21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.

***

As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

21 Questions for 2020: #15

15. Question for Earth Day: Will humans seize the potential of this corona-induced “time-out” to move towards “conscious evolution”?

For some time I’ve been writing with grief and shame about the way humans, particularly my Euro-descended people, have been battering our beautiful Earth. I have been not only a bystander to the violence, but complicit as well—burning fossil fuels, consuming food and products produced in violence. 

I sit in judgment on myself, and shame myself for all the ways I have not done enough to stand up to the prevailing culture, every single day. 

But I also know that this way of looking at the human-Earth relationship is fundamentally human. Mother Earth doesn’t blame or shame. She doesn’t waste time and energy in grief and rage. Her entire Being is dedicated to Life; Life is her business, pleasure and purpose.

For Gaia, if humans are flourishing, all well and good. If humans are flourishing so much that they are consuming more than their share of the Earth’s bounty, then a correction will be made. Not with anger; it’s not a punishment. It’s just a rebalancing to restore Earth to her optimum conditions for the flourishing of life. 

A pandemic is a perfect example of such a correction. 

Climate disruption is a bit different; more long-lasting, more transformative. 

Past episodes of climate disruption on Earth have been caused suddenly by seemingly external, random events—a meteor hitting the Earth, a volcano erupting. 

Human-induced climate change, accompanied by deforestation, the acidification of the oceans and the rapid decline of all species on Earth, is not happening overnight, but it is happening very quickly in geologic time. As Mother Earth seeks to reestablish her steady state, optimum for bringing forth and nourishing life, those who can’t adapt to current conditions will have to give way to those who can, just as the Dinosaurs long ago succumbed and made way for the Mammals. 

I am thinking about this as I contemplate Earth Day, 2020. In the 50 years since Americans began to celebrate Earth Day, there have been some advances in protecting the health of Earth and all her denizens. But mostly it’s been a steady slide into human over-population, toxic contamination, climate destabilization, and the loss of so many of the sweet species with whom we were born to share the planet.

The greatest human misconception is that we have total control in our abusive relationship with Mother Earth.

In fact, Gaia is much stronger than we are. She will take our battering the way a mother tolerantly submits to the pummeling of a small child—for just so long. 

Gaia continues to go about her business of turning the oxygen, water and carbon into Life, in partnership with the Sun. She does not favor one of her children more than the others; she knows that the health of any one individual depends on the health of the entire system. 

On Earth Day 2020 humans are coming face to face, as never before, with the boomeranging consequences of our heedless fouling, despoliation and exploitation of our planetary home. 

It’s hard to say right now what the longterm effects of the pandemic will be. Will we become ever more fearful, technologized and controlling? Or will we seize the opening of this worldwide “time-out” to begin to envision and create a harmonious, non-violent relationship with our Mother Earth?

In 2020 we can’t use the excuse that we don’t know how to improve conditions for current life forms on Earth, humans included. 

We know how to limit population; how to create regenerative agriculture; how to deploy renewable energy; how to develop social systems that maximize and reward the creation of quality of life for the majority. We are so smart. We know how to do this.

In 2020, there is no more time to waste. The urgency is real and present. If those alive don’t get into a right relationship with Mother Earth, she will do it for us—without rancor, without shame or blame, but with the efficiency borne of millions of years of ceaseless rebalancing. 

This may be the first time in history that a species has had the luxury of a brief window of time to actively adjust in order to change course and avoid a lemming-like dive over the cliff. 

We have the possibility of “conscious evolution,” now. 

Will we take it?   

21 Questions for 2020: #14

#14. How will World War III, the Coronavirus edition, play out?

World leaders are comparing the global crisis of 2020 to a war, requiring a mobilization not of guns and soldiers, but of ventilators and medical personnel. The fact that most of us are just civilians on the sidelines, watching the action unfold from afar, has added to the sense of surreality that has engulfed us this spring. All the majority of us can do is stay home, wash our hands, and try to stave off panic. 

I know there are those, myself included, who have tried to see the opportunity in this moment. Look at how the pollution clears up as soon as all the planes are grounded! Maybe now people will see the folly of the industrial capitalist machine and embrace new forms of eco-social community! At the very least, this crisis should upend the regime of the destructive parasite that got us here, Donald J. Trump! 

Maybe. Or maybe it will go the other way entirely. The EPA has already used the crisis to suspend pollution regulations, and Native Americans, the frontline environmental defenders, are getting sick in record numbers. The logging of the Amazon is expected to reach a record high in 2020, and despite the wildfires of January, the giant Adani Carmichael coal mine in Australia is going full steam ahead

On the societal front, we are all forced to submit to a “lockdown” that takes away our civil liberties in the name of “staying safe.” The U.S. Treasury is working overtime to come up with trillions of bailout money, but who is in charge of making sure the money is allocated fairly? 

Meanwhile, the Trump political machine has pivoted nicely to take advantage of this new twist in the reality show presidency. On principle, I don’t watch his news conferences any more than I’d watch Fox News, but his usual crowd of supporters continues to cheer him on. What will happen when they all come down with coronavirus? That chapter remains to be written.

To be fair, there are also some positive developments to track. Communities are coming together to help each other out. People are, good-naturedly, staying home even when they feel perfectly fine. The work of newly recognized “essential workers”—from farmers and truckers to meat packers and grocery clerks—is being appreciated and lauded more than ever (if still not fairly remunerated). 

In the absence of Federal leadership in the US, some of the state governors are stepping up—Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsome, I salute you. Globally, biotech scientists have been truly amazing in springing into collaborative action to understand and find treatment and a vaccine for this “novel” virus. 

We will come through this war wiser and warier. As with 9/11, which left us with permanent security check-lines in airports, I foresee that new standards of transportation hygiene and border health screenings will be a lasting result of the pandemic of 2020. 

It seems ironic that the ultimate border-crossing bug, a virus, should have the effect of solidifying the artificial and imaginary lines we call national borders. My optimistic side hopes that the lesson of COVID-19 is that we are all one—everything is interconnected and any tear in the web of life hurts us all. 

It sounds good in theory, but in practice, the war metaphor continues to dominate, and we are all hunkered down in our bunkers, hoarding TP and hogging the wifi, waiting for the all-clear signal. 

Who could have predicted that our civilization would end with such a whimper? Sometimes I think I’d prefer a bang.

21 Questions for 2020: #13

#13. How can we strengthen our individual and collective immune system in the face of radical destabilization, uncertainty and fear? 

We are living through one of those moments in human history that will—if we survive—become a treasure trove of material for historians to parse, seeking answers to the big question: how the hell did we get here? 

One observational point that seems incontrovertible for the moment: the virus has taken hold most quickly in the cities of the most developed countries: from Wuhan to New York City, with stops in northern Iran, Italy and Spain. What do these places have in common? 

Obviously, cities have high concentrations of people who use public transportation and/or spend a lot of time in public places (houses of worship, restaurants, crowded markets). Some of these places, though not all, are international travel hubs—but then so are many other population centers that have not been hit as hard so far, like California. 

There are theories circulating on the fringes of the Web about the impact of 5G on people’s immune systems. Wuhan and New York City were early 5G adopters, as you can see on this map. Of course I’m not suggesting that 5G causes the virus. But perhaps it added a tipping point of pressure on our already-weakened immune systems?

As Charles Eisenstein says in his recent essay on the coronavirus situation, “For a long time we, as a collective, have stood helpless in the face of an ever-sickening society. Whether it is declining health, decaying infrastructure, depression, suicide, addiction, ecological degradation, or concentration of wealth, the symptoms of civilizational malaise in the developed world are plain to see, but we have been stuck in the systems and patterns that cause them.”

Like me, Eisenstein sees both the heartbreak and the opportunity of our global health and financial crisis. “The crisis could usher in totalitarianism or solidarity; medical martial law or a holistic renaissance; greater fear of the microbial world, or greater resiliency in participation in it; permanent norms of social distancing, or a renewed desire to come together.”

Which way will we go? No one knows at this point, as the crisis unfolds with astonishing, mind-blowing speed from day to day. 

A few things do seem clear to me. 

1. We have to stop ignoring the toll the current capitalist economy is taking on the vast majority of ordinary people. How long did we imagine we could go with stress, unhappiness, uncertainty, lack of purpose, loneliness and fear dominating our individual psyches and collective social climate? In such a social landscape, combined with the constant barrage of toxins on our physical bodies, of course we are all getting sick. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said it beautifully, in a memorable quote from her book Crossing Borders (I am paraphrasing): ‘we are all kernels on the cob of humanity. If one of us is sick, the whole cob is unwell.’ 

And this is not just about humanity. All life on Earth is struggling now, after a century of assault from the extractivist corporate capitalist economy. If things don’t change radically, the entire unsustainable structure created by global corporate capitalism is going down, and will pull a good portion of humanity and our fellow Gaians on the planet down with it. Planetary events like the coronavirus pandemic, the Australian wildfires and the heightened Atlantic hurricane seasons show us in no uncertain terms that this is already happening

2. Like cancer, the marauding coronavirus is a symptom of the real illness besetting human individuals and society, which is imbalance. Humans are both the cause and the victims of the multiple imbalances currently destabilizing our planet. 

For starters, there are too many humans. As Jeremy Lent points out in a recent article, humans regularly overshoot the carrying capacity of Gaia by 40% each year, and yet the human population continues to grow. Perhaps, if we began to live in a more consciously sustainable way (ie, eating crickets instead of cows, using solar instead of oil, etc), we could bring our burgeoning population into harmony with Gaian support systems. If we continue on our current trajectory, the planet will have to take her own rebalancing measures—like pandemics, or natural disasters. We still possibly have time to choose: will we shift towards what David Korten calls an “ecological civilization,” or will we continue to march blindly towards the lemming cliff of planetary reset?

3. In the absence of trustworthy leaders, each of us has to reach within for guidance on how to proceed in this moment of radical uncertainty. In what may perhaps be the most important point of his long essay, Charles Eisenstein invites us to recognize the danger of succumbing not to COVID-19, but to fear

 “The virus we face here is fear, whether it is fear of Covid-19, or fear of the totalitarian response to it, and this virus too has its terrain. Fear, along with addiction, depression, and a host of physical ills, flourishes in a terrain of separation and trauma: inherited trauma, childhood trauma, violence, war, abuse, neglect, shame, punishment, poverty, and the muted, normalized trauma that affects nearly everyone who lives in a monetized economy, undergoes modern schooling, or lives without community or connection to place. This terrain can be changed, by trauma healing on a personal level, by systemic change toward a more compassionate society, and by transforming the basic narrative of separation: the separate self in a world of other, me separate from you, humanity separate from nature. To be alone is a primal fear, and modern society has rendered us more and more alone. But the time of Reunion is here. Every act of compassion, kindness, courage, or generosity heals us from the story of separation, because is assures both actor and witness that we are in this together.”

We face a choice: will we retreat into what Jeremy Lent calls “Fortress Earth,” based on trauma, fear and scarcity? Or will we work actively, in our own backyards, to build an ecological civilization based on generosity, kindness and cooperation?

I am reminded of Starhawk’s prophetic novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which imagined a future America as a bleak militarized industrial wasteland, with a small pocket of ecological and social wellbeing remaining in the former San Francisco: a beautiful, happy garden society led by wise women. 

Which way will we go? Can we transform this terrain of uncertainty into a seedbed for positive radical change? Will we succeed, each in our own sphere and with our neighbors, in choosing love over fear? 

4. Managing our own fear is essential now. Remember, our animal bodies are wired for fight or flight. Living in a state of constant anxiety about something we can neither fight nor flee from saps our strength and weakens our individual and collective immune system. 

To manage fear and anxiety over the uncertain future, work on living in the present moment, focusing on gratitude for whatever makes you a little happier now. Rather than obsessing over everything you can’t control, focus on what you can do today to make life a little better for yourself and those around you. 

In this way, one step at a time in an ever-unfolding present, we will build a positive psychic and physical bridge to a better future for us all.

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