I have been reading Eve Ensler’s incredibly powerful cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, with my students this week. We watched Ensler’s 2010 TED Talk, “Suddenly My Body,” given while she was still practically bald from the chemo treatments; and you could have heard a pin drop in the room, everyone was so swept away by Ensler’s passionately delivered paean to the intricate interconnections between the individual body and what she later came to call “the body of the world.”
This is a concept I have most often heard expressed in Buddhist circles. Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama talk about “inter-being,” and how it is egotistical, arrogant, androcentric and just plain wrong for human beings to imagine that we are somehow separate, over and above other livings beings on the planet.
Joanna Macy, extending Arne Naess’ concept of the “ecological self,” uses the body as a metaphor to describe the futility of imagining ourselves as immune from the destruction we are wreaking on our planet.
The concept of the “ecological self,” Macy says, is important now because “moral exhortation does not work. Sermons seldom hinder us from following our self-interest as we conceive it.
“The obvious choice, then, is to extend our notions of self-interest. For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, ‘Don’t saw off your leg. That would be an act of violence.’ It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is part of your body. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin. They are our external lungs. We are beginning to realize that the world is our body” (World as Lover, World as Self, 157).
Eve Ensler has spent much of her life recovering from violence (she was a sexually assaulted and battered by her father as a child), bearing witness to violence against other women and girls, and creating powerful creative works, organizations and movements to end violence against women and girls.
And yet, she says, it was not until the jolt of realizing that her body had been invaded by cancer that she was able to overcome her ingrained alienation from her own body, born of the dissociation that was a survival tactic in her childhood.
Once she allowed herself to become fully connected with her body, it was but a short step to see the cancer in her uterus as symbolic of the much greater cancers of over-consumption and unsustainable growth afflicting the body of the world.
“Cancer is essentially built in our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically. We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line, close to the water. Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe….We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).
But as Ensler discovers how fiercely she wants to live, to survive the cancer, she realizes that human beings are propelled as much toward life as toward death. In a further twist of Freud’s insight into the immortal battle between Eros and Thanatos, she realizes that love is the answer—a fierce, unstoppable love for the battered, assaulted but still beautiful Earth, our mother, our home, our self.
Like Eve Ensler, I have spent much of my life focusing on the stories of women, and working to empower women to speak our truths and change the world for the better.
As I ponder the way forward now, in these end times of environmental tragedy, I am wondering whether women have a special role to play in bringing about the kind of radical social change that we need to survive into the future.
Ensler uses the City of Joy, which she worked so hard to build in Bukavu, DRC (with the help of women all over the world contributing through the V-Day infrastructure), as a model for the kind of new life-giving, life-enhancing community that the world needs now.
It’s a City of Women, founded on the following ten principles:
1. TELL THE TRUTH
2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE
3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
4. RAISE YOUR VOICE
5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST
7. FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH
8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION
9. PRACTICE KINDNESS
10. TREAT YOUR SISTER’S LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN
These seem like sound principles on which to base any human community, and particularly one founded on ashes, corpses and pain, as is the case in the Congo (but isn’t almost every human society founded, as Marx said, on blood?).
Women stay for six months at the City of Joy, during which they recover their physical and mental health with all kinds of therapies, participate in skills training, and get ready to return to their homes as leaders who can become change agents for peace and sanity in one of the most brutal and brutalized regions of the planet.
I know that there can be no lasting change that doesn’t also include men. There can be no “City of Women” that survives past a single generation.
Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy. Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas (fistulas) due to violent rape.
I also know that it is important to recognize and acknowledge righteous anger at those responsible for all the destruction and violence.
We have to speak the truth that in the Congo, as on Earth overall, it has been men, acting with the blessing of our patriarchal religious, political, legal and social structures, who have been responsible for the machines, technologies and brutalities that have been so destructive to individual women and men, as well as to the environment without which we cannot live.
Women have often been complicit and have enjoyed the fruits of industrialization. Women, especially privileged women, have gone along for the ride.
But it was never the vision of women that created the weapons and bulldozers, the chain saws and cars, the nuclear power plants and oil rigs. All of those implements were envisioned, created and deployed by the men in charge of human society—especially the Europeans and their colonized offshoots—these last few centuries.
We can’t know now whether it would have been different if women had been allowed education and access to the board rooms and laboratories and congressional chambers where society-changing decisions got made, particularly during the crucial two centuries of industrialization.
We can’t change the past. We can only look forward and, as mandated in the City of Joy’s Guiding Principles, “stop waiting to be rescued, tell the truth, and use it to fuel a revolution.”
At death’s door, Eve Ensler realized that human beings and the world we have so profoundly altered are now at the threshold of a new era.
“What is coming is not like anything we have known before,” she says. “Your dying, my dying, is necessary and irrelevant and inevitable. Do not be afraid, no, death will not be our end. Indifference will be, disassociation will be, collateral damage, polar caps melting, endless hunger, mass rapes, grotesque wealth.
“The change will come from those who know they do not exist separately but as part of the river….You worry about germs and stockpile your herbs, but they will not save you, nor will your fancy house or gated villages. The only salvation is kindness. The only way out is care” (214).
I would like to quote the entire last chapter of Ensler’s remarkable memoir, but I won’t—just go buy the book and read it for yourself. And then, as she says, “let us turn our pain to power, our victimhood to fire, our self-hatred to action, our self-obsession to service” (216).
Women, it’s time for us to rise and give birth to a new human relationship with the planet and with each other. It’s past time.
Men are most welcome to join us in this life-saving mission, as long as they are men in touch with their feminine side, their life-giving, nurturing, relational side.
All of us humans possess both masculine and feminine energies and traits. What we need now is balance. Balance within each one of us that can become a catalyst for the balance our planet so desperately needs.
PS: Check out this TED Talk by Eve from just before she came down with cancer, talking, miraculously, about the importance of the “girl cell” in both men and women.