighbours why.  Insist on a carbon tax.  Get off the consumption train – there’s no end of things that you can do. March, tweet, sing, draw, dance your love for this planet and those who will inherit the world we have left for them.  And let awe – that eleventh, most special emotion, the one that stops you and fixes your gaze on all you hold to be most true and most worthy of your love – let awe strengthen, nourish and embolden you.

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