Psst. The Personal is Planetary. Pass it On.

We are living through a transition in awareness that might be described as the shift between the recognition that “the personal is political” to the recognition that now, “the personal is planetary.”

It’s not enough, anymore, to think about the ways we live our politics in our daily lives.  We urgently need to become aware of how our lives are expressions of our relationship to our planet.

If the personal is planetary, then who we are is deeply indicative of the state of our planet.

Today, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, almost completely divorced from the natural world.  Most of us have little sense of our relationship to the living planet, since most of our time is spent in artificial, asphalted environments.

Many of us are sick from diseases that are themselves symptoms of our alienation from the planet, our penchant for industrial growth at any price, and our general physical and mental malaise.  The very technologies that we most admire and rely on are the ones that are making us, and our planet, sick.

Despite our technological sophistication, we have serious problems with the most basic mammalian function of providing ourselves with food on a steady, reliable basis.  The imbalance is evident in the fact that billions of human beings on the planet are perpetually hungry; others are malnourished from an over-reliance on empty-calorie sugary processed foods; and still others starve themselves to comply with unrealistic body image expectations, or have so much food that they can afford to casually throw it away.

We are a species that claims to admire empathy and compassion, but actually spends an inordinate amount of time gazing at our own reflection in our ever-more-complex forms of representation, from writing to film, without even realizing how very ego-, ethno- and species-centric our behavior is.  We claim to value love, but for most of us love is too often confused with lust, or so interlaced traditions, habits and obligations that the reality is a poor shadow of our professed ideal.

If the personal is planetary, then it should be no surprise that our planet is suffering so terribly.  We humans are suffering too, and along with us all the animals and plants in our biosphere.

Where will it all end?  Will we be able to get out in front of the tsunami of disastrous climate change, environmental poisoning and destruction of oceans, forests and fresh water in time to restabilize our planet and ourselves?

I worry when I see influential publications like The New York Times giving prominence to think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute, a so-called environmental organization that is working hard to convince us that we can become total cyborgs living happily in a high-tech, managed, artificial environment.

Such a vision of the personal as planetary imagines our planet as a giant park, complete with zoos and aquariums, manicured gardens and “rambles” left artificially “wild.”

What it fails to give any credence to is the possibility that we, and our planet, might have—dare I say it?—a soul.

Machines do not have souls.  But our beautiful planet, with her myriad forms of life, of which we humans are just one more emanation—she is more than just the mechanistic sum of her parts.

sunset on crescent

When we understand the personal as planetary, we see that to go down the road of total technological dominance of human beings and our environment would be to cut ourselves off from what is most beautiful and unique about ourselves as a species: our conscious awareness of the possibility of connecting with and cultivating the divine—that is, extra-human—energy that animates our entire  biosphere, giving us the spark of life that we recognize as the dynamic beauty and power so ever-present in the natural world and potentially in ourselves as well.

To heal the planet, we must first heal ourselves, beginning with our self-imposed split from the natural world and our repudiation of the simple values that human societies have always claimed to revere.  “Do unto others” and “love thy neighbor” take on new meaning when we realize the personal as planetary. The forests are our neighbors. The whales are our neighbors. Even the humble soil bacteria are our neighbors who must be respected for life to flourish in the balance that will benefit us all.

The personal is planetary.  A mantra for the 21st century.  Pass it on.

Seize the Day…

Tonight, as my two sons fly down to Mexico for a spring break visit with their Mexican family, I am haunted by the thought of Malaysian Air Flight 370.

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It’s been a week since that plane took off on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. In a Google Earth world, with spy satellites monitoring every sector of the planet, it is hard to believe that a fully loaded Boeing 777 jet could simply DISAPPEAR.

Apparently the spymasters are not as in control as they would have us believe.

may1153067-Search-underway-for-missing-Flight-370Theories are circulating wildly on the Internet.  The plane was hijacked and landed on some island in the Indian Ocean, a la the TV series LOST.   The plane was taken by aliens.  This afternoon we began to hear that the plane flew for at least 5 hours after the air traffic controllers lost contact, veering wildly in altitude.

This is the stuff of a thousand episodes of the X-Files or, further back, Twilight Zone.  If we do finally find the wreckage of the plane, we’ll be breathing a sigh of relief because at least we’ll know it wasn’t taken by the mythical aliens that no one officially believes in, but we all fear might be real.

Events like these—along with droughts, floods and storms—remind us that we human beings are not invincible like the superheroes we love to watch on TV or at the movies.

Our incredible technological prowess cannot protect us, and indeed sometimes it can lead us into great peril.

My heart is with the passengers of Flight 370, and every airline passenger who daily puts themselves in the hands of the crew who flies their plane.  Going down over the ocean is a collective nightmare of our time.  Next time, it could be any one of us.

As the ancient poet said, what can we do but Carpe Diem, live life to the fullest day by day?

Ronan Farrow’s Beacon of Hope

“One of the most difficult things to do is to infuse in young people a sense of empathy and a larger world…to give them a perspective that is more macro and less narcissistic,” Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Ronan Farrow.

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Farrow, when asked how he came by his desire to make a positive difference in the world, replied that it was growing up in a “mini-United Nations” sort of family (many of his 13 siblings were adopted from all over the world, some with serious physical or mental disabilities) that gave him the desire to become an agent for positive change on a worldwide scale.

Mia did something right to have set such a force in motion!

Ronan Farrow was a prodigy, going to college at my home institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, at the tender age of 11.  Although I never had him in class, I remember seeing him on campus, his bright blond hair always a stand-out, his small frame bent beneath a heavy backpack of books.

He went on to Yale Law School at 18, after serving a two-year stint as a youth ambassador at the United Nations; then became a Rhodes Scholar, worked at the State Department, and is now about to launch his own cable news show.

At 26, he’s done more than most of us will ever do.

I am quite impressed by the agenda he’s set for his show.  It will be news aimed at a youth audience, specifically designed to spark the empathy Stewart referred to, and not only that but to give his audience concrete options for taking action on the issues and situations presented.

Every show will have a “call to action,” Farrow said, and “a menu of things to do”; ways “to move the needle” on important issues.

I have noticed from my years of working with young people on social and environmental justice issues that they get very impatient and turned-off by discussions of problems that don’t also include solutions, preferably along with ways that they can get involved in moving the solutions forward.

It must be his twenty-something instinct that is prompting Ronan Farrow to put his talents and connections to work in creating just the kind of show his own generation is longing for.

It will have the celebrity pizzazz that his handsome face and famous name brings; the erudition and seriousness of purpose that his education and professional experience has provided; and with any luck, it will be a real beacon of active hope for millions of potential young change agents.

Go Ronan!  It is great to see a young person who is so clearly in the flow of living his purpose.

We Are All Noah Now

We are all Noah now.

These words have been sounding in my head like a mantra these past few weeks, and this morning I woke from strong dreams of animals in trouble—a big lone fox, a frantically hopping toad—and felt the need to make my inchoate awareness of danger and responsibility more tangible by writing it down and sharing it with others.

Derrick Jensen asks with desperate, angry sadness how long it will take us to finally wake up and start resisting the accelerating extinction of species happening on our watch.

How can we love our pets so much (I ask with my purring cat on my lap and my snoring dog at my feet) and remain unmoved by the news that hundreds of sweet, innocent reptiles and amphibians, many of them from fragile, endangered species, were cruelly murdered by callous neglect last week, crushed into hot plastic tubs without food or water for days in a crate bound from Madagascar to the U.S. pet store market?

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How can we continue to give our children adorable stuffed lions and tigers and bears to hug and cuddle (my own boys were devoted to their respective stuffed animal friends, a gray kitty and a green froggy) while turning a blind eye to the fact that all of the large animals on Earth are staring extinction in the face?

Indonesian palm oil plantation.  First the forest was bulldozed.  Never mind all the fragile species that called it home, including our primate cousins, the highly endangered orangutans.

Indonesian palm oil plantation. First the forest was bulldozed. Never mind all the fragile species that called it home, including our primate cousins, the highly endangered orangutans.

How can we blithely talk about international agreements like REDD and cap-and-trade markets, ignoring the fact that when these lofty agreements are translated into action on the ground in the remote tropical forests that most need protection, they too often result in the worst kinds of greedy destruction—for example, so-called protected forests being bulldozed, sprayed with herbicides and turned into palm oil plantations, but still sold as “protected forest” in the international carbon market.

Americans spend royally on landscaping around our own homes, but fail to appreciate that if we don’t snap out of our trance and start acting forcefully on behalf of the planet as a whole, the storms and droughts that are coming will make short work of all our careful planting and pruning.

Wake up people!  We are all Noah now.  The Ark that will help us weather the storms we have brought upon ourselves is the Mother Ship, sweet Gaia herself.

Headlands, Puerto Rico. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

Headlands, Puerto Rico.
Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

It’s past time to start focusing on doing all we can to conserve the living beings on this planet—ours to protect, not to destroy.

We are all Noah now.

Let’s Face It, Charity is Not Enough

When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia.  We read, exclusively, The New York Times.

I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.

The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.

Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.

With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.

Unknown-2Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

This went on year after year.  Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.

Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December.  The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.

And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.

 

This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.

It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts.  Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.

As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story.  Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.

I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.

It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case.  Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.

But the need goes on, and on.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind?  What will become of her rambunctious little brothers?  What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation?  What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?

 

When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration.  I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.

In fact, it’s the other way around in our America.  More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day.  Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working.  We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people.  Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.

There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.

It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.

We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use.  This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.

Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.

Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.

The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”

Why?  Because it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.

Structural changes are needed at every level of our society.  For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.

American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.

Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing.  Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.

At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.

Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.

Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity.  All Dasani needs is a fair chance.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

A message from the wounded heart of our magnificent Earth

This week, as in the foreground Washington politics continued as usual, a remarkable animal came like a messenger sent to remind me of the state of things in the background, where what’s really important is going on.

I’m using Mary Daly’s terminology here: she calls everything that mainstream society generally focuses on part of the “foreground,” which distracts us from the deeper and more significant issues and events going on in the “background.”

Instead of worrying about how the “snools” are jerking the country around from their headquarters inside the Beltway, Daly urges us to pay attention to the bigger, deeper picture of what’s happening on a global level to the ecological systems that keep us all alive.

Sometimes it’s hard to wrench my attention away from all the grotesqueries going on in the foreground.  This week, I had help.

***

On Tuesday, as I was walking along a trail by a small river near my house, in the gathering gloom of dusk, I looked back to see my dog Loki standing stock-still near a large object that I couldn’t immediately identify.

Afraid it might be a big and potentially dangerous animal, like a raccoon, I hurried back, and was astonished to perceive that Loki was standing nose to beak with an enormous eagle-like bird.

osprey

Both animals were calm, and Loki came to me at once when I called.

The eagle, which I later identified as an osprey, turned and looked at me keenly, with a gaze I can only call commanding.  Its huge, hooked beak was intimidating; this was not the kind of wild animal I would consider going anywhere near.

And yet here it was, down on the ground, strong and well-fed, clearly in its prime, but immobilized by a badly broken right wing, which was hanging twisted and useless at its side.

A human being in that condition would have been writhing and crying desperately for help.

The osprey merely stood its ground, calmly and regally, waiting.

It was still there the next morning when I went back to check on it.  I had called the state Fish & Wildlife Service, and as I stood there by the eagle, a wildlife biologist called me to ask directions to the bird.  He was going to bring it to a veterinarian to have its wing set, and then bring it to a shelter.

Wild raptors with broken wings almost never fly again, but there are raptor rescue centers that maintain them as ambassadors for their kind, educating the public about the beauty and importance of these magnificent birds.

 ***

I don’t know how that bird came to break its wing. There was a house not far away from where I found it; perhaps it flew into a window at full tilt?

I do know that if it had come down elsewhere, away from the trail, it would have certainly died of starvation or been eaten by a coyote, which I have seen in those woods.

In this case, human beings could be of use to this osprey, and indeed I felt very strongly, when it trained its sharp, steely gaze upon me, that it was demanding my help.

More broadly, I take my encounter with the eagle this week as a reminder to keep my focus on the bigger, deeper picture of the continual wounding of the natural world.

For every damaged osprey there are literally millions of creatures I can’t see personally, who are wounded and dying all over the Earth.

I can’t afford to lose myself in the busy-ness and distraction of foreground concerns—the headlines of mainstream media outlets, the daily housework, the struggle to make enough money to pay bills and keep my family going.

Those concerns will continue and as a functioning member of human society, I have to keep my eye on them.

But my inner eye–my third eye, my most deeply aware sense of vision–must be ceaselessly trained on the slowly unfolding planetary tragedy that is occurring relentlessly in the background.  I must stay alert for opportunities to be of help to those who cannot help themselves.

I thank the beautiful osprey for this reminder, and wish it, most fervently, Godspeed.

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Which Side Are You On?

imagesFor the past few nights I have been putting myself to sleep by reading an advance copy of my friend Jan Krause Greene’s new novel, I Call Myself Earth Girl.

It’s not exactly a feel-good bedtime story, dealing as it does with rape, environmental disaster, death and bereavement.

But it’s also about empathy and love, between family members and also on a worldwide scale.

In Greene’s vision, the Earth and its denizens can be saved from catastrophe by mindful attention to what really matters: affirming life, both our own and that of the unborn generations to come.

Not since Starhawk’s 1994 masterpiece The Fifth Sacred Thing have I come across a book that so clearly matches my own waking nightmare of the terrible times that await us in the future, if we do not succeed in changing our ways now.

Let’s face it: it is possible that the kind of violence afflicting resource-starved places like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia will become the norm in much more of the world, as climate instability creates food shortages and accelerates the pace of natural disasters beyond our capacity to recover.

America is a tinderbox just waiting to go off.  Imagine what would happen if suddenly it was not possible to go down to the supermarket and get your week’s worth of groceries?

Such a scenario is more or less unthinkable to people like me, who have grown up cradled by the richest breadbasket in the world.

We are only beginning to realize the costs that have come with our cornucopia: the destruction of the virgin prairies in the Midwest, the poisoning of the earth, water and air with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; the grotesque factory farms of livestock and fish; the genetic alteration of seeds; the destruction of local farming by the huge predatory monster of American-style factory farms.

We have grown fat on these practices.  And now it’s time for us to accept responsibility for the outcomes of our heedlessness.

Those of us alive today have the privilege, and the responsibility, of presiding over what could very well be the end times for human civilization.

It’s somewhat analogous to the end times of specific human cultures, like the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the great Chinese dynasties….except that this time, we’re not just talking about the end of a single culture, we’re talking about the demise of humanity as a species.

It is possible to imagine, as Jan Krause Greene did, that our lush green planet could turn brown from environmental disaster, provoking a culture of armed militias surviving by means of ruthless violence—with women, as always, at the bottom of the heap.

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

It is already happening—just not yet here, in the gated community we call America.

Can we wake up in time to forestall total, worldwide environmental melt-down?

In the past week we had a deadly two-mile-wide tornado in Oklahoma, and the Russian science station in the Arctic Circle had to be evacuated because the ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

Here in New England we are expecting temperatures in the 30s Farenheit this weekend—way below normal for what should be the start of the growing season.

What’s next?

We don’t know.  But I take heart from local initiatives like the rehabilitation of the long-dormant Great Barrington Fairgrounds into a vibrant community-supported agriculture site.

We are going to have to re-localize agriculture if we want to survive the shocks of the 21st century.  We need to re-imagine not just agriculture, but community along with it.

As I Call Myself Earth Girl shows well, the antidote to violence and fear is love and empathy.

We still have a choice. Which way will you turn?  Which side are you on?  How far will you go to protect the planet and the generations to come?

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Living with fear

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother.  I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.

When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic.  It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down.  I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.

Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience.  Did I lose my mother in a previous life?  Was I left alone and unprotected?

Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?

Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.

My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.

He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear.  He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.

My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.”  No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way.  When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone.  A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity.  That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.

What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.

Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.

I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.

My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out.  But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.

My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.

But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.

I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.

The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.

One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination.  Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.

How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media?  How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?

The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe.  It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.

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Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

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