21 Questions for 2020: #12

#12. What guidance is being offered to us by the Coronavirus about how to live as Gaians?

The little RNA packet of Coronavirus comes with a critical message for us: we are integral members of the Gaian community, and with Gaia we sink or swim. 

To our capitalist economic system, which has been running most human beings and all non-human beings ragged, Coronavirus raps out a forceful, inescapable directive: STOP. 

Stop the fast-flying, hard-driving, super-destructive lifestyle of industrial civilization. Stop the planes and cars, the production of trinkets and baubles, industrial agriculture, the endless maws of the pulp factories and the pumping of fossil fuels. 

To each of us as individual Coronavirus says sternly: Stop running the rat race of school and jobs. Slow down, breathe and remember who you are and what’s truly important to you. 

In my life I have often gotten sick (with a cold or flu) when I am tired and harried and need to take it easy. My body will only take so much of being driven forward before it rebels, accepts a virus, and forces me to stay in bed for a few days.

That’s what is happening now, on a global scale. Coronavirus is forcing us all to slow down, maybe even to stop. 

In this great, worldwide slowdown there is an opportunity to deeply reassess how we have been living—individually and as communities, as countries and as a global human society. 

There is an opportunity to recognize the interconnectedness of the Gaian system; to make new personal, political and planetary choices according to our growing awareness that our own health and well-being depends on the health and well-being of the entire system

Your body is a microcosm of the planetary body. We are all made from the same stardust, animated by the same cosmic energy. The Coronavirus is another form of that same animated matter, with an operating system that impels it to exuberant life and reproduction. In its whirling dance from person to person it taps out a clear message for us, its unwilling hosts: slow down, take care, or return to the matrix to be born anew. 

Today, as I slow down and ponder, I cannot offer answers, only more questions. 

  • How can we put the guidance of the Coronavirus—to slow down and take care—into practice through social policies and institutions? 
  • How can we transform education, work, human relations and Gaian relations to reflect the wisdom of the Coronavirus? 

Your thoughts most cordially welcome and most urgently needed.

21 Questions for 2020: #11

#11. How can we practice the art of being more fully human in this time of crisis?

Ben Roberts and the Now What?! team are hosting a global conversation on various aspects of this question March 23 – April 14, 2020, and as my “21 Questions for 2020” series is one of the Now What?! Engagement Streams, it makes sense for me to pose this question to myself and my Transition Times readers now. 

To begin, what does it mean to be “more fully human”? 

Humans have always had a sense of our own potential, both positive and negative. 

We know we are capable of great love, and also great hate. Great creative industry, and great destruction. We can be profoundly empathetic, and also the cruelest of all the animals. We live in the uncomfortable awareness of how these binary oppositions shape our experience, in ways we can’t always control. 

Of late, this sense of polarity has been growing stronger. Could it be that the binary mentality of the computer code is coming to dominate our thinking, leading us to see things in moral absolutes? 

Whatever your political stance, it has become a kneejerk reaction to say, “My position is right, yours is wrong, and never the twain shall meet.”  

But then along comes a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic, and suddenly these political differences are revealed as superficial and even rather ridiculous. 

Coronavirus doesn’t see Democrats and Republicans, white people and people of color; it doesn’t see gender or nationality, class or religious persuasion. It sees humans—its delicious prey. It reminds us how profoundly alike and interconnected we all are—and how fragile we are as individuals and as societies. 

In the recognition of our common frailty lies the potential for becoming more fully human, in ways that will take us beyond the old binary oppositions into what Barbara Marx Hubbard called an era of “conscious evolution.” 

A new hero(ine) leaps into action

For example, let’s take that old bugaboo, masculine vs. feminine. 

The pandemic is pushing us to become more fully human in the typically feminine sense of that term: more fully loving, empathetic, relational, nurturing, and altruistic.

And also more fully human in the more typically masculine sense of the term: more fully active, protective, galvanizing, courageous, and problem-solving.

In this brave new hero’s journey of 2020, the hero cannot be the rugged individual quester of yore, going off to slay a distant dragon. Against the enemy virus, the best weapons are not made of steel, but of gauze. 

Indeed, the metaphor of “war” or “battle” is not really appropriate for our current crisis. We can’t “fight” for our loved ones and our society; we can only “take care” of ourselves and each other.

What a huge shift! It’s as if the virus has done what centuries of feminist activism could not do: effected a merging of the hero and the heroine of our old stories, calling forth the best of what has here-to-fore been deemed “masculine” and “feminine” into a new androgynous type of more fully human being, leaping into action in hospitals and food pantries, in banks and businesses, in homes and shelters across the world. 

At least, this is the potential that is now glimmering into reality.  

Leading from the heart

As Joanna Macy reminded us long ago, being more fully human lies in becoming the prophesied Shambhala warriors, our courage motivated not by aggression but by compassion. 

In a more recent transmission, retired Mt. Holyoke College professor and dean Penny Gill received similar guidance from a voice identifying himself as “Manjushri,” who said that the way to become more fully human in this time of crisis is through the heart, not the mind.  

“The human heart center must open,” Manjushri says in What in the World is Going On? “When we say “heart center” we refer to that seat of consciousness at the center of the human person that is informed both by deep values and a complex understanding of the real world. It is the nexus where knowledge and human feelings are brought together to nourish and direct a richer and more inclusive understanding of people in their community, earth and the universe (73).

What prevents the opening of the human heart, Gill writes, is fear. And this brings us to the “crisis” part of the Now What?! question. 

Overcoming fear by recognizing interconnection

I don’t think any one of us is exempt from feeling the terrible fear of this moment. The gyrations of the stock market reflect our individual and collective panic as we watch the global economy going into free-fall in response to the pandemic. And we are being told that the only way to stop the virus is to stop the production and consumption that has been the hallmark of our western way of life for all of our lifetimes.

Essentially we are being told to go back to a pre-industrial lifestyle for a few weeks or months, but we have lost all the tools and knowledge that our ancestors had of how to live self-sufficiently, simply and locally on the Earth. We cannot be blamed for our fear of this sudden crisis. It’s like being suddenly cast off the mother ship in a little boat with a few supplies and no guarantee of rescue.

What we have not lost is the innate human ability to reach out to one another in compassion. We are instinctively tribal—a term that has gained a pejorative connotation in recent history, but can also be understood in its positive guise as a caring, united community. In the 21st century, we have the potential to understand our tribe in a much larger, more inclusive sense. 

Manjushri, through Penny Gill, invites us to move beyond the fears that divide us into a profound recognition of our interdependence:

“We are looking now on a world built upon fear,” he says. “It is uninhabitable, dysfunctional and teetering on the edge of collapse. The heart-center must be restored to its central function as the source of both compassion and wisdom. The cultural values and practices accumulated around fear must be altered dramatically, before they undermine earthly life itself.” 

Humans must come to see that “the fundamental reality of human life—indeed of earthly life—is interdependence, not solitary individualism and competitiveness. It is the false belief in the latter which gives rise to so much fear, and from fear arises a cascade of dysfunction, conflict, and frankly, stupidity in social and communal human life. The only antidote to this is life from the heart center. That will be possible, one person at a time, as fear is named, deconstructed and disabled” (84). 

Getting past our fears is not going to be easy, and yet I do think this is what is being asked of us as we seek to become more fully human in this time of crisis. 

Now what?!

How to do it? Staying active, in heart-centered projects, seems to be key. A frontline doctor in New York City wrote recently in The New York Times: “Please flatten the curve and stay at home, but please do not go into couch mode. Like everyone, I have moments where imagining the worst possible Covid-19 scenario steals my breath. But cowering in the dark places of our minds doesn’t help. Rather than private panic, we need public-spirited action. Those of us walking into the rooms of Covid-19-positive patients every day need you and your minds, your networks, your creative solutions, and your voices to be fighting for us.”

I have been heartened in recent days to see networks of “caremongerers” springing up in communities across the globe. Even our political leaders, who have seemed so heartless in the past, are responding with greater compassion now—and yes, we can cynically view this as self-interest, but even so it illustrates a dawning awareness that to be more fully human in a time of crisis is to understand our interconnectedness. Together we swim, or together we sink. 

And though I said that our ancestors’ knowledge of how to live self-sufficiently and sustainably has been lost, that is not entirely true. There are those who have been preparing for this moment of crisis for a long time: Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movementFindhorn and the Global Eco-village NetworkSchumacher College, the California Institute of Integral Studies, the permaculturists and the regenerative economists…there is indeed already a large global network of creative thinkers who have been working steadily, cultivating the compassionate, heart-centered wisdom and knowledge that we will need now to become more fully human, in this time of crisis. 

Many of these thinkers will be joining the Now What?! conversations over the next few weeks, and I hope you will too! Our World Wide Web is a wonderful tool of interconnection, as so many of us are discovering as our livelihoods are shifted, without fanfare, into remote online work. 

The art of being more fully human in this time of crisis starts with simply showing up and asking, as Julia Alvarez asked in the poignant essay she contributed to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: “How can I help”?

Find out more and register for Now What?! conversations here.  

21 Questions for 2020: #10

#10. COVID-19 is trying to tell us something. What is the message in that virus-shaped, ever-replicating bottle?

Much like climate disruption or computer viruses, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 is showing us just how interconnected we are. What happens anywhere in the world, to any of us, concerns all of us, everywhere. 

Like heat waves, viruses do not discriminate, although it is true that the most vulnerable will always be disproportionately affected. On Earth these days, this means not only poor humans, but also all non-humans. 

I have been thinking about the bats and the pangolins, which are suspected of being the initial carriers of COVID-19. They have been suffering lately—bat populations have been crashing worldwide (along with the insects they depend on), and the poor pangolins, which look something like golden armadillos, have been hunted practically to extinction by the Chinese. COVID-19 is making it clear that what happens to other species matters to all of us. Their suffering will come back to haunt us too. 

Pangolin

Within the human realm, COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way about the dangers of outsourcing manufacturing supply chains to faraway countries. When the Chinese got sick, their health crisis reverberated around the world and hit global investors especially hard. Corporate executives had imagined that they could profit endlessly from reliance on “cheap” labor, and turned a blind eye to the effect this has had on the American working class. The opioid crisis and ever-rising suicide rates bore witness to the despair in America’s abandoned manufacturing communities. 

COVID-19 is showing corporate chieftains and investors that in the age of climate disruption and pandemics, exploiting some people and neglecting others is a losing strategy. Local resilience and self-sufficiency is essential, and will pay a “happiness dividend” as it puts people back to meaningful work in their own communities. 

COVID-19 is shining a light on the tattered state of the American social safety net. People are at the mercy of the health insurance industry, which can and often does bankrupt sick people with inflated health bills. The number of workers in the part-time gig economy, from adjunct professors to Uber drivers, continues to swell, and not only are these people less likely to be insured, they rarely have paid sick leave or any job security. COVID-19 is making it clear how this sorry state of affairs for millions of Americans affects all of us. 

COVID-19 is also weighing in on the question of air travel, forcing us to recognize that just because we can hop on a plane does not mean we should. Burgeoning air traffic is not only spreading pathogens around the globe, it’s also a key driver of climate disruption. But we now have technology that makes it quite possible to travel virtually. Though I can’t imagine that virtual reality will ever be able to match real live experiences, there are many cases where face-to-face interactions could be accomplished via video-conference. Many global gatherings could take place online. COVID-19 is urgently suggesting we reconsider the benefits of armchair traveling.

In my own field, higher education, the coronavirus is pushing faculty to think more creatively about how to deliver course content and evaluate student work online. While MOOCs (massive online courses) have not worked so well, it’s possible that smaller groups of students, under the attentive guidance of faculty, could learn just fine online. In fact for some students, it might even be better that way. 

Classrooms are often fraught, anxiety-inducing spaces, and the whole experience of living on-campus has in many ways lost its allure for young people—not to mention being very expensive. If we reconfigured education so that most content was delivered online, students could meet in person to focus on social skill-building, like how to deliver an effective presentation, or how to have a respectful, dynamic discussion. Or simply to have some old-fashioned fun together!

If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: we are being pushed to become much more thoughtful about how we live and work together on our crowded planet. COVID-19 is forcing us to recognize that there is no way humans can flourish in a world where so many animals are abused and suffering; so many people are exploited, sick and unhappy; and where the Earth herself is over-crowded, contaminated, diseased and dying. 

In this interconnected world, what we do to others (whether other humans or other species and the natural world) will come back to us in spades. COVID-19 is telling us loud and clear: It’s time to clean up our act. 

21 Questions for 2020: #9

#9. Do we still need “women” or “feminine qualities” in this brave new post-gender world? 

For many years I taught an introductory gender studies course in which I divided the semester into thirds and spent equal time focusing on women’s issues, men’s issues, and LGBTQIA issues. The last time I taught it, a few years ago, the students had little patience for talking about the issues of men and women—categories they considered so passé, so last-century. They were excited by the fluidity of gender identity and felt the best path forward for humanity would be gender-neutral, leaving the travails of gender-based discrimination and male privilege behind. 

Gender-neutral rest rooms have sprouted on many college campuses, including mine, but the realities of life in gendered human bodies remain pretty much the same. The same old issues that women have been dealing with for centuries—equal pay for equal work, equal access to leadership roles, freedom from sexual harassment and assault, equal participation in childcare and housework, for starters—are still unresolved. 

I don’t cling to gender identity in any conservative way—I wrote my BA thesis, many years ago, on the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t think men or women are best served by the extremes of gender identity. 

But look closely at today’s “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” type-casting, and what you see is a default towards masculine identity. It seems that the whole idea of gender-neutrality is just another way of eroding respect for women and femininity, yet again. 

So why do I think it’s important to maintain the categories of male and female, masculinity and femininity, when so much harm has been inflicted in their names over the years?

It’s the body, stupid. Sorry, I don’t mean to be crass. But we inhabit bodies that are not the same. 

As far as spirit goes, once we are free of our bodies, I don’t believe sex and gender are relevant. But while we’re here in embodied existence on Earth, just like all other mammals and almost every other life form, we have specialized bodies that are adapted for certain biological tasks. 

Feminist theory shied away from acknowledging this reality, calling it, pejoratively, “essentialism”: the reduction of women to our bodies. In the spirit of “we can do everything men can do” feminist politics, it did not serve us to call attention to our biological differences. 

Nevertheless, such differences persist. Even in a post-gender world, women still menstruate, get pregnant, have babies, and nurse babies. Women, especially young women, are still the primary targets of sexual assault by men. Women have higher amounts of hormones like estrogen and oxytocin, which predispose us, biologically, to be nurturing and relational. 

These basic biological differences affect us at home, in school, in the workplace—in every aspect of our lives. We cannot just wish them away. And more importantly, we should not wish them gone, in some kind of brave new post-gender fantasy.

Human differences are glorious and precious. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all clones of some genderless, colorless, characterless human. 

Rather than trying to flatten out gender differences, we should be working to cultivate the best in each one of us, elevating the human potential that exists in equal measure in every human embodiment. 

I believe that gender identity is a fluid spectrum, not a static binary opposition. Every human has qualities that we have been socially conditioned to think of as “masculine,” as well as qualities that society has told us are “feminine.” What has happened for too long is that the so-called feminine qualities, like nurturing, collaboration and emotionality, have been considered less valuable than the so-called masculine qualities, like aggression, competition and intellectual prowess. 

We can see what our society values in very stark terms in the national budget. How much do we spend on the military, vs. how much we spend on education and the wellbeing of children? 

Societal decisions like where to put our money are not gender-neutral. Choosing to spend more on weapons and warfare than on parental leave and high-quality day care, not to mention food security and education, have consequences for men and women. The financial pressures most American families endure are not the result of individual choices, but social policy. 

Why are our divorce rates so high? Why are so many women struggling to raise children alone? Why is it so hard for women to succeed professionally in a climate that demands 110% commitment to the job in the child-bearing years?

The answer to these social problems is not to do away with women as a social category. We should be celebrating and supporting women’s remarkable biological ability to give birth and nurture young children. This is not to say we want to return to the days when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery. Not at all. 

If women got more social support for their role in those critical child-bearing years, as they do in the more advanced countries, we would be able to take our important relational skills into politics and the professions and make every field a warmer, more nurturing place. This would result in a better world not just for women, but for all humanity. 

Social change comes very slowly. We won’t be voting for a woman president in the 2020 U.S. elections. We still have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

For the sake of future generations, not just of humans but of all life on this planet, we must persist in proclaiming the value and worth of the “feminine” qualities of nurturing and collaboration. Let’s honor every human being who embodies these qualities and brings them to a world so badly in need of loving attention. 

On this first International Women’s Day of the 2020s, in the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, let’s  celebrate the remarkable resilience and courage of women, worldwide. The crucial fight for gender equality is still very much game on

21 Questions for 2020: #8

#8. From pandemics to politics to melting poles and wildfires—how are we to understand the rapid-fire changes sweeping over our planet? How should we respond? 

I know I am far from alone in feeling battered by the constant deluge of shocking news. There is no time to ponder and assimilate; we are like human shock absorbers—take a punch and keep on rolling. 

2020 started off with the wildfires burning millions of acres in Australia, and has moved on rapidly to the uncontained spread of the COVID-19 virus, followed by a global stock market slide so steep that we are suddenly hearing the R-word—Recession. The poles are melting dramatically, while the usual political processes are melting down in the wake of Russian intervention designed to sow distrust and chaos. 

What in the world is going on? 

The transition of our planet is speeding up and intensifying. We are all feeling the pressure of the birth canal now, and it’s far from comfortable to both witness and be part of such rapid and profound change.

The fires and floods; the climate disruptions; the pandemics and the economic and political upheavals—all are part of the vast interconnected system called Gaia, and she is working now to return balance to our planet. The first task is to check the growth of the invasive species called Homo sapiens, which has been responsible for the overheating of the planetary atmosphere, the loss of so many other species, and the contamination of soils, seas and air.

We know that humans have pushed the planet beyond her carrying capacity—not so much in numbers as in consumption. The planet could support billions of people, if we lived in harmony with her life support systems, rather than raping, pillaging and destroying our home. 

Take a look around. You are living in a very rare moment on Earth—a slow-motion tipping point, with the luxury of time to apprehend what is happening, and perhaps even time to affect the outcome. 

Are you going to hold on for dear life to the old ways that brought us to this crisis? Or are you going to let go of the past and let the winds of change propel you forward?

The Democratic primaries have been an exercise in precisely this kind of decision-making. Will the electorate choose retrograde candidates, or politicians who are not afraid of change? 

Each of us is a like a tiny cell in the vast organism that is our planetary home. Like the trillions of cells and bacteria that compose our bodies, every element of this planet has a role to play in creating the health and well-being of the greater living system. The choices we make matter. Every day is an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. 

The one thing certain in life is that we will die. One day we will be released from what Ojibewe elder Mary Lyons calls “the shell of the body.” Paradoxically, transformation is what creates stability on Earth. 

When you look into the world and see the rapid changes taking place, steady yourself with the knowledge that they are signs of Mother Earth seeking to stabilize her life systems to better serve the planetary organism as a whole. 

The long historical arc of human innovation known as the Industrial Revolution is bending towards its finish line. A new cycle of growth is already underway, rooted in an ecological understanding of the interdependency of all life on Earth.

Let’s grow! Let’s go! Let’s let go of the past and embrace the new with all the exuberance of a wild meadow bursting into flower in the springtime. Life is calling us all to dance. What are we waiting for?

I leave you with a favorite poem by Mary Oliver, who, as always, gets it just right.

When death comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston

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