Resisting Our Suicidal Culture: Are We All Aboard Germanwings?

We’ve passed the Spring Equinox and it continues to snow here in the Northeast. I feel like I’m stuck in Narnia under the Witch, and no sign of Aslan coming to the rescue.

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In the Narnia series, the Witch is a symbol of the dark side of humanity. Greedy, selfish, vain and cruel, she makes others suffer because it pleases her to do so.

C.S. Lewis, like J.R.R. Tolkien, took the struggle between Good and Evil right out of the Christian playbook. Both of these epic stories end with Good triumphing, but also with beloved characters simply moving on to a better world. In Christian traditions, that better world is called Heaven. You can only get there by dying.

For some of us, death does seem like a release, a chance to lay down one’s sorrows and find peace and comfort at last. We get a taste of it nightly when we dream—if we are able to sleep deeply and well.

Was it that pull toward peace that caused the Germanwings co-pilot to slam his plane into a mountain, killing himself and all 149 people aboard? Suicide that takes other innocent people along is reprehensible and incomprehensible. Yet it happens, more often than we might like to admit.

It’s easy to call the behavior of that suicidal co-pilot evil. But there are many other instances of human behavior resulting in cruelty and death that are harder to see and categorize. Often these actions are miniscule in their individual iterations, but together add up to horrifying, devastating impacts.

Most of what is going on with our relationship to our environment falls into this pattern of negligent evil.

For instance, when we buy a beautiful mahogany table and chair set for our porch, we don’t think about the rainforests that were bulldozed to create it. We don’t think about all the myriad life—the bright butterflies, exotic lizards and intelligent orangutans—that had to die so we could enjoy that table.

When we turn on the gas range to heat water for tea, we don’t think about the billions of gallons of water that are irrevocably contaminated through the fracking process to provide us with that gas. Likewise, when we fill up our car tank and rejoice to see the price of gas falling, we don’t think about the despoliation of the landscape and oceans that is going on in order to continue to provide us with cheap gas.

When we continue to support industries that destroy our environment, from industrial agriculture to the petrochemical industry to Big Oil and all the banks and subsidiaries that love them, we are each contributing to the crazy destabilization of our planet’s climate.

We are feeding the Witch that preys on every human being—the side of human nature that lacks empathy for other living beings and values short-term comfort and gratification over long-term well-being.

sustainable-happiness-lAs we round the corner into April, traditionally a month when human cultures of the northern hemisphere celebrate Spring and the return of warmth and green to the Earth, we must focus our attention on what Sarah van Gelder of YES! Magazine calls “sustainable happiness.”

In the introduction to her new edited collection, Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, Van Gelder points to research showing that what truly makes human beings happy is “loving relationships, thriving natural and human communities, opportunities for meaningful work, and a few simple practices, like gratitude.”

Van Gelder insists that “sustainable happiness is possible,” but “you can’t achieve it with a quick fix and it can’t be achieved at the expense of others.” It all “depends on the choices we make individually and as a society.”  In the book, she gives us a list of five principles to help move us in the right direction:

  1. “Stop the causes of trauma and support healing;
  2. Build economic and social equity;
  3. Value the gifts we each bring;
  4. Protect the integrity of the natural world;
  5. Develop practices that support our own well-being.”

That about sums up a plan for right living, doesn’t it? Easy to say, harder to put in practice in a social landscape that is seems to be so eternally under the spell of the Witch of destructive extractivism.

There are signs that the spell is weakening, though. Rivulets of indignation are spouting up. Individuals are awakening to their own power to imagine a different way of life, a different relation to each other and our planet.

We are beginning to talk with one another about making change, and acting on our deepest intuitions of what happiness would mean for ourselves, our loved ones and our beloved world. Through the networked power of the World Wide Web, these conversations and new paradigms can spread faster than ever before, giving us hope that there is still time to right the wrongs and stabilize the imbalances that threaten to turn our planet into a mass grave on a scale never seen before in human history.

The captains of industry and their hired politicians are threatening to slam our entire civilization into the side of a mountain, metaphorically speaking. Are we going to sit quietly in our seats and let it happen? Or are we going to pound on the door, like the heroic pilot of the Germanwings airplane, who did everything he could to get through to the insane man at the controls and bring his plane home safely?

Looking out at the relentless snowfall of April, I know it’s time to awaken the Aslan in each one of us. It’s time to fight for the survival of the world we love.

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Stepping Out With Confidence on International Women’s Day 2015

Although far less widely known and celebrated in the U.S. than Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day is a much more interesting holiday.

It is one of the few truly global holidays, observed in most countries around the world (hence the prominence it gets at the United Nations, that international enclave in the heart of New York City).

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Unlike Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, IWD is not a romantic or family-oriented holiday. On International Women’s Day, women accept recognition for their hard work and achievements in both the public and private spheres, and gather to advocate for further advancement down the road to full gender equality.

Gender equality looks different depending on where in the world you are located. But at its core is one of the fundamental principles of human rights: that no human being should be discriminated against on the basis of their physical attributes.

Even in the U.S., supposedly a bastion of liberal values, we have a long way to go before we arrive at the goal of gender equality. This is partly a vision problem: there is still a fair amount of confusion over what a society in which men and women were treated equally would look like.

In every society in transition, there is anxiety about change from those who have been benefiting from unearned privilege (in the U.S., that would be white males, especially of the Christian variety). Giving up privilege is hard.

It was good to see Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make the case in The New York Times this week about why gender equality, “in the boardroom and the bedroom,” will make both men and women happier, healthier, more successful and less stressed out.

It was also good to see a group of Afghan men taking the unprecedented step of standing up for women’s human rights in their country by donning burkas themselves—in much the same vein as the “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes” campaign that has men marching together in women’s high heels to protest sexual assault.

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Burkas and high heels are very different in intention—the one aimed at completely covering up a woman’s body and face, the other aimed at accentuating and drawing attention to women’s legs—but similar in effect: these are dress codes that hamper women’s ability to stand strong and step out comfortably and confidently into the world.

I know Western women who will argue that they feel more confident wearing their heels, and I’m sure there are Afghan women who prefer to step out in public shielded by their burkas. But this has everything to do with the world in which they operate, dominated by an often hostile, or at least aggressively attentive male gaze. It’s not about their own comfort in their own bodies.

No, we’re not going to get back to the Garden in which Adam and Eve romped about gaily without so much as a fig leaf coming between them and their lovely natural surroundings.

But this International Women’s Day, let’s reaffirm the basic principle that all human beings are created equal and deserve equal human rights, no matter what they look like and no matter where they live—beginning with the right to step out confidently into a affirming, welcoming world.

As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon puts it, “To be truly transformative, the post-2015 development agenda must prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment. The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential.”

Amen to that! And as the International Women’s Day 2015 theme says, it’s time to “Make It Happen!”

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: A Big Tent for Honoring and Encouraging Women’s Creative Voices

Stockbridge, MA.  Photo J. Browdy 2015

Stockbridge, MA. Photo J. Browdy 2015

We’re still in the deep-freeze here in the Berkshires weather-wise, but the bright sunshine is telling us that underneath the ice and snow the buds and shoots of spring are stirring.

And we creative women of the Berkshires are stirring too, as we launch ourselves today into the big beautiful Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the biggest celebration of Women’s History Month happening under one banner anywhere in the U.S.A.

Do you know of any other grassroots Festival that spreads itself out across the whole month of March, with an event celebrating women’s creative expression and unique perspectives every single day from March 1 – 31?

We can do it here in the Berkshires because of the generous talent of our creative women, who are willing to step up and out into the spotlight to share who they are and what they know with our appreciative audiences; and because of the generosity of our sponsors and donors, who know that when more women and girls share their ideas and talents in the public sphere, the whole community benefits.

Mary Pipher used the figure of Shakespeare’s Ophelia to describe the loss of confidence and self-esteem that can often undermine teenage girls, just as teen boys are becoming louder and more self-confident. More recently, research has shown that while many boys have a socially reinforced tendency to take risks, many girls tend to keep their hands down, literally and figuratively, unless they’re absolutely sure they have the right answer.

This means that teen girls and young adults often have less practice in taking the risk of speaking out in public settings, and over time, they tend to fall into the habit of observing rather than participating, following rather than taking the lead.

I know, because I was that girl. As a child, my mother describes me as being a chatterbox who loved to show off my knowledge—for example, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of local birds and flowers, which were taught to me by my grandmother, a biologist and nature lover. I could rattle off the names and characteristics of a hundred birds, and I knew where to find dozens of different native plants that grew in the woods and fields around our home.

JB at 15But that generous volubility did not accompany me out of childhood. As a teenager I was the girl who got an A on every paper, but almost never spoke in class. When I did take the risk to speak, I was overcome with a fear that set my voice trembling and a flush rising uncomfortably to my face. It was much easier to just stay silent.

It took me many years of forcing myself, as an adult, to step into the spotlight to teach, give presentations and lead community groups, before that unwarranted stage fright dissipated. For many other women, who don’t have opportunities in their professional life to speak up, the habit of silence and hanging back persists.

I would like to believe that with more and more women entering the workforce and doing well in their careers, this gender imbalance is fading, but I know that’s not yet true. Even the fabulously successful Sheryl Sandberg is aware of how important it is that women and girls are encouraged to take the risk of speaking their minds, and to do so with poise and confidence.

That is my underlying goal with organizing the big Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: to open up multiple opportunities for women and girls in my home community to inspire each other and their audiences with their creative voices, in order to build a momentum that will continue to grow and develop year-round, flowing out into our communities in ways that we can’t entirely predict.

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, "Searching for the Moon: A Heroine's Journey" in a BFWW event

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, “Searching for the Moon: A Heroine’s Journey” in a BFWW event

Men and women may be equal, in theory at least, but we are not the same. We have different sensibilities, born of our different biological composition and our different experiences—differences that should be celebrated and honored.

I am looking forward to a joyful month of celebrating women’s creativity in the Berkshires with many friends, neighbors and visitors. The momentum we build, event by event, will send us soaring into our much-anticipated springtime.

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