Thinking like a mountain

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
April 9, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

Humans are bound by limited perspectives, which can sometimes lead to faulty decisions when we lack the larger, longer-term view. How do we find that view?

Call to Worship

by Chris Jimmerson

We gather to see more — our individual perspectives expanded by placing them together in worship of that which is larger than us but of which we are a part.

We celebrate our differences, holding them up as the blessings we give to one another.

We gather to know more, to feel more, to experience more than that which each of us may know, feel and experience in solitude.

We gather to sing. We gather to raise our spirits to higher elevations. We gather to gain a collective vision of love and justice fulfilled.

We gather to worship together.


exerpt from Thinking Like a Mountain
by Aida Leopold

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.


In 1949, a little known University of Wisconsin professor named Aldo Leopold published what would come to be considered a masterpiece in the literature of environmentalism called, A Sand County Almanac; and Sketches Here and There, it contained a section he had titled, “Thinking Like a Mountain”, which opened with those haunting words describing the howling of wolves on a mountainside that Margaret read for us earlier.

In “Thinking Like a Mountain“, Leopold wrote about a shift in perspective he had experienced when as a young man, he and a friend came upon an old wolf and her pack of full-grown pups while hunting deer. They opened fire on the wolves, striking down the old wolf, while the rest of the pack escaped, one with a wounded leg.

Here are Leopold’s own words describing this shift in perspective.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view”.

He goes on to describe how he witnessed mountainside after Mountainside where hunters had killed off the wolves, thinking it would result in better deer hunting, or ranchers had killed off the wolves thinking to protect their herds (or both). Instead, without the wolves, the deer and the cattle over-populated, destroying the foliage of the mountainside, wreaking havoc with the ecosystem and causing much of the deer and cattle population to die of starvation.

The wolves, though predators, had been a vital part of the ecosystem. In Leopold’s metaphor, the mountains knew this. They were tall enough to have this broader view and old enough to take a longer view.

This was the change in his perspective. He had gotten a glimpse of thinking like a mountain.

And this stepping back to try to get a broader, longer-term view of our actions and their potential consequences is certainly vital to our struggle to prevent the most devastating consequences to our environment from global climate change and other risks from human activities.

It is a crying shame then that our president and his top advisors are thinking like a molehill when it comes to environmental policy. Their shortsightedness and greed for immediate gain are imperiling our future and that of generations to come. It is but one area in which we must resist.

But, this trying at least from time to time to take a broader, longer-term view — this thinking like a mountain — I think is important not just in how we approach our environment, but is also an essential element of our overall personal, public and spiritual and religious lives.

In our personal lives, such a perspective shift can so often change the very course of our lives for the better. The examples are many — the person with a substance addiction who finally sees its broader impact on their life and the lives of their loved ones and seeks help; the sudden realization that a career choice has become misery-making and the subsequent investigation of possibilities that leads to a more life fulfilling choice; an experience of interconnectedness in nature, though meditation, religion or other sources that leads to a shift in values from those centered around individualism to those more centered on relationship with other people and our world.

These perspective shifts have happened many times in my own life. One was when my grandmother was dying slowly from congestive heart failure. My mother was taking care of her at my mom’s house. My grandmother had been in and out of the hospital and had said she did not want to go back to one anymore.

My grandmother was unhappy and perhaps even miserable. She was often confused and would wake in the middle of the night, sometimes walking around, weakly, and in danger of falling, often only partially clothed. My mom was on the verge of emotional and physical collapse from all of this.

I called my mom often, and one day when she picked up the phone I could tell she was crying. She said she was exhausted and had been in bed most of the day, except to check on my grandmother a few times.

As we talked, we began to see a larger perspective. We began to realize that we had been valuing length of life over quality of life. We saw that being in a place that was not her own, lacking in the familiar, was part of the confusion and unhappiness my grandmother had been experiencing. We reached a broader understanding that this was not what my grandmother wanted.

We stopped all but palliative treatment, brought in hospice to my grandmother’s own house and allowed her to live there, in dignity, for the rest of her life, which only lasted a few weeks. She was comfortable and even seemed happy in those last weeks. I visited with her several times, and though weak sometimes, she was once again, in those last weeks, the happy, loving person she had been her whole life.

I can honestly say that it was the gentlest death I have experienced, and I am so glad she did not have to spend her last days unhappy and confused. I am so glad we did not rob her or ourselves of those peaceful, loving final days.

In our metaphor, the mountain already knew all of this, of course. We had to climb it first to get the higher view. Life is like that sometimes, but if we can make the climb and think like a mountain, it can sometimes change our lives and even the lives of those we love for the better.

Now, this is important in our public life also. Taking the time to step back and try to gain a broader, longer-term perspective is more important than ever now, as we attempt to live out our values in the public and political arena. Faced, as we are with such a barrage of distortions and outright lies (or what the Trump administration calls “alternative facts”), it can be easy to get bogged down arguing with one individual Tweet or statement. With an onslaught of executive orders and proposed legislation, we can fall into being overwhelmed by battle after battle and lose sight of the dangerous, common ideological core that all of these these proposals represent.

The mountain sees the falsehoods as the distractions and attempts to misdirect they are intended to be. Them mountain sees the rooms filled with men making decisions about women’s health and rights. It sees the massive tax cuts for the wealthy that would be made possible by proposed legislation that would take healthcare away from millions and millions of people that just won’t seem to die. It sees profit being prioritized over sustaining life on our planet.

The mountain sees an administration full of white people taking aim at the rights of immigrants and people of color. It sees anti-LGBTQ bigot after anti-LGBTQ bigot in positions of power at the highest levels of our government.

The mountain sees these things and more. Because it sees this broader view, the mountain understands that we are up against an ideology of patriarchy, white supremacy and unbridled capitalist oligarchy, and that any of us who do not fit within that power structure are under threat if we refuse to stay in our proper place.

And because of this, the mountain knows we need each other.

The mountain sees that this is what we are up against, and we have to see it too if we are to have any hope of avoiding the fulfillment of such a dangerous, unjust ideology.

And then, once we see this, we also have to think like a mountain about how we might successfully resist it.

Fortunately, social science researchers such as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have done some of this wider, longer range thinking for us by studying which social movements in the past several decades have been the most successful.

They found that non-violent resistance is more effective than violence.

They also found that the most disparate movements have been the most successful movements.

I know we have sometimes wondered about this even in this church. Are we better to focus in on just a few social issues and target just them in order to concentrate our limited resources? Or, would we be better off with our folks working on a broad range of social justice issues, as long as enough folks have energy around anyone of them? Should we focus on tactics such as visiting, writing and calling governmental officials, donating to others already doing the work or on more grassroots protests and rallies?

Chenoweth and Stephan’s research make very clear that we are more likely to have success the more disparate our efforts, both in terms of topics and tactics. For instance, our immigration rights activism can inform and support our work for LGBTQ rights, or Women’s reproductive rights and visa versa. Each of these can combine and thereby amplify their efforts when needed. Likewise, we need tactics of both civil, political engagement and protests in the streets.

It is encouraging then that we are seeing exactly these disparate and wide ranging efforts develop in our church and in our larger society these days.

And here’s something cool — having these disparate social justice efforts can in fact help us to see more broadly, to think more like a mountain, and thereby become even more effective at doing justice, as well as live richer more fulfilling lives. They do so by engaging us with folks who may have very different perspectives than our own.

Many of us who are progressive but a part of the dominant culture in our society tend to reach a stage of development regarding how we interact with other races, ethnicities and cultures that is called minimization. We can see and value the many similarities that exist among human beings, but we cannot see or perhaps even resist or minimize the real differences that also exist among us.

And this limits our perspective. It keeps us from ever being able to see past our own life experiences.

Those of us who are white cannot know the life experiences of people of color living within a white dominated culture.

Straight folks cannot know the life experiences of lesbian, gay bisexual and queer people in a hetero-normative society.

Those of us who are male cannot know the life experiences of women living within a still patriarchal system.

Folks assigned a gender at birth that is congruent with how they see themselves cannot know the life experiences of transgender folks in a system that vastly favors gender conformity, which, by the way supports the patriarchy and serves as at least part of the support structure holding up racism and other forms of oppression.

Despite these and other differences though, we can value the perspectives these experiences bring, if we are willing to listen and do the work. We start by interacting with and valuing equally the people and their perspectives whose life experiences are different than our own. We start by refusing to give our own cultural perspective supremacy over another.

By learning to value difference, we can widen our own worldview and thereby become more effective at dismantling these very systems of racism and oppression. We can enrich our own lives and the lives of those with whom we interact.

I want to close by talking a little bit about the spiritual and religious dimensions of this thinking like a mountain.

Sometimes when we have our time of centering and breathing together here at the church or during other parts of our worship together, sometimes when I am out with a group of our folks working for justice, I will close my eyes and have this deep experience of interconnectedness with this religious community that I love and somehow through that with all of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Within religious and spiritual contexts, these experiences may be called experiences of the holy, of transcendence or of God or the divine.

Some Buddhists and Hindus might call them nirvana, though they would ascribe different meanings to it.

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow had a similar concept he called peak experiences. Other psychologists describe flow experIences.

Extreme sports enthusiasts will tell you that such altered mental states can be brought on by engaging in such sports.

Neurologists, psychologists and others have begun studying these altered states of consciousness more and more. They are discovering what is going within our brains and physiologically when we have such experIences.

They are also discovering that during these experiences we are actually thinking in a different way. We are making connections we do not ordinarily understand. We are experiencing transformations within our core values at a very deep level. We are grasping our universe and our place within it in ways that are much broader than our normal, day-to-day understanding.

Organizations ranging from Google to the Navy Seals are working on ways to help their people have such experiences more easily and more often, because these experiences, this wider, longer-term form of mental processing, seems to enhance creativity, increase productivity and strengthen team cohesion.

It seems that our deep, spiritual experiences, however we might label them, are helping us to gain a more timeless perspective from a much higher elevation, so the speak.

Perhaps this is one of the great purposes of church and religious community.

Together, we help one another cultivate and move into these types of experiences.

Together, we climb the mountain and our view, our perspective, expands.

And from the mountaintop, we glimpse the ancient truths the mountain has learned. We see a glimmer of the vistas the mountain looks out upon.

And knowing something of what the mountain knows, together, we are then better able to go out and change our lives and our world for the better.

This is our great purpose together. We gather in community together, we go up on the mountain together, so that we, together, are better able to nourish souls, transform lives and do justice.



As we go out into our world today, I wish you the blessing of that far-ranging vision — of vistas overseeing love and justice made real in your lives and in our world.

May the Congregation say, “Amen” and “Blessed be.”

Go in peace.

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