On April 7, a day after my 49th birthday, I had the opportunity to give the guest sermon at the Congregational Church over on Mt. Desert Street. My close friend Rob Benson is the pastor there. He and I hatched this idea some time ago. It was a great process for me – and I hope it resonated with some in the congregation.
Thank you. I am honored, humbled, and admittedly a bit nervous before you today. But I want to thank all of you: the process of thinking about, writing about, and speaking about the passages today have been very helpful to me personally.
I was tempted to talk about John’s Gospel. I was drawn to the word nard. Nard is an essential oil made from the rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi, a plant found in the Himalaya and India. It happens to be a critically endangered plant; endangered because we’ve overharvested it as a perfume and medicinal herb. I pictured myself sitting at Jesus’s feet with Mary, sister of Lazarus, asking, “Mary – this is an endangered plant – maybe we don’t need a full poundof the essential oil and then being scolded by Jesus: “Darron – you and all of those College of the Atlantic folks, always thinking about plants and not enough about me!”
John’s was a very interesting passage, but I became most intrigued by the prophet Isaiah and how he asks us to consider or, rather, not consider history: what does he mean when he says: “Do not remember the former things, the things of old”?
I know, in a literal sense, he was asking us to prepare for the future; for something much greater to come. But was he really saying to ignore the past?
One of the most important pieces of my job is to understand and preserve the most important elements of the College’s past. I have to look deeply at the past in order to understand it and in order to best shape our curriculum for the challenges of the future.
As we approach our 50thanniversary in fall 2021, I’m most specifically drawn to the fall of 1972, when the first COA students arrived on campus.
Just consider what a different world we live in:
In 1972, the human population was 3.8 billion; that figure has doubled.
In 1972, each person on the planet emitted four tons of carbon dioxide a year; that figure has increased by 25% in 50 years.
In 1972, Arpanet, the progenitor to the Internet, was born. Today, 55% of the world uses the internet and five billion people have cell phones;
In 1972, we entered a period known as AI winter, where the innovations around artificial intelligence came to standstill; today, through very rapid advances in machine learning, a computer can learn chess, on its own, in four hours, and turn around and beat the Grand Masters.
In 1972, 37% of the world lived in cities, today we are 56% urban.
In 1972, Acadia counted 1.6 million visits, that number has doubled.
By an examination of the past, it’s clear that we live in a larger, more connected, more urbanized world where the line between human and machine is difficult to distinguish. We are bringing machines into our bodies and instilling our humanity – our intellect – into machines.
In feeding this cybernetic world with the food and energy it wants, we are destabilizing the planet and, although a privileged few will thrive, the fear is that most will be utterly helpless.
So I’m always thinking about the past. How can Isaiah say to ignore it? Don’t we learn from the past – those who forget the past are bound to repeat it?
But then I was exposed to “The Message” translation. You see, they don’t tell us about “the Message” translation down the road at Holy Redeemer. It reads:
“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
This really resonated: Isaiah was saying PAY ATTENTION. By being present and being attentive to the present, we create a past that is rich and worthy of analysis later on. If we dribble and stumble through the present without awareness and without attention – which seems to be far more common today – that creates a past that is shallow and looking at such a past is looking at empty nostalgia.
This is a message that is so incredibly important and relevant today.
My daughter Maggie and 13 other teenagers from MDIHS just arrived in Guatemala – such a great opportunity for them. The aspect of their experience I’m most excited about is that they are there without devices, without cell phones, tablets. They will achieve a degree of attention they haven’t experienced since they were little kids. They will create a past that is indeed very worth remembering and that will serve them throughout their future.
Our attention is increasingly under threat and is being commodified. Since the late 19thcentury and the emergence of the penny press made profitable from advertising; since the advent of color-printed posters in the streets of Paris; since the emergence of snake oil and Patent medicine; and especially in the last decade with the advent of social media and on-line advertising, the game of harvesting human attention and reselling it to advertisers has become a major, in-my-opinion destructive part of our economy.
More than a changing climate, more than drug resistant bacteria, more than terrorism or the rise of tribalism, I’m most concerned about the robbing and selling of our own attention. Again, per Isaiah, without the attention, not only will we be unprepared for the things to come, we create a shallow, nostalgic past.
And it’s not just the kids – with few exceptions, we are all guilty. Putting down our phones is only a first step. We’ve got to cultivate attention and it seems to me there are three specific ways we can do that.
First, there is the practice of ethnography – the focused study of the other. Ethnography is what anthropologists do when they study other cultures. After graduating from COA, I did my graduate work in anthropology among the Q’eqchi’, a group of Mayan speakers in Guatemala. My job was, in essence, to learn how to be a Q’eqchi’ farmer by being a Q’eqchi’ farmer and writing about that experience.
The first day in the fields I lined up with about 50 guys and began the process of planting corn. The idea is you take a step, thrust your digging stick into the soil, drop four corn seeds in the hole you just made, and the cover the hole with dirt by a quick flick of your foot. Easy, right? Not so much. Four or five paces in I was chasing corn seed all over the place. Looking up about midway across the field, I saw 49 actual Q’eqchi’ farmers doubled over laughing at the one ethnographer trying to learn to be a Q’eqchi’ farmer, on his knees in the dirt, searching for lost corn seeds. Through patient observation and patient practice, I learned to step into someone’s shoes in a very real sense. I also learned a great deal of humility.
You need not be in distant lands to practice ethnography, because ethnography is really just a fancy word for the practice of trying your best to stand in someone else’s shoes – whether those shoes are worn by a cashier at Hannaford of by president Trump. This requires a uniquely focused attention – it builds humility and it builds empathy. Maybe most importantly, it builds a valuable rather than a nostalgic past.
Second, there is the practice of natural history and the close observation of nature. I had the opportunity to teach a course a few years back where, for one of the exercises, I brought students to Little Long Pond at the Land and Garden Preserve. Rodney had allowed me to set up fourteen one-foot square plots in the forests and fields around the pond. Students spent three hours face-to-face with their small plots. It wasn’t a drawing class, it was an “attention” class and it was incredible. Although I believe you can do this anywhere, we are blessed to be on MDI. This island is what is known as a “thin place,” where the distance between heaven and earth is compressed. Don’t take it for granted. Whether a plot of grass in your front yard or along Ocean Drive, pay attention to it.
And, finally, there is prayer; whether that’s in quieting the mind before communion or paying close attention to the written word in scripture, like achieving a special kind of focus on nard in John’s Gospel. Prayer is an increasingly rare practice of building attention and is something we need way more of it in today’s world.
So, ethnography; natural history and observation; and prayer – three keys to develop your muscles of attention. And with this attention, not only will we be prepared for what’s to come – with this attention we create a past that is rich and well worth looking at.