Healing and Nurturing Ourselves to Nurture All Life

Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner, Co-director of One Earth Conservation, wrote this essay in response to the First Principle Project of the Unitarian Universalist Association which asks members to vote to change their First Principle from the "inherent worth and dignity of every person" to the "inherent worth and dignity of every being." Though aimed at Unitarian Universalists, the essay's foundational ideas carry across organizational and tribal ties.

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.