The Big Picture
The Larger Context for All Human Activities

By Michael Dowd

Earth Day, 1992

All professions, all work, all activity in the human world finds its essential meaning in the context of a people's cosmic story. — Brian Swimme

Stories Within Stories

Each of us is a story within stories. My daughter's life story is part of both my story and her mother's story. The story of our family is likewise part of other stories larger than our own: the story of our town, our state, our nation, Western civilization, humanity, planet Earth, and the story of the Universe itself. Each of us is a story within stories within stories.

There is a dynamic relationship between every story, the larger stories it is part of, and the smaller stories that are a part of it. Larger stories influence and add meaning to the stories that are nestled within them. For example, if my wife and I were to move across the country, my daughter's story would be affected. Similarly, if my nation goes through a severe economic depression, experiences prolonged drought, or undergoes a major spiritual awakening, my community's story, my story, and my daughter's story will each be affected. The destiny of every story is affected by the larger stories of which it is a part.

Importance or significance, of course, is relative. An important event in one story will be an important event in all the stories that are nestled within it, but may be relatively insignificant for the larger stories in which it itself is nestled. For example, if the major employer in my town, a factory where I have worked for the past twenty-five years, closes permanently, this would be a significant event in the story of my community, as well as in my story, and in my daughter's story. But it would not be particularly significant within the story of Western civilization. Something significant in the story of Western civilization, however, like an economic and ecological collapse, or a nuclear war, would also be significant for each of the smaller stories nestled within the story of Western civilization, such as the story of my community, my story and my daughter's story.

When we ask the question, "Why?", we ask about the meaning or context of something. We can understand personal meaning by using the metaphor that we are each a story within stories. The meaning of some thing or event is apparent in its larger context. A tragedy has meaning in terms of the bigger picture, or larger story. An elderly woman who dies while saving a young child's life can be said to have died a tragic, yet meaningful, death. The question, "Why did she have to die?" may be answered meaningfully by looking at the larger perspective.

When we want to know the meaning of something we are asking, "How does this fit into the bigger picture? How does this make sense in terms of the larger story? The larger the context, generally the deeper the meaning.

Cosmology: The Largest Context

Every transformation of humanity has rested upon deep stirrings of the intuition, whose rationalized expression amounts to a new vision of the cosmos and the nature of the human — Lewis Mumford

Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind. — Albert Einstein

In every human society, the largest of all contexts is the story of how everything began, how things came to be as they are, and where everything is going. This story, a people's cosmology, as the "big picture," gives meaning to our existence in every area of life. It helps us understand the mysteries of life and death. It is the soil out of which all of our beliefs, customs, behavior, traditions and institutions grow. A people's cosmology crystallizes into a set of unquestioned assumptions and beliefs about life in that culture. Like sunglasses with colored lenses, our cosmology colors everything we see. It determines the way we perceive things, what we perceive, what we can and can't see as possible, and what we can't see at all. Its rules and boundaries are generally transparent. It is our reality.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead remarked that every culture she ever encountered had an account of how things came to be in the beginning. Every human society developed a story or set of stories that revealed "the truth," as revealed by observation and intuition, of the origin and nature of the world, why things are as they are, and our role in the destiny of things. Such an account helped people in each culture decide what was good and bad, what was to be avoided, and what was to be pursued. Written down, it often became scripture. A people's cosmology is their Sacred Story.

The cosmology of the Bible has had a great effect on the thinking and institutions of the West, and on our understanding of our relationship to the rest of nature. Our law, medicine, religion, politics, economics and education have each been shaped extensively by biblical cosmology. For centuries we imagined that God was a Supreme Landlord who resided off the planet, separate from and superior to nature. We thought of ourselves as separate from and superior to nature also because we were created in the image of God. Nature, in our view, was corrupt, due to "the fall" of Adam and Eve.

Thus, "progress" became equated with exercising increasing control over nature for the benefit of humans. Until recently these beliefs were taken for granted and rarely discussed. They were inherited and unconscious assumptions and beliefs about reality. While these beliefs may be directly or indirectly responsible for much of the ecological devastation taking place on the planet today, they have also made possible enormous scientific and technological breakthroughs. Ironically, some of these scientific breakthroughs are now the foundation of an eco-spiritual awakening that may usher us into the only viable future for humans; an age characterized by a mutually enhancing relationship between humanity and the rest of the community of life.

Recent discoveries in biology, geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy indicate that the Universe is nothing at all like the Great Machine mechanistic science assumed it was for the past three hundred years. A growing number of scientists now suggest that the Universe is more like an evolving, maturing, organism — a living system — which has been developing for 15 billion years. It has become increasingly complex and diversified, beginning with hydrogen, then forming galaxies, stars and planets, and evolving more complex life-forms over time. The Universe, in us, can now consciously reflect on itself, its meaning, what it is, and how it developed. "The human person is the sum total of 15 billion years of unbroken evolution now thinking about itself," Teilhard de Chardin noted a half century ago.

The Universe shivers with wonder in the depths of the human. — Brian Swimme

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. That which extends throughout the Universe, I regard as my body, and that which directs the Universe, I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions. — Chang Tsai

The astronomer or hobbyist looking through a telescope is literally the Universe looking at itself. The child entranced by the immensity of the ocean is Earth enraptured by itself. The student learning biology is the planet learning in consciousness, with awareness, how it functioned instinctively and unconsciously for billions of years. The worshipper singing praises is the Universe celebrating the wonder of the divine Mystery from whence it came, and in which it exists. We humans are a means by which the Universe can perceive its beauty and feel its depths with conscious awareness. We are not separate beings in the Universe, who live on Earth, we are a mode of being of the Universe, an expression of Earth. We did not come into this world, we grew out from it, in the same way that an apple grows out from an apple tree. Every cell of my body is part of the larger living system that is me. Similarily, each of us, with all life, is part of a larger living planetary system. Earth is our larger self, our larger body. As physicist Brian Swimme is fond of saying, "The planet Earth, once molten rock, now sings opera."

Our planet and its creatures constitute a single self-regulating system that is in fact a great living being, or organism. — Elisabet Sahtouris

On the return trip home, gazing toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious. — Edgar D. Mitchell, astronaut

It is a peculiar fact that all the great astronomers of the 15th and 16th centuries were deeply convinced that the whole universe was a huge living being. Even during the height of western culture, the Greeks thought of the Living Planet organism as a fact of life — Eugene Kolisco

Viewed from the moon, the most astonishing thing about the Earth is that it is alive.... Beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, it has the self-contained look of a live creature full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun. — Lewis Thomas Earth is not a planet with life on it; rather it is a living planet. The physical structure of the planet — its core, mantle, and mountain ranges — acts as the skeleton or frame of its existence. The soil that covers its grasslands and forests is like a mammoth digestive system. In it all things are broken down, absorbed, and recycled into new growth. The oceans, waterways, and rain function as a circulatory system that moves life-giving "blood," purifying and revitalizing the body. The bacteria, algae, plants and trees provide the planet's lungs, constantly regenerating the entire atmosphere. The animal kingdom provides the functions of a nervous system, a finely tuned and diversified series of organisms sensitized to environmental change. Each species is a unique expression of planetary consciousness, with its own unique gifts to the body. Humanity allows the planet to exercise self-conscious awareness, or reflexive thought. That is, the human enables Earth to reflect on itself and on the divine Mystery out of which it has come and in which it exists. We are a means by which nature can appreciate its own beauty and feel its own splendor; or destroy itself. This shift, from seeing ourselves as separate beings placed on Earth ("the world was made for us") to seeing ourselves as a self-reflexive expression of Earth ("we were made for the world"), is a major shift in our understanding of who and what we are. It is a shift at the deepest possible level: our identity, or sense of self.

The Earth belongs not to us, we belong to the Earth — Black Elk

Indeed, this shift [to seeing ourselves a part of a living planet which is our larger self] is essential to our survival because it can serve in lieu of morality. Moralizing is ineffective. Sermons don't hinder us from pursuing our self-interest. Therefore, we need to be a little more enlightened about what our self-interest is. It would not occur to me, for example, to exhort you to refrain from cutting off your leg. That wouldn't occur to me or to you because your leg is part of you. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon Basin; they are our external lungs. We are just beginning to wake up to that. We are gradually discovering that we are our world. — Joanna Macy

The Great Sacred Story of Life

Everything begins with a story. — Joseph Campbell

The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion. — Thomas Berry

Our most powerful story, equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution. — Lewis Thomas

It's tough to get a handle on concepts like millions and billions of years. They are too large to conceptualize so they tend to remain abstractions. To help us see our story as a whole, from the "big bang" to the present, imagine our 15 billion year history compressed into one hundred years. At this timescale, each decade equals 1 billion, 500 million years. Each year equals 150 million years. Each month is 12 million, 500 thousand years. Each day is approximately 425,000 years. Each hour is 18,000 years; each minute, 300 years; and each second, 5 years.

If we put the fireball, or "big bang," at one second after midnight on January 1st, Year 1, with today being one second before midnight on December 31st of the 99th year, then the first atomic elements, hydrogen and helium, formed two days after the beginning of the Universe. The galaxies formed by the hundred billions when the Universe was about 7 or 8 years old. The Milky Way galaxy, of which we are a part, is a spiral galaxy. It is 100,000 light-years side-to-side and 16,000 light-years thick at the central bulge. (A light year is how long it takes light, which travels at 12 million miles per minute, to travel in one year.) The Milky Way spirals and makes one complete rotation every 200 million years. As it turns, stars are born from clouds of gas and elements formed by previous stars. Stars live anywhere from a quarter of a billion years to ten billion years or more depending upon their size and composition, and then they die.

Our solar system formed from the elemental stardust of a previously exploded supernova when the Universe was 70. The third planet out from the Sun, Earth, was at the right distance to allow liquid water to exist, and had the right amount of gravity to allow atoms to form communities of molecules. As Earth cooled, it formed a crust around its molten core, like a film on cooling pudding. The vapor from its boiling interior rose upward, cooled, and formed clouds. When the surface temperature dropped below the boiling point of water, it rained for aeons, and formed a planetary womb, the oceans. The Universe was 72. The planet came alive in the seas, in the spring of 73, with bacteria. Bacteria are the most important expression of planetary life. All other forms of life are totally dependent upon them. Bacteria would do just fine without us; we would not last a day without them.

Planet Earth learned to consume the Sun, by way of photosynthesis, by the Universe's 74th birthday. Things went smoothly until the great pollution crisis of 88, when oxygen, a gas deadly to anaerobic bacteria, poisoned the atmosphere and threatened the continued existence of life. This first environmental crisis was solved by way of a process of cooperation and mutual benefit, or symbiosis. The first plants achieved multicellularity in March of 91. As cells gathered together and committed themselves to one another, they found, in community, that their own survival and development was enhanced. The innovation of sexual reproduction two years later, in March of 93, made possible an enormous leap in planetary creativity. With sexuality, however, death also came into existence. For the early bacterium, death was not an inevitability. Some of the earliest bacteria may still be with us today. For life forms that are sexual, however, death is an integral part of their existence. Sexuality and death are intertwined. Death eliminates biological forms and cleans the slate for new genetic forms.

In September of 94, some creatures began consuming other creatures instead of feeding directly off the Sun. This practice made it possible to have an ecosystem, a biological community. The development of the nervous system and brain, in worms, happened in July of 95. Backbones appeared a year later. Living beings came ashore, for the first time, in February, 97. The plants were first, followed soon by the insects. The first amphibians emerged four months later. Reptiles and coniferous trees both came into existence in December of 97. The dinosaurs appeared in May of 98. They became extinct a year later when planet Earth was hit by a comet off the coast of what is today Mexico. Mammals began to nurse their young in August of 98. The first birds diverged from the dinosaurs four months later, a year ago, on the last day of December in the Universe's 98th year. During the first week of April, 99, 8 months ago, the planet exploded with color due to the ecstatic celebration of flowering plants. Our ancestors, the primates, began monkeying around only a few months ago. The earliest ape/humans, walking upright, appeared less than two weeks ago, on December 20th. The first species to get classified as fully human, Homo habilis, appeared in Africa on December 26th. Human beings domesticated fire during the early morning hours of December 29th. Our species, Homo sapiens, is a very recent expression of the Milky Way galaxy — emerging from the life of the planet only twenty-four hours ago, at the beginning of the 365th day of the Universe's 99th year of existence.

It is important to note here that at no point in time during the past four and a half billion years, the age of our solar system, did anyone come from the outside and put anything on the planet. "God" is the inner Love, or incomprehensible Life, at the heart of the process; the Great Mystery revealed in and through the Universe. When Genesis 2:7 speaks anthropomorphically of God forming us from the dust of the ground and breathing into us the breath of life, this is a poetic or mythological way of describing the evolutionary process I am outlining here.

The process of evolution continues. The story is far from over. Polar bears originated only three hours ago. What is important to remember is that this is the Universe story, "The Great Sacred Story of Life." Humans are an expression of Life, but are by no means its crowning achievement. Indeed, from the planet's perspective, as evidenced by our industrial plundering of the air, water and soil, and our wholesale slaughter of millions of other species, reflexive consciousness may be more of a planetary liability than an asset. Only time will tell. It may be true that humanity has gifts and abilities that other species lack. But it is equally true that other species have gifts and abilities that we lack. It is a good spiritual practice to remind ourselves that we are totally dependent upon bacteria for our very lives and sustenance. Also, the fact that dolphins and many whales have a larger neo-cortex brain than our own suggests that they may be more intelligent than we can possibly know. In any event, humility is certainly preferable to ignorant arrogance.

How will those living ten thousand years in the future, a half hour from now on our timescale, tell the story of our times? Will there even be a human expression of Earth in ten thousand years? The answer depends in large part on how humans deal with each other and the natural world over the next fifty years or so. Assuming that we do not suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs (i.e., something colliding with the planet), if we survive it will be because we made large and creative strides in cooperation, community and love.

A human being is part of the whole, called by us "universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. — Albert Einstein

The new cosmic story emerging into human awareness overwhelms all previous conceptions of the universe for the simple reason that it draws them all into its comprehensive fullness.... Who can learn what this means and remain calm? — Brian Swimme

Deep Ecology

From the point of view of deep ecology, what is wrong with our culture is that it offers us an inaccurate description of the self. It depicts the personal self in competition with and in opposition to natureÉ. But if we destroy our environment, we are destroying what is in fact our larger self. — Freya Matthews

Deep Ecology is a worldview and associated way of life grounded in the new cosmology. It branches out of the awareness that the environment is not "out there," separate from us, but that we are part of vast cosmological, geological and biological cycles which are concentric and interrelated. My own body, for example, is constantly exchanging matter, energy, and information with the "environment." The atoms and molecules of my body now, what I collectively call "me," are not the same ones that made up my body a year ago. Every five days I get a new stomach lining. I get a new liver every two months. My skin is replaced every six weeks. Every year, 98% of my body is replaced. The molecules that are continually becoming "me" come from the air I breathe and the food I eat. Before that they were part of fish and snakes, lizards and trees, birds and humans, and all that we eat. I give out as I get. It makes little sense, then, to overly identify with my "ego" self, for that is only a very small part of "me." My larger body is the body of Life itself. Earth is my larger self. This is the essence of deep ecology.

If the Rhine, the Yellow, the Mississippi rivers are changed to poison, so too are the rivers in the trees, in the birds, and in the humans changed to poison, almost simultaneously. There is only one river on the planet Earth and it has multiple tributaries, many of which flow through the veins of sentient creatures — Thomas Berry

A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable. The substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other. We are temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milkÉ. It goes out as gas and excrement — and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, war, poetry and music. — Alan Watts

Through the lenses of deep ecology we can begin to see clearly the nature and serious magnitude of our global ecological crisis. Consider the following parable:

Once upon a time, a group of brain cells debated the relative importance of the rest of the body. Some suggested that the body was dispensable. "After all," said one, "we are the only cells in the body that know that we know things." "Only we can reflect on our dreams," said another, "so we must be the only part of the body that is spiritual, right?" "Why just think of the awesome accomplishments we are capable of!" And they all thoughtÉ thinking that they were separate from and superior to the rest of body.
Occasionally a brain cell would realize that it was one with the entire body; but it was usually martyred trying to tell the others about this good news. You see, the brain cells had convinced themselves that the Great Life lived outside the body and could be known only through their dreams. They believed that they were destined to leave the body and dwell in a place called heaven. They also assumed that the rest of the body was not really alive at all, that it was an inexhaustible supply of "resources" for the benefit of the brain. Needless to say, the health of the body worsened by the day and was soon on the verge of dying.

A cancer cell is a normal cell disconnected from its genetic memory, cut off from the wisdom of millions of years of evolutionary development. It doesn't cooperate in harmony with the rest of the body. It experiences itself as separate from the body, overpopulates, and consumes the organism which supports it. Cancer eventually kills itself by consuming its own environment. — Brian Patrick

The message of deep ecology is timely news for humanity, and for the planet as a whole. It offers reconnection to our genetic memory and billions of years of evolutionary wisdom. Its application can empower us to live in synergistic cooperation and harmony with the rest of the body of Life. We can begin to experience a harmonious connection alien to us when we thought of ourselves as separate from and superior to our larger body. We can begin to experience a consciousness of heavenly rapport with all of life.

Timely as it may be, the message of deep ecology must be taught and integrated into our society on a massive scale if our grandchildren and theirs are to be saved from a toxic and literal hell on Earth. It must be put into fervent daily practice in every area of our lives. The planet is calling us to create communities that live and love ecologically. This is essential for the salvation of millions of species, especially our own.

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. — Henry David Thoreau

The main task of the immediate future is to assist in activating the inter-communion of all living and non-living beings in the emerging Ecozoic era of Earth development. What is most needed in order to accomplish this task is the great art of intimacy and distance: the capacity of beings to be totally present to each other while further affirming and enhancing the differences and identities of each. — Thomas Berry


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