In this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?
~ Barry Lopez ~
My youngest nephew is standing at the gates of adulthood appalled by what he finds beyond them. He has a lot of company, of all ages. But I feel particular sympathy for the youngest and tenderest among us. It is one thing, at my age, to acknowledge that I will not see the promised land in the span I have left. But for our young, too many are wondering if they will have land at all.
Ira wants to be doing things but feels the tasks are overwhelming, as, indeed, they are. Coming to grips with the multiplicity of things, too often disastrous, that we have no control over staggers the imagination and drains the soul. Yet he, also like so many, is not standing still. He is willing to step into the fray. At 26 he was one of dozens of people running in the primary for New York City mayor, on an anti-corruption platform.
Let’s begin with the assumption that creativity engulfs the whole universe and each of us. It’s not a question of becoming creative, it’s a question of enabling the creativity that’s already suffusing us to proceed more effectively.
~ Brian Swimme ~
Though it was almost fifty years ago I vividly remember the existential crisis of my twenties. Then it was the Vietnam War. The ongoing battles for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. Watergate. Corruption. The environment. Crises that only have new names now, if that. Some are more urgent than ever. Although I can still be visited by echoes of that time, it was long ago replaced by a life full of experiences that showed me why living is both challenging and gorgeous.
When Ira and I talk about the state of the world, I do very Aunt Betsey kinds of things. Urge him to help get his cohort to vote. Try to convince him that his clever, curious, playful self would have a good time taking his engineering degree into the new field of biomimicry. But what stayed with me after a recent visit was his asking where I find comfort in the face of our challenges.
I go out into nature, I said. For at least an hour every day, I am grounded, enmeshed in the earth I rose from. Reminded of the deep love I feel for the growing, rustling, blooming, singing life around me. Reminded that there are mysteries my being both flows out of and into. That we carry joy with us, no matter what our other burdens. Its readiness to leap out at the slightest provocation — a beam of light making its way through the forest canopy, a rustle of crisp, golden leaves, raindrops on a petal — assures us that joy is a state of being. A gift of the earth that created creatures to feel joy. The photos accompanying this essay are from moments that suddenly filled me with joy, paired with quotes that buoy courage and commitment.
It isn’t only the beauty and peace of the natural world that I find sustaining, though both are enormous. I also find myself inside a cosmos that formed everything that surrounds me, including my own walking, conscious, visual self. The powers governing and endlessly creating the universe and the tiny piece of it I am traversing are the same energies flowing through me, through all of us, continually creative. And continually healing.
I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.
~ John Seed ~
This is very important. Being with the growing green world assures me that Earth is not only capable of healing herself, but determined to do so. This may mean she will ultimately shrug our clever but unwise species off her beautiful shoulders and go on without us. But it also may mean that she will rise up in us as agents of healing and evolution. This is the most mysterious and wonderful vision — that we embody the very energies that create the cosmos minute by minute.
The problem, from our very limited point of view, is that Earth’s evolutionary time frame is long, full of fits and starts, trending backward as well as forward. Given the arc of history, there are no assurances that we will be born into a peaceful time or place. Very discomforting for the human race at this precarious point, especially for those starting in life, afraid their generation may see us out.
My vote for the best advice ever given goes to theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The answers to the question of what enlivens us, however varied, will all have one thing in common: what makes us come alive is something we love.
One of the things that my personal grief of the past two years has taught me is that love is a very powerful organizing force in our psyches. This is easiest to see when we lose a life partner, or face an empty nest after children are grown, or lose a deeply meaningful role of any kind. The love continues as strong as ever, but without its animating focus our energies float free of their moorings. In a world that seems to be falling apart, the loss of personal significance, of confidence in a future that looks familiar, of hope that we can surmount our difficulties unhooks a lot of energy from its various anchors.
The response, over time, is to turn to another passion, sometimes to find a new one altogether. But, as we see from the bitter rancor governing our culture today, the loss of meaning and predictability in our lives can easily lend itself to choosing difficult passions like rage and hatred to fill the void. Even when we don’t choose darker directions, and most of us don’t, it can be hard to find our way to the energies that will foster transformation.
But passionate love is definitely one of those crucial energies. A friend once shared the Buddhist tenet that love and fear cannot exist at the same time. I, mothering through the wilds of adolescence at the time, could easily see how fear and love can coexist. And now I hold both fear and love for our planet and all its dazzling and formidable manifestations. But I apprehend the underlying wisdom. If we look out at the landscape and see only what is going wrong instead of what we can love back to life we won’t have the energy to do the work it will take. Anger and fear can be strong motivators, but they are exhausting places to operate from. Love is inexhaustible.
On the other hand, burying our anger and fear, or feeling them and holding onto them, immobilizes us in a tangle of fury and despair. Another Buddhist tenet is to allow everything to rise, to be felt, to be released. Eco philosopher Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects helps people do this through a spiral of grief, gratitude, and renewal. These difficult emotions arise, she points out, from our greatest gift as humans: compassion. Honoring them allows us to recommit to our work, to the things that make us come alive. To live out the love we feel for our cause.
Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.
~ Joanna Macy ~
There are environmental activists and organizations who have made profound contributions for decades. There are others still in their teens who yet have lit sparks that resonate around the world. There are millions and millions of people working tirelessly to save rivers, forests, mountains, salmon, birds, bees, insects, habitats. There are people working on redesigning our built environment, solving the problems of poverty and hunger, inventing new economies. In the midst of what looks like endless turmoil, rivers are getting rights to thrive, vast biodiversity corridors are being created, there is real progress on renewable energy.
Will it be enough in the face of the difficulties we face? Will we summon the courage to transform? There are no guarantees. That’s the hardest thing to say to the young. Our efforts may not bear the fruit we long for. And yet, for the sake of those to come, it is up to us to come alive, to bring passionate love to what we want to heal, to weave our strand into the fabric of our planet. Trusting that through such love it is Earth herself who is handing us our thread.
Between the scientists and engineers, philosophers and poets, Indigenous leaders, climate activists and engaged youth, we know what to do and how to do it. We have a multiplicity of tools, we have a kaleidoscopic vision where each of us can offer up the gifts that are ours, and most importantly, we have the spiritual will to change the course of our destiny on fire.
~ Rebecca Solnit and Terry Tempest Williams ~
I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new monthly posts.