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  • Pamela S

Of Monkeys and Pigeons

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. this morning, unable to get back to sleep due to monkey brain, so I decided to get up. I figured some academic reading for class might clear my mind of those swinging rascals. I chose to begin Laudato Si,' which unexpectedly engaged me enough to awaken me even more. Pope Francis pulls no punches, and I found myself drawn into his passion for what he was saying.

I had a history teacher last semester who often asked us to pay attention to how we felt as we were reading. That seemed odd at first, because we were reading about history, so what did it matter about our emotions? I could understand analyzing events, but it made more sense to keep my emotions out of it and my biases quieted. But she emphasized the concept enough to try it, and I learned as much about myself as I did about history. This morning, I found myself taking notes on what I felt as I read.

The first chapter of Laudato Si' is a tough one to read, laying out the current state of the relationship of humans with each other and with the environment. Pope Francis had me in mind when he spoke of those who turn a blind-eye and ignore that there are problems. I mean I recycle (except for peanut butter jars), but I have never been much more than neutral about the environment. It's not something that occupies my mind. And why would it? I don't tend to have opinions about big issues, especially anything political. I never really have. Having an opinion requires taking responsibility for being informed, being open to conflict with others, and above all, forming that intellectual opinion using our conscience--which includes our emotional reaction to the issue at hand. It's that last bit that gives me trouble.

Separating my emotions into a separate pigeon-hole from my intellect began as a mental protection in early childhood, held up by our tribal legends. Emotions are deep, damp, and trapped. Intelligence is high, dry, and free. To break free from deep emotions is to dry our tears and ascend into higher intelligence. Emotional intelligence always seemed like an oxymoron. We rise up from our pons and enter our frontal cortex to free ourselves from the petty anxiety of our lives. Hum when you are scared! Read when you are worried! Take your mind off of your anxieties through the distraction of your intelligence. Live in your frontal cortex as a higher being, because your lower brain is just a leftover appendage from evolution. We appreciate it for keeping us alive and providing a legitimate fear of danger, certainly, but we don't need to spend any conscious time there.

So here I am, reading about climate change, lack of clean water, and pollution, and I find the discussion strongly discouraging my heart. While I read, there is a monkey swinging in the back of my mind, representing a loved one who often comments that climate change is a farce. Another monkey, the voice of a different loved one, is cheering on the Pope, saying, "You tell it like it is!" In real life, I have been known to leave the room to escape these arguments, or try to shush them, and here we are with these two monkeys duking it out in my brain. I can't shut them up with my own voice, because I never established one on this topic. But here I sit, reading the Pope's words, trying to find my own voice.

In the assigned commentary on this encyclical written by my teacher, Fr. Martín writes that humanity is “undoing God’s creative work” by turning creation into chaos. The article goes on to describe how our duty towards the environment is tied to our duty towards humans. The recognition of beauty in creation and the inherent value and connectedness of everything gives meaning to our desire and efforts to reverse modern trends.

Humanity is “undoing God’s creative work” by turning creation into chaos.

The concept of subsidiarity applies well to caring for creation, transferring the responsibility to the lowest level of impact—in this case the individual. It is difficult sometimes to realize that even the tiny things add up. When I read the first part of the Laudato Si’ encyclical, I was overcome with the feeling of “what difference could I possibly make?”

Up to now, caring for the environment meant, “Sure, I recycle.” The catchy slogan of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" from the 1970’s has become the favored marker for individual participation in “saving the environment.” During my time of motherhood of small children, I had a neighbor who referred to herself as green queen: she used cloth instead of paper, stainless instead of plastic, and drove a shiny Prius. I had another dear friend who reused bags before it was even a thing. I would smile at her line of plastic baggies propped up to dry by her sink. But my own contradistinction with the actions of my friends caused me not just amusement, but guilt.

If I had opened up dialog with my two friends on this topic, I am sure I would have understood better their motivation—and my response could have been more loving and fraternal. If I act upon these insights, I would first internalize the deeper interpretation of what it is to be part of a global environment as it is put forth in our Catholic teaching—the first step to taking meaningful action.

Excerpt from "A Christian prayer in union with creation"

(From Laudato Si')

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you. Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.


Commentary by Martín Carbajo Núñez, "Global ethical challenges in the light of the Encyclical Laudato Si' and the Jubilee of Mercy," in Antonianum 91/2 (2016), 339.

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