Compassion Stamped on the Very Rocks of Our Creation

Dr. Xavier le Pichon, pictured here with one of his granddaughters.
Dr. Xavier le Pichon, pictured here with one of his granddaughters.

A geophysicist helped me understand better why the work we do with support teams is so crucial. I was listening to Krista Tippet’s podcast “On Being” a few days ago and her guest was the man who pioneered the science of plate tectonics, Xavier Le Pichon.

In introducing the scientific world to plate tectonics, Le Pichon observed, measured, and described the movement of the giant segments of the earth’s crust that virtually float on the underlying magma of the molten core of our planet. These plates move very slowly and bump up against each other over millions of years. Along the boundaries where these plates grind against each other, earthquakes erupt. For example, the Pacific plate meets the North American plate at the San Andreas fault and from time to time, people on the surface feel the vibrations (earthquakes), and sometimes those vibrations do a great deal of damage, like in San Francisco in 1906. The same holds true all over the globe, like in the Indian Ocean back in December of 2004 (earthquakes near or under the ocean floor cause tsunamis), and at Fukushima, Japan in March, 2011.

In 2005, a 35-mile rift opened in the earth in Ethiopia along the boundary between two tectonic plates.
In 2005, a 35-mile rift opened in the earth in Ethiopia along the boundary between two tectonic plates.

Krista Tippet, the host of “On Being,” asked Le Pichon what studying the geophysics of the Earth had taught him, and he gave a very surprising answer. Studying the earth had taught him why some organizations and people handle change better than others. Change is inevitable, he said. It’s happening all the time, sort of like the steady movement of the earth’s plates. The question is whether the inevitable change happens traumatically or in such a manner that people can grow. For example, earthquakes happen in the area of the earth’s crust that are hard and rigid. Around 15 miles deeper in the crust, however, the earth is more “ductile.” The rock is more malleable, in a liquid form that moves more easily. In that region, there are no earthquakes.

This is a great picture of what happens in human systems, Le Pichon said. In human societies or organizations which are composed of all the same kind of people with fixed systems of rules, rituals, and recreation, when change comes, it causes great disturbance. However, a human society composed of many different kinds of people with a wide variety of rules, rituals, and recreation, will not experience change in a catastrophic way. On the contrary, these more flexible, “ductile” societies experience new strength through growth.

The best way to make sure that a society is highly diverse is to place at its center the weak, disabled, handicapped, really anyone who suffers. In Le Pichon’s observation, “As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the [growth] of a system. A system that is too perfect is also too rigid [to grow]. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.” If your society, institution, or church has some very strict and hard-lined rules and regulations, then change will bring on what Le Pichon calls “major commotion.” On the other hand, when human beings organize themselves to take care of the weakest and most vulnerable in their midsts and actually embrace their imperfections, their social systems actually become stronger through change.

I find it astonishing that a geophysicist would see the basic compassion that lies at the heart of all the major world religions stamped on the very rocks of our Creation. Isn’t that great!? The old scripture passage lies stamped on the geology beneath our feet. When we are weak, then we are strong.

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