Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

Go see Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous hero, if you need reminding about how important a single human being’s act of courageous resistance can be.

Granted, Edward Snowden had his finger on the pulse of information far beyond the ken of most of us ordinary folks. But we can all relate to the ethical questions he faced, which the movie details so well.

To whit: At what point is it more important to listen to your own internal moral compass, even when it means going against “public opinion,” company policy or—in Snowden’s case—the entire power elite of the U.S. military industrial complex?

We live in a time when this is a question will come up with increasing urgency for more and more of us. Our age is one of unprecedented access to information, as “Snowden” shows in horrifyingly graphic detail. And once we know something—say, how a pipeline leak can foul and destroy an entire river ecosystem, or how a radiation leak can play havoc with ocean systems for years, or how deforestation leads to mud slides, or how climate change is already changing coast lines and destroying planetary weather balance—once we know all this, and so much more, what do we do with our newfound knowledge?

what-i-forgot-cover-draft-new-smThis question became increasingly central for me as I worked on my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, over the past several years. It was waking up to climate change that sparked my journey of looking back at my half-century on the planet, trying to understand how I had allowed myself to forget the connection to the natural world that had been so central to me as a child.

What I discovered was that as a young adult, I made some choices that led me to go with the predominant flow of American culture. Like Snowden, I was seduced by the possibility of attaining the American dream—my version of it being the husband, children, home, career. I put myself in the traces and began to focus on pulling that cart, and I found it took everything I had.

Not until the dream disintegrated along with my marriage did I pick my head up and look around me, instinctively seeking solace in the natural world but finding that things had changed a great deal since I was a dreamy child following the chickadees through the hemlock forest, or lying full-length on a high maple branch to feel the wind swaying through the tree.

While I had been focused on raising my family, trying to hold my marriage together and striving for success in my career, things had been going very badly for the chickadees, the hemlocks and the maples. Government policies and corporate greed, unleashed by the shortsightedness of millions of compliant citizens like me, had led us to the brink of a global catastrophe of biblical proportions.

There we sit now, on that brink. Did you notice the news, buried beneath all the election cycle noise, that the climate has now passed 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, far beyond the 350 ppm that gave the scrappiest of the climate change warrior-organizations its name?

This means we are on track to melt, folks. The polar ice caps and the permafrost on land will thaw, releasing ancient methane; the oceans will warm, throwing off the food chains and the weather; insects and bacteria will do very well, but many if not most of the larger species will rather quickly go the way of the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.

Including, dare I say it, homo sapiens. Future historians, if there are any, should rename our species homo ignoramus—the stupid ones who knew how they could save themselves and the ecosystem that sustained them, but let it all go to hell.

We have come to a time, as the Deep Green Resistance eco-warriors recognized several years ago, when it will be necessary to think for ourselves and stand up for what we believe in, just like Ed Snowden did.

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This is dangerous business, as Snowden knew. He is lucky to be living freely in Moscow rather than locked up as a traitor like fellow information resistance fighter Chelsea Manning. The fossil fuel lords and their military henchmen take mutiny very seriously, as the brave water protectors at Standing Rock know well.

But there comes a time when you have to listen to your gut, even if it goes against your upbringing and socialization. You have to do what you think is right.

Of course, in a black and white view of morality, what’s right for you may be totally wrong for me. How do we reconcile the disparate moral compasses of a jihadist suicide bomber or an American bomber pilot or a tar sands bulldozer operator or a pipeline resistance activist?

Each of us has to make up our own minds, fully cognizant of the implications of our actions, the bigger backdrops against which each of our little lives play out. That is why I continue to believe that there is no more important role these days than that of an awake, aware, independently minded educator.

We need teachers at every level of education who are dedicated to developing the capacity of young people to understand and analyze complex information, to weigh and debate different points of view, to use empathy as a pathway to decision-making, and to be open to shifting their views as their understanding increases.

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Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both thoroughly indoctrinated by the military, but were still able to think for themselves and sacrifice their snug insider positions in service to the greater good. If they can do it, any of us can.

No need for spectacular defections or heroics. All that’s needed is a steady ongoing commitment to sifting through the barrage of information coming at us all the time, and pointing our internal compass at DO NO HARM or even better DO GOOD.

If you want to call me a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder, so be it. I can live with that.

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Love is not a luxury

I am not one to be prone to panic attacks, but I do admit to often being in a low-level state of foreboding, that sometimes elevates itself to full-on dread. It’s not a mystery; I know what my triggers are:

  • the latest news of human activity destroying life or making our planet unlivable, whether by warfare, industrial agriculture, chemical contamination, deforestation, fracking and drilling, leaking and spilling or simply burning fossil fuels;
  • the insanity of a vapid, rapacious, evildoer like Drumpf coming so close to setting up his vampire camp in the White House;
  • the horror of the violence inflicted over and over again on African Americans, Native Americans, undocumented Americans, female, trans and gay Americans;
  • violence and cruelty to the vulnerable, in whatever form.

The dread comes when it seems like this filthy tide of misery is rising, threatening to engulf all the beauty that still exists, day and night, moment to moment, on our precious planet.

I have realized over time that I cannot be an effective activist for positive social change if I let myself be overtaken by sorrow, anger, disgust and despair. If I allow myself to sink under the weight of all the injustice and horror of human “civilization,” I will simply lose it—it will be crawl-under-the-covers time, time to check out of the real world into the dream world, time maybe to never come back.

So I have to practice this strange form of double vision, where part of me remains open, aware and enraged by the suffering, while another part of me goes about her daily life drinking deep of the beauty of the newly risen sun shining through the dew-dropped spider web strung up among the brilliant blue morning glory flowers, mainlining this beauty like an elixir capable of granting me the strength I need to keep the dread at bay and go back out into battle.

It’s almost as if by giving my attention to beauty and good I can strengthen those forces in the world, whereas if I steep myself too long in fury and horror those negative emotions begin to take hold in me and drag me down into a sinkhole of despair that only gets bigger when I struggle to escape.

This is a difficult thing for me to articulate, because I have never been someone who believed in sitting on a meditation cushion and focusing on “the light” as a way to combat the darkness of the real world. Even the ivory tower of academia has always felt too removed for me, although lately, thanks to the activism of the current generation of college students, the lofty impermeability of the tower is wearing thin.

I’m not advocating retreating and withdrawing and pulling up the drawbridge against the dread of the real world. I’m just admitting that for me, and maybe for others as well, it’s essential to restore my energies for the good fight by giving myself permission to savor and spend time immersed in what it is I love and value: deep emotional connections with humans, animals and the natural world.

The key words there might be “deep” and “emotion”: I have to allow myself to really feel deeply my love for specific people, places and animals in my life. I have to take the time to honor and appreciate how much these connections feed me.

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It may be one of the unheralded sicknesses of our era that we no longer feel entitled to the time to simply hang out enjoying each other’s company in real time (as opposed to screen time): cooking and eating a delicious weekday meal with family or friends; spending a couple of hours brushing and romping with a beloved pet; going for a long walk to a special patch of forest and sitting on a rock until the woodland animals forget you’re there and accept you as a harmless part of the landscape. These things take time, and time is what we seem not to have these days, or to deny ourselves.

At our peril. The sense of not having time, of time being regimented by the clock and occupied by a never-ending to-do list, is peculiar to the 21st century experience of being human, and it’s not a good thing, because that constant rushing from one task to the next keeps us living life at a superficial level—surfing through our lives, you might say, as though we were flitting from one website to the next. You can’t develop the capacity for deep emotional connections when you’re surfing…and without that capacity, you won’t be able to commit yourself passionately to any cause—or indeed, to anything at all.

So there seems to be a necessity of living “as if”—giving yourself permission to laugh, to love, to drink deep of the beauty of nature, as if innocent people were not being murdered by bombs and guns every day, as if the polar caps were not melting, as if the forests were not burning, as if the sixth great extinction were not advancing daily, as if the oceans were not being poisoned and warmed, as if the coral were not dying off, as if the bulldozers were not still grinding through the tar sands that will just accelerate all this death and destruction of everything we love….

It’s not easy to hold the awareness of all of this horror—and so much more—at bay. But we who care and want to work for positive change have to focus on love—on our deep, abiding love for this beautiful world and all the precious beings in it that we want to protect.

It sounds simple, like the Beatles line: All you need is love. But on a day to day basis, barraged as we are constantly by all the bad news and evildoers of the world, it’s hard to remember, and can feel like a cop-out or a self-indulgent escape from reality. It’s not.

It’s what “being the change” means. Live the change you want to see in the world, at a deep emotional level, and be part of a rising tide of hope and love that can sweep away the misery.

img_3727This is such an exciting time to be alive. There is so much potential for human beings to take an evolutionary leap away from the tribal competitiveness and heedless destructive ignorance of the past, stepping at last into our full potential as the sacred guardians of the complex ecological web of this planet, which we are finally beginning to understand. The leap won’t happen without our giving ourselves permission to honor our deep connections with each other and with Gaia; without our giving ourselves permission to love.

Hence the need to live, at least part of the time, as if loving was the most important thing we could possibly be doing with our precious time.

Because it is.

 

audre_lordeNOTE: My title is a take-off on Audre Lorde’s famous essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Poetry, as she lived and practiced it, was love. A few lines from the essay that I go back to again and again: Poetry “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought….Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

–from Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press, 1984, 37-38.

From Selfies to Withies with Eli Pariser: Who’s In the Frame?

UnknownTis the season of Commencement speeches, and I read one this week with particular attention, because it was by an illustrious alum from Bard College at Simon’s Rock—Eli Pariser, the founder of Moveon.org and Upworthy, two awesome organizations dedicated to using social media technology to shift culture for the better.

There’s a lot to love in Eli’s speech. He tells the graduates that having a sense of self-worth is the foundation of empathy, which is the social glue that holds communities together. He enjoins the young people before him to remember that they matter, citing studies showing “the powerful effect that believing we matter has on the way we behave, especially toward those who are different from us.”

He continues: “When we’re affirmed in who we are, when we believe that we matter, we relax. We’re more open to new ideas, other ways of seeing things. We’re more accepting of each other. We feel safe. Our subconscious bias goes down. Our empathy goes up. Instead of seeing stereotypes, we can see and accept people as individual human beings.”

This leads him to the important question of how we should value ourselves, or what in ourselves we should value. After all, a bigot might look in the mirror and value hir hatred, right?

Eli is clear on this question: “Here’s what I believe: You matter because you contain within you a great capacity to do good. To act with love.”

He concludes his speech by asking the students in front of him to take out their cameras and instead of taking selfies, take “withies”:

“I want you to capture yourself in the context of everyone around, everyone who has travelled this journey with you. Instead of a selfie, let’s call it a “withie.” With your friends. With your classmates. With your professors. With your family. With as many people as you can fit into the frame. The whole context….As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this. You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too.”

Totally awesome message! There’s just one thing missing here, and that is an acknowledgment that there is much more in the frame of our “withies” than people.

2016 is a year when we desperately need to bring the great green and blue pulse of planetary life into our frames, and remember that our love and empathy must be extended to all living beings, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breathe to the plankton, coral and mangroves that support the ocean food chains, to the bacteria that give us rich earth and the insects that pollinate our crops.

Interestingly, Eli mentions non-human life just once in his speech, a reference to penguins that apparently occurred to him only because the penguin is the mascot of the institution he was addressing. He uses the communitarian nature of penguins to illustrate his idea of “withies”:

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“As any student of “March of the Penguins” knows, penguins are awesome. They can swim faster than a human can run. They can drink ocean water and sneeze out the salt. And when it gets really, really Antarctic cold, they huddle close to one another. They put the kids on the inside. They rotate turns on the outside, absorbing the chill. They come together. And that’s how they make it through the winter.”

“March of the Penguins” came out in 2005, bringing us up close and personal for the first time to the dramatic lives of Antarctic penguins, nesting and raising their young in the harshest environment on Earth. A decade later, a film like that would never be made without acknowledging that penguins are among the many iconic species now being threatened with extinction by the manmade global heating that is causing their ice shelf home to melt into the sea.

The fact that someone as smart and savvy as Eli Pariser could write a Commencement speech in 2016 making no mention of the environmental crisis at all is deeply sobering to me.

It reminds me of the humans in the 2008 movie WALL-E, who have computer screens perpetually fixed right in front of their faces. We have become so entranced by our own reflections in our screens that even our “withies” are all about us.

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Let’s go back to the conclusion of Eli’s speech for a moment. He says:

“As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this.You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too. If you do that, then truly there’s nothing to be afraid of. Class of 2016, you’re going to do just fine.”

Yes, I totally agree, with this essential caveat: the Class of 2016, and all of us who are in the service of love on this planet, must become aware of the gravest challenge of our “wild and weird future”—climate change and environmental destruction—and begin to direct our energies towards creating a livable future, not just for us but for life as we know it on this planet.

That means coming out from behind our screens and reconnecting with the elemental life on this planet—earth and water, fire and air. We need to feel the wind on our faces, to smell the fresh scent of damp earth, to remember what it’s like to swim in a clean river and sit around a fire on a starry night, telling stories.

Penguins are not just mascots. They are living beings with every right to continue their march into the future. Let’s put them, and the polar bears, elephants, whales and all other life on Earth, into our “withies” too.

21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?

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There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

After Charlie Hebdo: Tuning Out, Tuning In to the Violence that Beseiges Us

When the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack flashed into the headlines last week, with all its chaotic blood, gore and terror, I had a surreal feeling of detachment and déjà vu. Similar scenarios have been hitting us so often in recent months and years—the Boston Marathon bombing…the Times Square attempted bombing….Sandy Hook Elementary School…. Virginia Tech…Ferguson….the list could go on and on, and that’s just the incidents on American soil.

How do we cope with the constant background noise of violence against which our lives play out in the 21st century? How do we avoid either extreme: numbing out/tuning out, or becoming overwhelmed with fear and grief?

If you thought I might have the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t know. It seems to me that I go back and forth from one reaction to another, depending on my mental resilience when the latest instance of violence surges into my awareness.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

If I’m feeling strong and stable, I can hit a balance, which seems like the healthiest response; I can honor the victims with appropriate grief and anger at the perpetrators, while maintaining the psychic distance I need to go about my daily business without being blown away by fear and sorrow.

Is this really “the healthiest response,” though? Or am I kidding myself here? How can it be healthy and sane to be so compartmentalized that I am able to acknowledge the pain and suffering on one hand, while at the same time going on with my life in an ordinary way?

Digging a little further into this, I have to ask: who does it benefit for me to be able to carry on with a stiff upper lip, remaining calm, cool and collected in the face on ongoing tragedy? Does it benefit me, or the status quo of the society I live in, which has generated this endless loop of repetitive tragedy?

What would happen if one day we all suddenly started to feel fully empathetic with the victims of violence—and not just gun violence, or military violence, but also rape, domestic violence, violence against animals, violence against the forests and the waters of our planet?

In the #BlackLivesMatter and #WeAreSenecaLake protests, and now in the #JeSuisCharlie meme and rallies in Paris, we are seeing a hint of the powerful force that can be unleashed by human compassion.

What if I, and other Americans like me, started to actively fight the conditioning that has made us believe that the healthiest, sanest response to ubiquitous violence is to turn our gaze away and keep moving?

What if we began to lean in to the deep wellsprings of compassion and empathy that are our birthright as human beings, and act out of the power we find there?

What if instead of accepting the constant static of violence as a given of modern existence, we began to actively tune in to it, in order to serve—each one of us—as antennae capable of picking up the signal and disrupting it, transforming it from cacophony to an entirely different, new form of activist harmony?

In their own satirical way, the Charlie Hebdo team was engaged in doing just this. They were holding a mirror up to our sick society, and forcing us to gaze at ourselves and recognize the extent of our own complicity in the violence that besieges us.

I believe, with Arundhati Roy, that another world is possible. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. But on a typical, violent day, all I can hear is the labored thumping of my own heavy heart.

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Moving From Human Rights Day to Earth Rights Day

UnknownWas there some kind of intentional bitter irony in this week’s avalanche of bad news about human rights, released just in time for Human Rights Day (December 10)?

Leading the list is the so-called Torture Report, about CIA human rights abuses during interrogations. I’m sorry, but I can’t muster up much shock about this supposed “news.”

Anyone who has been following Latin American news for the past thirty years or so knows that the CIA has not only been routinely torturing its prisoners, but also teaching its particularly vicious brand of torture techniques to the repressive dictatorships the U.S. has found it to be in our “strategic interests” to support.

Doesn’t anyone remember the infamous School of the Americas? That was the testing ground for the interrogation manual used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detention sites, some so secret we don’t even know where they were located.

To me, the fact that detainees have been savagely tortured by American CIA and special forces is old news. What’s new is that there is at least a little bit of official shame over it.

In the past week we’ve had “revelations” about fraternity gang rape, rape in the U.S. military, and fatal police brutality against people of color, specifically Black men.

Again, this is nothing new. What’s new is the sense of outrage.

Not since the Occupy Wall Street movement have ordinary Americans taken to the streets the way they have this week to protest the failure of our criminal justice system, exposed in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The response to the violations of women’s human rights has been less vigorous. I’d like to see the same kind of multiracial, cross-gender coalitions building to counter the systematic abuse of women’s bodies through forced sex—whether on college campuses, in the military, through sex trafficking and sex slavery, or rape as a weapon of war.

Again, this is an old story. Women have been raped since the beginning of time. We’ve discarded old, worn-out cultural narratives before and we can do it again.

On this Human Rights Day, I declare that the Age of Impunity is over.

The flip side of the surveillance state we all live under is that we the people are watching those in power too.

Not only are we watching, but we have the power to share information and mobilize ourselves for resistance as never before.

Flash mobs anyone? Whose streets/our streets?!

The new story I’m waiting for, which still seems like a distant mirage on the horizon, is the one that argues not just for human rights, but for the rights of all life on Earth.

Humans have been so arrogant in our conception of “rights.”

We do not have the right to destroy the forests, prairies and savannahs of our planet. We do not have the right to kill the coral reefs and drive marine life to extinction.

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We do not have the right to poison our rivers, lakes and aquifers with toxic chemicals, or to wreck the balance of our earthly climate with our unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and destruction of carbon-sinking greenery and soil.

To me there is a clear continuum between the torture of captives, the killing of unarmed citizens, the rape of girls, and the razing of forests and on-going extinction of millions of species.

The question I would like to pose on Human Rights Day is this: when are we humans going to step into our role as the ethical stewards of life that we have evolved to become?

Many wise people today say that it must be women who lead the way into this new ethical age. It must be women who write the new story.

I believe that every human being can access masculine and feminine strengths and characteristics, no matter the biology of the body we’ve been born into.

I believe that both women and men need to fight our patriarchal culture’s glorification of the masculine by tapping into our nurturing, life-giving feminine side.

Women and men, the Earth needs you now. We’re not just talking about Human Rights anymore, we’re talking about Species Rights, about Plant Rights, about the right of the living biosphere of our planet to flourish and continue its million-year progression into a thriving future.

We need to move from Human Rights Day to Earth Rights Day, and we don’t need to wait for the United Nations to get its act together to do it.

Let’s make every day Earth Rights Day, starting with—tomorrow.

Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.

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Communing with Grasshoppers: An Elemental Prayer

There’s nothing like an out-of-control fatal virus to make you stop and give thanks for each day of your still-unfolding life.

Every year when I teach the five-day Writing & Thinking orientation workshop at Bard College/Simon’s Rock, I end by leading the students on a slow, silent, meditative walk in the woods, and before we set out we read Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.


I do know how to pay attention,


how to fall down into the grass,


how to kneel down in the grass,


how to be idle and blessed,


how to stroll through the fields,


which is what I have been doing all day.


Tell me, what else should I have done?


Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do


with your one wild and precious life?

The students think and write and share their responses to that final question, which is the part of the poem that leaps out at them—understandably, as they are poised on the threshold of an exciting new chapter in their lives, starting college two years earlier than most of their peers.

The more I read this poem, the more drawn I am to the earlier lines, though. I love Oliver’s humility in admitting, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” followed by the suggestion that prayer can take the form of communing wordlessly with the unmown fields and the grasshopper that Oliver observes “gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

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Fewer and fewer of us humans have the chance, these days, to simply relax into the natural world around us.

Fewer and fewer of us are even aware that we inhabit a natural world—or if we do think about it, it’s more in terms of annoyance (“the mosquitoes are so bad this year!”) or fear (“the seas are rising! What are we going to do?!”) or utility (“the Arctic ice is melting, let’s get an oil rig up there and start drilling!”).

Oliver’s insight that prayer can take the form of “blessed idleness” in nature seems key to me now. That’s the kind of religion we need more of today.

Not the hysterical fanaticism of the pseudo-religious Islamic State, which, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland screaming “Off with their heads!” at every opportunity, is turning the beheading of civilians into a spectator sport.

Not the Cain-and-Abel warring of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims; not the Christian capitalist posturing of “do unto others” while simultaneously creating wealth disparities just as vast as back in the days of feudalism, with inherited misery for the masses and inherited luxury for the few.

In creating a society that sees and understands itself through the mediation of computer screens, we have, in a few short generations, succeeded in cutting ourselves off from what we once knew: that we are an integral part of our planet, and indeed of our universe.

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Unmowed field off the Appalachian Trail, South Egremont MA. Photo c. J. Browdy

Humans are not that different from grasshoppers, or birds, or maple trees. Everything alive on Earth is made out of the same basic building blocks of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, fueled by the intense energy of our sun.

Without sun, water and oxygen-rich air, all of us will die.

It makes perfect sense to me that we humans should make our everyday lives into a prayer in honor of the Elemental Nature that sustains us.

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Humans are the consciousness of the planet; we are the one species that can weigh actions in the present based on our knowledge of the past, our calculated predictions of the future, and our elaborate system of ethics.

If we could just pull our eyes away from our hypnotic screens more often and remember our kinship with every precious manifestation of life on our beautiful planet, it would become inconceivable that we could allow ourselves to destroy it all.

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia.  Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia. Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

The quest to restore balance to our natural systems should become the Holy Grail of our time, with all the best and brightest on the planet dedicating themselves to the grand collective effort.

I wish every young person on the planet, but especially the brilliant, pampered, over-stimulated, often-jaded young people of privilege, could have the chance to sit in a field in blessed idleness on a lovely summer day and commune with a grasshopper.

If we would only pay attention, we would see in “her enormous and complicated eyes” the reflection of our own human souls.

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Help Wanted: Willing Ring Bearer Seeks Quest

All week the energy of the summer solstice seemed to build in me. After a week of rain, the sun burst through and we had a whole week of clear, low-humidity days in which it appeared that you could see the plants growing happily, stretching their roots down into the soil and their leaves up towards the bright sky.

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

In anticipation of several weeks away (I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to Nova Scotia soon) I spent a lot of time out in the garden, planting vegetables and annuals, weeding flower beds, mulching and staking and tending.

morning lettuce

morning lettuce

pumpkins

pumpkins

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

It’s always hard to leave a garden in the summer, when you know the minute your back is turned the invasive weeds will grow with vindictive vigor, the slugs will multiply and munch away at the lettuce, and the Japanese beetles will arrive to decimate the roses.

However, I must get away from the confines of my little corner of the world to clear my head and ready myself for another year—for me, as a lifelong academic, the year always starts with the fall semester of school.

Last night, in honor of the longest day of the year, my son and I took an evening hike up a local mountain, and sat on a rock ledge facing west as the sun slowly and majestically dropped towards the horizon.

Eric in woods

We were happy to find some friends up there—a caterpillar with beautiful markings, making its way up an oak sapling, and a pair of orange-and-black butterflies, sunning themselves just like we were.

caterpillar

butterfly

solstice sunset

As we walked down again in the last rays of sunshine, I couldn’t help thinking about the strong contrast between the peaceful, lovely landscape of my home ground, where for many of us the most urgent question of the day is “what shall we have for dinner?” or “what movie shall we watch tonight?” and the social landscapes that cry out to me every day when I read the news headlines—arid, violent, rigid, harsh.

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

 

This summer solstice, as I sit in my peaceful green American haven, Iraq is again descending into crazed sectarian violence. The news reports that “militias are organizing” or “Mosul was taken” focus on the politicians playing the mad chess game of war, and the young men drawn into the armies as battlefield pawns. There is no mention of the mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those politicians and young men. The women rarely surface in the headlines, and when they do, the news is not good: a woman who dared to go out to a rally stripped and gang-raped, for example.

We hear about women obliquely in the reporting about the incredible surge of refugees living in camps this year: of the 51 million people living in refugee camps under U.N. supervision, half are children—which means that a high percentage of the other half are probably mothers and grandmothers. But that is in inference I am making by reading between the lines; those women are invisible in the official story.

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan's fifth largest city

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan’s fifth largest city

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I have to recognize the incredible privilege I have as an American woman, living in the heart of the heavily guarded gated community that this country has become.

Other people around the world are paying the price for the peace and plenty I have here in my home. And not just people—the animals and insects and birds and forests are paying the hugest price of all to maintain my privileged lifestyle.

How long can I continue to live comfortably with this knowledge?

The more time goes on, the more I see how prescient J.R.R. Tolkien was with his Lord of the Rings series. Berkshire County, where I live, is indeed “the Shire” of legend—peaceful, productive, green and jolly. Outside our borders, far, far away, the armies of Mordor are mobilizing in the midst of lands laid waste by the industries of the Dark Lord. Few in the Shire are worried; the chance of those nasty people and industries actually coming here seem remote indeed.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

In Lord of the Rings, it is Gandalf the wizard who serves as the bridge between these two very different landscapes. He gives Bilbo, and later Frodo, the charge of becoming the change agents who can make all the difference. The fight against the Dark Lord is fought on many fronts, but the quest to destroy the Ring of Power is paramount, and in order to destroy the ring Frodo must journey to the heart of the dark Empire itself.

I can’t escape the feeling that here in the quiet Shire where I live, ordinary people like me are being called upon, as Bilbo and Frodo were, to step up to the immense and dangerous challenge of resisting the darkness that is brewing on our borders.

But in our case there does not seem to be a Gandalf who can give us a mission and guide us as we set off on the quest. Not even the wisest leaders of the environmental and peace movements seem to be able to provide that kind of leadership. Worldwide, those leaders who claim to know with absolute certainty what is right and what to do are precisely the ones who are fomenting war and leading us down the path to environmental, civilizational suicide.

That must be why I am drawn to study with those who are exploring other epistemologies, outside of the normative range of politics, science, philosophy and religion.

Right now my bedside reading includes Anne Baring, Pam Montgomery and Pamela Eakins, along with Brian SwimmeMartin Prechtel, Bill Plotkin,  and Daniel Pinchbeck.

spring meadowWhen I look out into the green world stretching up towards our beneficent Sun, or glowing brightly under our sweet white Moon, I can see and hear the harmony that life on Earth evolved to sing. Put water and sunlight together, wait a few billion years, and you get this incredible lush planet, pulsating with life.

Human beings have flourished so well that now we have become overpopulated, an invasive species that is destructively taking over every last environmental niche on the planet. In a normal terrestrial cycle, we would go bust, our civilization would collapse, and with time the earth and the sun would gradually rebuild life in endlessly new creative forms.

Is that what is coming? Or will we be able to be the Gandalfs of our own generation, waking ourselves up out of our complacency here in the beautiful American Shire, and conquering the inner and outer Dark Lords that are laying waste to the planet?

What is the quest that is mine to carry out? What is yours? If we at least start asking these questions, with the greater good of the Earth in mind, perhaps the answers will emerge in time to set humanity on a better path.

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Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

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