"I thought it was I alone who suffered. I went on top of the house and found every house on fire." -Baba Sheikh Farid
Saturday, August 16, 2014
an easter reflection
Several months ago, I was one of the writers-in-residence at the Island Institute, in Sitka, Alaska. While there, I wrote some blog posts on their website, a few of which I will re-post here. Here is the first one. It's an Easter reflection.
A week ago, the Island Institute hosted a showing of a new TV series about climate change. The show is called Years of Living Dangerously. It definitely has its merits. I went to the showing, and there were about 15 other folks from Sitka there. After the show the group discussed climate change for a while, and I got frustrated, because I felt like everyone's comments were along the lines of, "Things can change for the better if we just do X, or if we just do Y." I tried to give voice to my frustration, but I'm afraid I wasn't very articulate at the time.
I came home from that conversation reeling a bit. I feel like half of America doesn't even think climate change is real, and the other half thinks it's real and can be turned around if we just all change our lightbulbs to the energy-efficient kind, if we install solar panels and recycle. I feel like--where are the people who can see that the planet really is dying. Ninety percent of the fish in the sea are gone. The ice caps are melting. The deserts are expanding. One hundred and twenty species go extinct every single day. The honeybees are dying. The songbirds are dying. The coral reefs are dying. The glaciers are melting. The ground is collapsing from fracking. The water tables are sinking. The oceans is acidified and poisoned.
So in the following days, I thought a lot about all of this. I thought: what do I think that we should do? If I don't believe recycling campaigns or bicycling campaigns will solve things, then what do I think should happen next? I started writing, to figure out what I might think. What I ended up saying surprised me.
The first thing I said was that when we live in denial that the Earth is dying, we alienate ourselves from each other. It's like if your child was dying from leukemia and you were terribly sad about it because you knew you would lose her soon, and everyone around you said, "Stay positive! Why are you sad? Stop being sad! Take her to another doctor!" That would make you feel horribly alone, because on top of the pain of losing your child, you'd have the pain of no one helping you carry the pain. That kind of aloneness is very terrible. I think many of us know that the Earth is in a very bad state. If we can just say to each other, "Things are very, very bad," and hug each other and cry, then it would be a different experience, because we would no longer be alone.
The second thing I said, when I wrote, was that almost everyone I talk to about these things wants solutions. Everyone wants to be very pragmatic.
And, I mean, if you want to get pragmatic--okay! There are things that could be done! For example, the entire world needs to immediately and completely stop depending on oil. The entire world needs to stop living unsustainably, stop commodifying nature and other humans and animals and water, stop consuming the Earth at rates that exceed what the Earth can replenish. If we want to be pragmatic and honest, those are the for-real solutions. And they are not going to happen voluntarily. Which means they're not going to happen, at least not until civilization collapses, or at least western civilization/the global economy, etc. collapses.
Which means we are kind of back to square one: things are very bad, and they are not going to stop being bad. That is the position in which we all, every creature and river and mineral on Earth, find ourselves. It would be a good idea to keep reminding ourselves of this, over and over and over again. Most people and communities are in such a deep state of denial, that just getting out of denial takes heroic effort. I think we should start hanging signs everywhere that state, "Earth is dying." Just that. To get out of denial.
In fact, even all the talk of solutions is a sign of how deep the denial goes. Let's say you lived in a wonderful town that you loved. And one day someone poured thousands of gallons of gasoline all over every building and every car in the entire town, and set the whole thing on fire. You and your family managed to escape into the hills, and you stood there above the town, watching it burn up. Everything ablaze, consumed with fire. If you then turned to your brother and said, "We can still save it from burning! We just have to think of the right solution!" your brother would be right in concluding that you were in shock, in denial.
So once we're out of denial...what do I think should happen next?
Well, if you stood there with your family above the burning town that you loved, and you managed to pull out of shock, I think that the obvious thing would be that you and your family members would hug each other and hold each other and weep. The third thing I wrote that I wish would happen in response to Earth dying is that people draw close to each other. Close to each other and to animals and plants and dirt and water. Even the poisoned water--it needs to be mourned. Even animals on feedlots. Even people so scarred by the violence we've all grown up with. I don't think any of us will know what to do next until we've drawn close to each other. It's putting the cart before the horse to try to solitarily figure out how to live on a dying Earth, to try to figure it out before we're held tightly and lovingly by other people and creatures. We need to be close, and cry, and feel the full range of what we feel: terror, sorrow, rage, despair, unexpected hope, more rage, betryal. We need to know the truth, and be together in that truth.
And then--and only then--I think we'll start to know what should and will come next.
However, the problem is that the very things that created this situation in the first place--things like commodification of everything, and therefore alienation from everything--will stand in our way as we try to draw close to each other. Therefore, I now realize that I am saying: the way to respond to Earth dying is to resist every force and system and paradigm that has led to Earth's death.
Drawing close to each other in love--it doesn't seem like such a revolutionary thing to do. But I guarantee it won't be a popular move, at least not within the dominant culture. Love based in truth and truth based in love, these are among the greatest threats to the powers based in violence, exploitation, and bottomless consumption. When love and truth are working together (which I think they must, if they're each to be authentic), then domination-based power has got a real problem on its hands. Consider Jesus, who basically went around saying, "Everyone is equally worthy of love; no one gets left out." The Roman leaders and the Jewish leaders were united in their belief that Jesus needed to be whacked, asap.
So they killed him. And then, according to the Christian myth, Jesus came back to life. Debating the literal-ness of Jesus' resurrection sometimes strikes me as beside the point. The point, at least according to some interpretations, is that love triumphs. Sometimes even after it seems like love got crushed, love triumphs anyway. Just in a whole different way than you thought it ever would or could.
Critics of Christianity can say that this is a very nice opiate for the dumb crowds of folks who don't have the guts or the balls to examine the forces enslaving them. Yeah, well, no doubt that's sometimes true. It's also true that many Christians, drawing their courage from Jesus and the love he commanded and embodied, have worked their asses off for a better world. Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Daniel Berrigan, plus a bunch of Mennonites whose names I don't know, plus a bunch of regular people whose names I don't know. They've made things better for a whole lot of people and animals and places.
Drawing close to a dying planet, and to each other, won't be easy. At all. But it's the way of integrity and love. No one ever said integrity and love were easy. Except, when someone you love is suffering, putting your arms around her isn't really a hard thing to do. But then, the closer you draw in, the more sorrow you also feel. And that is indeed hard. But it is possible. And I think that if we do it, we might be surprised at what happens next.