What is it that transforms us?

by Diana Ellis


An opening address to a concert in Vancouver, B.C. presented June 1 2013, Gaia: Singing the Sacred Web, by the North Shore Unitarian Church Choir and Guests, Alison Nixon Conductor.

What is it that transforms us? What moves us from one place of believing to another? What makes us even imagine that such a move is necessary, and possible? What constitutes a call to action – and what action? What inspires us to continue once we have begun. For me, these questions underpin the concert we are about to listen to.

Transformation begins inside ourselves, usually in numerous steps. Here is one story. Watch for its steps.

Some years ago, at age 64, with life circumstances changing, and after 35 years of work on social justice and women’s issues, I was wondering what was next – you know – that niggle that comes at various times in our lives “Is there something else?” Then in 2009 my church, the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, brought David Suzuki to speak as part of our 100th anniversary celebrations. It was a beautiful May evening. The setting sun shone into our warm wooded sanctuary, a huge photograph of earth – as seen from space — hung at the front. And David, with his iconic voice and gestures, spoke eloquently of the environmental issues and task at hand – the shift in attitude required to make positive environmental change. I remember thinking – “he is speaking to me” – and, without meaning to sound dramatic, I left that night wondering if I had heard a call. I read all the environmental books I could find. One was Canadian award-winning journalist Alanna Mitchell’s book: Seasick – The Global Ocean in Crisis. She ends her stunning reveal of that crisis (just at the point I was about to close the book in hopelessness) by talking about what any of us can do about it. She spoke of the transformation that needs to happen for personal action to occur. Affirming that transformation is possible, and always begin with ourselves, she says.  “We need to strip ourselves down psychologically and figure out what we stand for. What is the story about the world that makes sense to us emotionally? What is it that we believe? What are we here for? Once we know that – we can start to ask the right questions, including “What’s missing in my story?” Answering that question leads to a course of (personal) action.

Aha – maybe I was hearing a call – to shift issues – to learn anew. I marked that page! After more months of investigating environmental groups, attending conferences and reading, I happened upon news of an Elders and Environment Forum sponsored by the Suzuki Elders’ Council. I knew I was meant to go, I did, was inspired, and everything fell into place. Now, as a Suzuki Elder involved in mentoring, motivating and supporting elders and youngers in dialogue and action about the environment, a sense of right relationship has come to me, along with some great opportunities to work with others for change. I tell you that story as an example of questioning, hearing, and responding to a call. All of you will have such stories in your lives.

Again, that message: “What story about the world makes sense to us emotionally? What do we believe? What are we here for? Know that – in order to ask the right questions, including “What’s missing in my story?” Then move on it.

Here are a few threads of consideration for you:-

The planet will go on without us. The planet is not there for us, it is not our servant. Nature is not our saviour, not our mother, not a partner with whom we can make a pact or covenant. Personalizing nature, making nature human, with a specific gender, can be a dangerous thing. It allows us to think of nature as “other – something “out there?” – something we can change, fix, control, and own.

Sixty five years ago, conservationist Aldo Leopold, in his great and quiet work: A Sand County Almanac, wrote: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man…that land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

So, instead of anthropomorphizing the planet – earth – nature, as a person, as a woman, think instead of James Lovelock’s premise of the planet as a living system, always adapting and changing. We humans are part of that system, not outside it. As the David Suzuki Foundation’s Declaration of Interdependence says, “we humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world.” David Suzuki says emphatically to anyone who will listen, “We ARE the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us, we ARE the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins….we are human animals related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell.”

Here’s another thread. We also know from reading the records of geology, geography, meteorology ,paleontology, that climate change has been with us always. What we now see is the direct involvement of our human hand, knowingly and unknowingly, in the climate change upon us at this time. As thinking beings, we have the consciousness to take responsibility for our actions – and as moral beings we have the conscience to know we need to be with each other, working together, as we move through these times.

American scientist Dr. Susanne Moser, writes a chapter in the Handbook of Environmental Leadership entitled “Getting Real About It: Meeting the psychological and social demands of a world in distress.” I find her analysis useful in thinking about that conscience work. She says “The public and elected leaders do not yet grasp the seriousness and urgency of the situation or, in the absence of not knowing what to do, choose to focus on more pleasant topics.” (Or, as we well know from our recent election campaign, people get stuck in the dichotomy of environment versus the economy.)  She says “It is in this world that some have chosen to be environmental leaders. And what is asked of these leaders? To be steward, shepherd, arbiter, crisis manager, grief counselor, future builder?”

“It is all of these,” she goes on, “and to do this complex and spiritual work future leaders need not to just be experts in climate change or a particular environmental field, but be capable of holding that which is happening to and in our world—to mentor, guide and assist people in processing enormous losses, human distress, constant crises, and the seemingly endless need to remain engaged in the task of maintaining, restoring and rebuilding, despite all setbacks, a viable planet – the only place the human species can call home. And, while holding that vision, leaders must resist their own, and help others avoid – the knee-jerk response of ideological hardening, defensiveness and blame.” This is compelling, deep, exciting…and BIG work!

I don’t know about you, but I have to say that in the midst of this, there are moments when I find myself saying “This is as much reality as I can handle today.” I turn off the radio, TV, computer. I close the book and the newspaper.

Any of us, involved in the transformative work of change, needs from time to time to take the space to reflect, to regenerate. Music provides such a space – music can transform, inspire, sustain and call to act. And so – here we are, together, tonight. To bridge us into this evening of musical reflection and regeneration, I share these words from Wendell Berry:

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake up in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives will be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

References cited

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.

Mitchell, Alanna, Sea Sick – The Global Ocean in Crisis, McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

Moser, Susanne, Let’s Get Real About It: Meeting the Psychological and Social Demands of a World in Distress, from Environmental Leadership: A Reference Handbook, Gallagher, Deborah (Ed.), Sage Publications 2012. A pre-publication version of the chapter can be found and downloaded from Ms. Moser’s website – www.susannemoser.com. Follow the publication link.

The Wendell Berry quote is Meditation #483 found in Unitarian Universalist Association Hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, 1993.

For information on The Gaia Hypothesis and the many publications of James Lovelock, go to

What Is Gaia? Text by James Lovelock and www.ecolo.org/lovelock/what_is_Gaia.html‎.

The Declaration of Interdependence was written for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Find it, in many languages, at www.davidsuzuki.org.

For information about the Suzuki Elders, check their website at https://sites.google,com/site/eldersdsf/ or just Google “eldersdsf” .

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  • I enjoyed reading this thought-provoking article. It brought to mind Viktor Frankl’s ideas on how to find meaning in life through a struggle for something bigger than ourselves. “When we’re no longer able to change a situation, we’re challenged to change ourselves.”

  • Beautifully written. When we hear “the call” it is because we open our ears to hear. It is because we quiet the noise of daily affairs to ask, “How can I give?” It is a call to generosity. For me, hearing the call comes from gratefully receiving the beautiful, thoughtful gifts pouring down on us–like your writing.

    Alanna Mitchell empowered you, and now you empower us. Thank you!

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