by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
~ An individual’s ability to accurately perceive changes in the rate of violence in the world over human history is near to impossible. Truly understanding global fluctuations in violence requires knowledge of events over such a vast breadth of space and time that it is essentially beyond a human’s ability to comprehend. Which of course doesn’t stop us from trying. Steven Pinker has tackled the concept, and he reports us that violence in the world has been going down steadily over the millennia, the centuries, and the decades. Pinker has his detractors, of course, and they claim that his reporting and understanding of the statistics are deeply flawed.
For most of us, lacking the ability to knowledgably explore extensive global and historical statistical data, our perceptions of the level of violence in the world are heavily influenced by recent events. Violent events such as 9/11, shootings in Newtown or Orlando, or any recent terrorist attack or other terrifying event influences us greatly. We hear about these events again and again through the media and social media, and in response, we perceive high levels of violence permeating our world. This happens, in part, because we remember best what just happened, especially if it is dramatic, and from that we generalize. But our inferences may not match reality.
Understanding, grasping, and comprehending climate change is also next to impossible. Climate change is also a global phenomenon, and by its very definition, climate is what is experienced over large sweeps of time, beyond an individual’s observations.
As with violence, our perception of the climate is also influenced by what is happening in our own neighborhood, by the weather we personally experience. When the weather is “normal” it can feel like the climate is also “normal.” The bigger picture is beyond our sensory experience.
And so, we are confronted by a bit of a paradox. Is the world really getting less violent? If Pinker’s research is accurate, the answer is yes, yet our perceptions tell us no. Our brains, with the help of instantaneous and constant reportage, are ready and willing to grasp the negative perception. The possibility of positive change being real may feel good, but we don’t easily hold onto that perception. We see and hear too much “evidence” to the contrary.
Is the climate really changing? Scientists tell us yes, yet our local perceptions may be telling us no. Here, in contrast to our beliefs of violence, our personal perceptions of sun and wind and rain and snow may be saying that nothing bad is happening to the climate and everything will be just fine. Grasping even a taste of the frightening reality of climate change is so difficult that we tend to live in denial (even many of us who realize it is happening).
I once had a teacher, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Keiner, who spoke about paradox and said that the closer we get to paradox, the closer we get to God.
The closer we get to paradox, the closer we get to God.
As we journey through Elul and into the heart of our efforts for personal change, may the paradox of our observations, our perceptions, and realilty bring us closer to the Mystery of the Universe.
Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network, and a hospice chaplain at CareGroup Parmenter Hospice. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY.