Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.

Spiderweb

Be the change 2012

IMG_1102It is a dark, cold, winter’s morning, gray with a pelting mixture of sleet and freezing rain that has even the birds huddling for shelter in the thickest fir trees they can find.

I’ve just gotten up, lit the fire and the lights on the Christmas tree, made myself a cup of strong coffee, and thought to myself: where do I put my focus?

If I focus on the warmth and coziness inside the house right now, this seems like a wonderful morning, a perfect opportunity to curl up on the couch and make some progress on grading the papers students turned in to me before they left for the holidays.

If I focus on the sleet and wind outside, and begin to fixate on the way the trees are blowing around the icy power wires, I feel threatened, rather than protected, and start to worry in advance about whether or not I’ll be losing power later today.  Should I rush to take my shower and do some cooking before the power goes out?

Small dilemmas, and yet in the daily crucible of making these choices w of how to focus our attention, a lifelong habit is born of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full.

I must recognize that I have a tendency to see the glass half-empty.

I was a fearful, cautious, worrying sort of child, and I have not changed much as an adult.

In today’s age of aggravated climate change, random violence and the immediate potential for it all getting a whole lot worse in the near future, this attitude can make for a great deal of depression and anxiety.

But does it have to be that way?

Back in the 1980s, I spent a fair amount of time listening to recordings of Esther Hicks channeling the group of spiritual beings who called themselves Abraham.  The crux of their advice for us humans is to focus on what you want, with as much intensity and lavish detail as you can muster, and watch the Universe deliver it to you.

“You can have anything you want, if you exercise the Law of Attraction and call it to you,” Abraham would say over and over and over.

This idea has been picked up and popularized by others as well, and it is guaranteed to appeal to our can-do, feel-good American society.

We want to believe that we have the power to improve our lives, and it seems to happen often enough to keep the belief going.

But I always wondered, and wanted to ask Abraham, what about the people who were having terrible life experiences?  Did they “attract” these horrible situations to themselves too?

Did the 20 children who died in Newtown “attract” their destiny?

I cannot believe that they did.

It could be, however, that the killer’s vision was so strong that he was able to enact it, to make it come true.  Maybe he did what Abraham suggests, and replayed over and over again in his mind the details of what he wanted to do, until it was so well-thought-out and planned that he was able to unroll it in reality with no problem at all.

We need to pay more attention to the power of the human mind to affect reality.

It happens on an individual level, as when I can transform this gray, nasty morning into a warm, cozy one just by focusing on the peaceful interior of my house rather than the storm raging outside.

Focus on the outside

Focus on the outside

Focus on the inside

Focus on the inside

And it happens on a societal level, as when so many of us feel unsafe that we all start buying handguns and assault weapons, with the result that our feeling of peril becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: with all those weapons circulating among our neighbors, we really are unsafe.

If we all settle into the mindset, amply seeded by the steady beat of the sci fi/disaster movies that have come out in the past decade, that the Earth is doomed and we are doomed with her, we will collectively give in to despair and simply go about business as usual while waiting passively for the end to come.

On the other hand, if we begin to collectively dream an alternative future, one based on respect for the Earth and respectful stewardship of her life systems, it is still possible that we may be able to manifest this positive vision.

The popular author Don Miguel Ruiz, whose book The Four Agreements has sold millions of copies worldwide, ends a recent interview by asserting that “We all came into this beautiful planet with a mission. The only mission, and it’s the same for every single human that we have on this beautiful planet earth, is to make ourselves happy.”

The only way I could agree with that principle of the human mission on Earth is if it is understood that we cannot be happy on an unhappy planet.

In other words, it is impossible for us to achieve real happiness when the dominant paradigm of human existence on the planet is based on oppression, suffering and violent destruction.

We may be able to achieve temporary “highs,” shelters in the storms of our lives, but real abiding happiness will elude us, at least those of us with enough sensitivity to be aware of the suffering always going on beneath the surface.

Events like the Newtown massacre break through the veneer of our superficially happy existence, here in the comfortable USA, and send many of us spiraling into depression.

And not just folks like me, who are habitually attuned to the malheur of life, but many more of us, who suddenly wake up and ask Why?

Why did this senseless massacre happen?

Perhaps it happened to remind us of the daily massacres of innocent wild creatures and feedlot animals, lab animals and vast flocks of birds, tons of fish in the sea and endless miles of coral and forest, all going down in a relentless bloodbath of human making.

Perhaps it happened to remind us of the children who are being trafficked into sex slavery or forced labor every day, of the children dying daily of hunger and preventable diseases, of the wasted lives of children whose poor-quality early education dooms them to lives of struggle and want.

When great tragedy strikes, survivors have a tendency to affirm to each other, Let their sacrifice not have been in vain. Let us learn from what happened and vow never to let it happen again.

Hence, in the wake of Newtown, the great outcry for better gun control laws, which may indeed, finally, be enacted in the coming year.

Abraham would say that you have to know what you don’t want in order to get clear on what you do want.

But the emphasis has to be on the positive; on building the vision, both personal and collective, of what we want for our society and our future.

We do not want an America where any random psychopath can get ahold of an assault weapon and wreak havoc in the neighborhood school or mall.

We do not want a lifestyle based on unsustainable consumption, oppression and callous disregard for the welfare of other living beings.

Now: what do we want?

We must get clear on our positive vision for a just and sustainable human civilization on our beloved planet, and then do the work of dreaming it into reality, day by day.

We must be intentional in where we focus our attention, not to ignore negative realities, but in order to put the power of our creative energies to work in manifesting the world we want to see.

In other words, as Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world, starting with your own thoughts and radiating outward.

Be the change.

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