Thursday, February 18, 2016

Healing and Nurturing Ourselves to Nurture All Life

The First Principle Project
Healing and Nurturing Ourselves to Nurture All Life

Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner*

For your sake, for humanity, for earth, and for individual lives and life, vote yes to endorse the bylaw change that asks Unitarian Universalists to covenant and to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every being. Be part of your congregation and our Unitarian Universalist Association leading the way towards more beauty and more flourishing by nurturing humans to nurture all of nature.

I’ve been an avian veterinarian for 30 years and a Unitarian Universalist minister for almost 15 years. I am driven by incredible and hopeful possibilities for honoring and connecting to nature, including human nature, and thereby making a more beautiful world.

To heal our beleaguered earth and the wounds of human separation from the rest of life requires a praxis of compassion and ethics. We must more clearly see humans’ true relationship to life and others and more fully grasp that there is no disjunction between human and nonhuman nature. We must embody our interconnection through concrete relationships with discrete individuals, for otherwise the Unitarian Universalist principle of respect for the interconnected web of existence is merely abstract. I find affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all beings to be an expression of this hopeful and healing praxis.

We are called to connect to others. While we cognitively know that human health is intertwined with the earth and all earth’s beings, our diminishingly biodiverse and increasingly urban and technological world accentuates our impression of separation and distance from nature. This alienation from nature is an increasing cause of withdrawal and despair. Yet I am hopeful that a re-enchantment with the life that surrounds us -- an opening to the beauty, worth, and dignity in individuals – can motivate us to effect change, nourish our sense of belonging, and deepen our connection to life. As our own agency is enhanced, we will come to more fully apprehend the agency of individual life around us.

A denomination that covenants to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being is a denomination that invites its members to creatively re-vision the web of interconnection. That web is not a network connecting some beings with worth and dignity (humans) with other beings that lack worth or dignity. Rather, it is a web in which all beings are interconnected by sharing worth and dignity; it is a web whose interconnections recognize and reinforce each being’s worth and dignity. This re-visioning is our path of healing. The web of beauty, worth, and health can lift us out of our spiritual and ecological crisis, but it cannot do so if some beings in that web are deemed without worth or dignity.

The path of healing through re-visioning will take unexpected curves and encounter unanticipated obstructions. As Unitarian Universalists embark together on this path of healing ourselves so that we can heal the world, we will discover surprising things about ourselves, our world, and place of our congregations. Our free and responsible search for truth and meaning is ever unfolding, a way forward together that invites us to fall in love with life over and over again.

Surprised by love, we go through our days with wonder readily available to nourish us, for re-enchantment and re-visioning brings an invigorating sense of wonder. It invites us into Henry David Thoreau's "discipline of looking always at what is to be seen." Through that discipline we encounter what Stephen Jay Gould called the "excruciating complexity and intractability of nonhuman bodies." Suddenly, we see the miracle of expression everywhere. What seemed unappealing, dull, or even fearful, is revealed as magnificently present before us. We live in a world of wondrous subjects, each being a life with an interior experience of life. This transformation of perception of beings represents a transformation of our selves.

Worth seen everywhere grows compassion everywhere. With vitality and beauty seen everywhere, wherever we go, we go not alone. Wonder replaces loneliness. Studies indicate that wonder nourishes our lives, improving our health, spirits, relationships, and compassion. When wallaby, walrus, whale, and worm provoke wonder, we are nourished and better able to nourish. But when any being’s worth is seen as merely instrumental, human lives, too, may be judged merely instrumental.  To distinguish just one species as having worth and dignity, to set ourselves apart as unique bearers of worth, only separates and isolates us and perpetuates the wound of disconnection.

Accompanying us on this visionary path we endeavor the development of a humble curiosity. Approaching all findings as provisional, declining to obscure the wonder of the moment with prior concepts, creative possibilities of relationship emerge.  We become playful fools, in love with life that constantly amazes and amuses. Life invites us to fun and frolic as we let go of our idols of knowledge and control.  Our lives are not bound to others in our mind's definition of life and worth. Rather, we are bound because all beings who have subjectivity, who desire to endure and flourish, are bound together. All life has the capacity to experience that which is harmful or beneficial. All life strives for further coherence of their embodied selves. Recognizing this, we begin to live wider, wilder, and deeper lives than human designs alone can realize.

Though the vision of interconnecting beauty, worth, dignity, and health between individuals does challenge us with the burden of knowing the harm humans cause to so many, we move forward nonetheless, perhaps ever more lightly, for we walk in beauty. As the Navajo Way Prayer suggests, beauty is all around us.  This ever present beauty, that is also within us, connects us to all others. We care for and protect them because we love them, and we love them because we are part of them, and they are part of us.  Healing comes from seeing how we are embedded in relationships of common experience and existence with other individuals.  We, the walking wounded, are healed and healers. 

We, a  people who covenant to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every being are a people encouraged to cultivate patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman presence – a people emboldened to live a new story of wholeness in place of the old story of conquest and consumption. Appreciating the limits of our control and of our understanding, we can live freely in present and persistent beauty, wonder, and awe. Every denial of a being’s intrinsic worth and dignity cuts off life from ourselves, and cuts off life's creative striving expressed in that being.

If we hold that some beings have worth and dignity and some beings don’t, then we deny ourselves the journey along this spiritual path of healing and hope.

Every being has inherent worth and dignity.  Seeing it in unreservedly in all others, we see it in ourselves, and so embraced by life, we bring our Unitarian Universalist principles to life, nurturing human nature for all nature.

*Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM, combines her experience as wildlife veterinarian and Unitarian Universalist minister  to address the importance of both human and  nonhuman well being in considering conservation and care taking strategies.   She serves as Community Minister affiliated with the Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, NY, Right Relations Consultant for the UU Metro NY District, Facilitator of the First Principle Project, and Co-Director of One Earth Conservation. Bringing 29 years of experience working in Latin America, she currently has projects in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. She promotes nurturing human nature through relationships with other species and nature in the Nurture Nature Program offered by One Earth Conservation.


  1. 1st Principle; “The inherent worth and dignity of every…..“person”?

    Compassion, inclusion, and empathy These are the hallmarks of our Faith. Our trademark is one of finding the common ground which connects us all under one roof despite the vast diversity represented by our members While we come from many backgrounds and value many viewpoints…it is our seven principals which has bought us to a state of Fellowship and Connection. These principals represent our common ground. Who could argue against these Seven Principals? They are self evident guidelines for a life of compassion, inclusion, and empathy.

    Though there is one point I would like you to reconsider. But prior to doing so, let’s first look at “privilege’ At many UU Fellowships there is much discussion on “White” privilege. Also on “Wealth” privilege and “American” privilege. By it’s definition “privilege’ is in effect when you don’t personally see the injustice, it’s not in your local view, it doesn’t directly effect you, and you willingly choose to ignore it. Privilege provides us with readily accessible blinders to vast suffering and pain. It can immobilize us to a state of comfortable inaction. Sometimes so called “traditions and long standing customs can be a method of privilege…“we have always done this way, why change now ?” Past practices can take root without mindful review and re-assessment for decades. Privilege fuels the fire of random standards based on subjective and personal agendas.

    As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people of action. It is our actions to address injustices and to support those in need which define us. This is our history. Our action it’s based on a sense of fairness, equality, and justice. It is not based on how popular the cause is or if there is mainstream opposition or support. The Unitarian Universalist track record is one is addressing injustices removed from…privilege. We are called to work which doesn’t effect us, not in our view, and is often ignored by the majority. Our actions intent to bring healing along with providing a voice to the voiceless. To effect progress.

    With this in mind, I ask you to expand compassion, inclusion, and empathy to our non human “beings”. Let’s ask ourselves some difficult questions. Should our compassion be selective and more importantly restricted to our fellow humans ? In doing so are we unintentionally devaluing the lives of thousands of animals who wish not to suffer, feel pain, and who want to live? To those who object to changing the First Principal from “people” to “beings“, I ask you… why? What is your objection based on? Does an IQ score dictate allocations of kindness and respect ? Does our intelligence somehow entitle us to disregard our fellow “beings“?

    Are non humans somehow less worthy?

    We have an opportunity today to move beyond Human Privilege along with the entitlement, limitations, and restricted compassion it brings to our core values. Values which challenge us to embrace progress and to evolve to a more inclusive, kinder, and less privileged way of life. As we have done so many times in the past, we can lead by example. We can be among the first people of an organized Faith to formerly extent compassion to our fellow Earthlings.
    A concept often overlooked until now.

    For many you have already taken our fellow voiceless “beings” into your hearts. At this moment we can have our Faith catch up to what is already deeply rooted in the hearts of many UU’s. I present to you a rare opportunity to embrace a one word change; “people” to “beings“ Think about it.
    When has one word carried so much…… impact for so many?

    Together….Let’s take this step forward.

    Yours in Fellowship and Unity,
    George T. Coniglio, Inter-Faith Chaplain-UUAM Board Member

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  3. I'm very excited by the First Principle project, and I am glad you are making progress with your goals. I am a member of the All Souls UU congregation in Kansas City, so what I am about to say comes from the perspective of living in a "red state" that is very eager to deny women access to reproductive healthcare of all sorts, but especially abortion. I am a firm believer in the worth of non-human beings, and I am very close philosophically to Peter Singer's definition of personhood, which hinges on the idea of sentience and is non-species specific. That being said, I think it is important to understand that there will be some people who will try to pervert what you are doing here into an antiabortion argument unless you make a distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings. While I believe ALL beings deserve respect and protection, I feel the agency of women and their own personhood must be given ethical primacy over the rights of non-sentient blastocysts, embryos, and fetuses. Frankly, I believe that even if the above-mentioned beings were found to be sentient, a woman's right to control her own body means that when in conflict, her right to bodily autonomy outweighs the blastocyst/embryo/fetus' right to live.


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