Are Human Beings Maturing?

The Oil Spill, the Dalai Lama, and Reason for Hope

One of our most exhilarating moments during a whale watching trip off Cape Cod was when a northern gannet skimmed the sea just beyond the bow. My children and I hung over the rail, taken by the bird’s power and agility. Its distinctive plumage and bluish beak made it easily recognizable when I saw one in the news recently, plucked from the Gulf Coast oil spill. The marine life that showed itself to us on Cape Cod – whales, terns, plovers and seals – had a magical effect on our suburban hearts. Now, as we see related species such as brown pelicans and sea turtles affected by the spill, the big space those animals created inside us is filling with disbelief. How could we let this happen?

Recently the Dalai Lama was in New York. The message of his talks was one of hope. According to him, there are many signs of “humans becoming mature.” ┬áIf we look at BP, Transocean, and Halliburton blaming one another for the oil spill, and Washington’s delay in establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate what happened, it’s hard to imagine how exactly we are maturing. Where, for example, do we find maturity in the recent Minerals Management Service meeting in Anchorage in which a cake was decorated with the words, “Drill, Baby, Drill”?

I want to believe the Dalai Lama, but the oiled gannet is hard to watch. For me, nature has always been an essential door to understanding anything. I think better in the woods or by the sea, and it’s no coincidence that my fictional characters have their best insights under the stars or out on a boat. When the beauty of the physical world is cut down – an old stand of trees cleared for a building lot, or dolphin calves sickened by oil – I feel smaller inside, like I have less room to think, or even be.

Yet, the Dalai Lama means what he says. He has confidence in human beings. Sure, we screw up, sometimes catastrophically. But the Dalai Lama looks at the big picture. Over the course of decades and centuries, we are incrementally taking better care of one another. Regarding long term prospects for Tibetan autonomy, he said, “Our faith in the Chinese people has never been shaken.” Considering China’s history in Tibet, that statement is extraordinary. The Dalai Lama is not just talking a good line, he is expressing genuine belief. He does have faith in the Chinese people. He has faith in every one of us, including BP executives, government officials, you and me. I hope we make good on his faith.

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