Solstice Dreaming: Detaching from the Nightmare to Feed the Spirit of a Better World

Right now my homeland, the United States, is a very sick place.

It’s a sickness that expresses itself inwardly through epic rates of depression, anxiety, addictions, self-harm and suicide. Outwardly we see it in the constant assault of violence: civilian shootings and trucks driven into crowds; endless wars; and the relentless violence against the natural world, driven by greed and indifference to suffering.

Watching what is happening in American politics is like watching a 21st century version of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Or we could compare it to the French monarchy just before the Revolution: let them eat cake!

It is not clear yet whether the pendulum will swing back towards the center again; whether the electorate–mangled, abused, furious and ill as it is–will summon moderates back to the halls of power in D.C.

With a good half of the electorate tuned out to the political process and millions of trigger-happy armed civilians; with an ever-more-militarized police force, a punitive criminal justice system and the biggest prison system in the world…it’s easy to imagine the U.S. descending into dystopian nightmare in the next decade.

And that’s even without factoring in the wild card of climate change, predicted to disrupt food supplies, cause massive storms and unbearable heat waves, and flood the coastal cities.

The U.S. is like a sick, wounded, colossal monster, thrashing out dangerously in its agony, whipping its barbed tail around in ways that are wrecking everything in its reach—and its reach is vast, encompassing practically the whole world.

Collectively, human civilization is approaching a breaking point on the planet. The scientists warn us blandly that we will exhaust the resources of our Earth in August, living the rest of the year on credit that we can never repay.

It’s easy to feel despairing.

And yet.

Sitting here, on the peaceful windy shores of Nova Scotia, the warmth of the people and the steady rhythms of the elements remind me that the nightmare of the U.S. is not all-encompassing. As Arundhati Roy put it long ago, there is another world…and if we’re quiet, we can hear her calm breathing.

Mother Earth has survived cataclysms before. She will survive humans—even dangerous Americans. She has eons to regenerate, reset and create anew. She’s already doing it, everywhere we look.

We who are alive to bear witness to this extraordinary transition time on Earth must resist the dark pull of despair, with its madness of violence and lethargy of indifference.

Remembering to think in the long term, the way Gaia does, can help us focus on what is beautiful and creative in our world. It’s our task to do what we can, wherever we are, to add to the beauty and to help others to do so too.

This is what I call doing hope together. We resist the dark magnetism of the constant parade of horrors that passes for “news” these days. We turn our attention elsewhere:

  • to the small radiance of a wildflower, lifting its head to the sun for the sheer joy of living;
  • to the delighted laugh of a baby sitting in a strawberry field tasting sunwarmed berries for the first time;
  • to the sweet trill of a bird sitting by its nest, teaching its fledglings to sing.

Lupines

Yes, there is darkness, cruelty and suffering in our world, which can’t be ignored and must be addressed. But the danger in our times is that we become so overwhelmed by the darkness that we can no longer summon the light in ourselves. The flames of our own spirits start to gutter.

It is not selfish or uncaring to feed our spirits by focusing on beauty. Just as nursing mothers must remember to eat and drink so that they can better feed their babies, we who are acting as doulas—helping our dying civilization let go so that a better world can be born—must also remember to nourish ourselves, so that we can continue to serve as beacons of hope and positivity for others.

My advice to you on these sunny Solstice days? Turn off your screen, leave your phone behind, and get outside to enjoy the bounty of our Mother Earth. Take some time alone in nature, quieting the blare of the headlines in your mind, and tuning in to the music of the birds and the bees. Find some water to sit beside, and let your mind wander as you stare at the sun glinting on the surface.

We plugged-in humans are in danger of forgetting how very important daydreaming in nature is to our personal, political and planetary well-being. Now is a wonderful time to slow down and remind ourselves to let the dreams back in to our waking lives.

We can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our society if we can’t imagine a better world. And for that, we need to detach ourselves from the nightmare, and create a better dream to live into.

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Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

As a college professor with a focus on media and issues of social and environmental justice, it’s my responsibility, I believe, to be tuned into the news of the day.

I need to know that, as reported by Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times, “For roughly 30 hours over several days, defense lawyers for three former United States Naval Academy football players grilled a female midshipman about her sexual habits. In a public hearing, they asked the woman, who has accused the three athletes of raping her, whether she wore a bra, how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex and whether she had apologized to another midshipman with whom she had intercourse “for being a ho.”

I need to know that the Obama Administrations efforts to regulate and clean up the American coal industry “are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”

I have to follow the progress of the latest massive floods in Colorado, noting that they involve the release of unknown quantities of toxic chemicals into the region’s waterways; these floods happened in a populated area of Colorado that also happens to be the site of thousands of gas fracking wells.

Then there are those unprecedented wildfires in California, finally under control after having burned 400 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, with “a solid 60 square miles burned so intensely that everything is dead.”

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13 Photo by Robert Martinez

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13
Photo by Robert Martinez

I have to pay attention when our nation threatens missile strikes on another Middle Eastern country, or there’s another crazy gunman on the rampage with assault weapons in a peaceful civilian setting, or a bunch of ideologically blinkered Republican politicians threaten to shut down the U.S. government and force us to default on our international debt obligations, putting the world financial system in jeopardy, simply in order to embarrass the country’s popular Democratic African-American President.

To do my job well, I have to know about these issues and episodes, and so I follow the media daily.  And yet day by day I grow more resentful of being dragged along on storylines that I find so—so—well, so boring.

They’re boring because they’re so repetitive.  Another fire, another flood, another mass shooting, another U.S. missile or drone strike, another government shutdown to be averted at the last minute.  Another woman raked over the coals when she tries to bring a rapist to justice.

And in the background, the real story, the Big News of our time, grinds on relentlessly, it too so endlessly repeated that we have all become blind, deaf and dumb to it.

I’m referring, of course, to the story of global climate change, with its attendant melting ice, rising seas, rising temperatures, erratic weather and, ultimately, mass extinction of life as we know it on Earth.

I understand why very few humans alive today want to grapple with that story.

If the news episodes I listed above are boring in their repetitiveness, the Big News of climate change is just too scary to take in.

No wonder so many people of all ages just don’t bother following the news, preferring instead to focus on televised sports or the latest mini-series or movies.

People seem to have a fatalistic approach to reality lately.

Obamacare will go through or it will be defunded, no matter what we think or do.  Fossil fuel plants will continue to burn, not only unregulated but subsidized at that; politicians will continue to act in criminal ways (shutting down the U.S. government is an act of treason in my book!), boys will continue to be boys and get slapped on the wrist when a woman dares to cry rape–no matter what we do.

The entire American populace seems to be locked in some kind of slumped-over apathy, just trying to keep up the mortgage payments, trying to stay healthy in an increasingly toxic environment, trying to raise decent kids despite the toxic media entertainment landscape in which the kids spend most of their time.

I’m slumped over with the rest, a lot of the time.

But there is something in me that resists this posture, too.  There is something in me that yearns for a different narrative.  Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

Not a return to the triumphalist patriarchal Manifest Destiny that led us inexorably to the disastrous brink on which we now perch.

Not the macho environmentalism that tries to beat the fossil fuel villains in the courts and the high seas.

Not the moralistic sermonizing of those who see the world in strictly black-and-white, Good-and-Evil binary oppositions.

I’m hungering for something deeper.  Something bigger.  A story that truly acknowledges where we are today as a species, and can help us to perceive the way forward out of the current slumped-over morass of bad news.

Briane Swimme

Briane Swimme

The closest I’ve been able to come to such a story so far is the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.  In their visionary description of the “Ecozoic Era” that we could create, acting in the best interests of the planet as a whole, I find the map and the compass I’ve been seeking to guide me to a livable future.

In the final chapter of their book The Universe Story, Berry and Swimme lay out a vision that, tragically, we have not heeded in the more than 20 years since the book appeared in 1992.

“In economics it is clear that our human economy is derivative from the Earth economy.  To glory in a rising Gross Domestic Product with an irreversibly declining Gross Earth Product is an economic absurdity.  So long as our patterns of consumption overwhelm the upper reaches of Earth’s sustainable productivity, we will only drive the Earth community further into ruin.  The only viable human economy is one that is integral with the Earth economy” (256).

“We need an inter-species economy, an inter-species well-being, an inter-species education, an inter-species governance, an inter-species religious mode, inter-species ethical norms,” they say (257).

Berry and Swimme end their vast “journey of the universe” by describing the celebratory aspect of the universe, which perhaps only humans, at least of the beings on Earth, can fully appreciate.

The cosmic celebration--courtesy of the Hubble telescope

The cosmic celebration–courtesy of the Hubble telescope

“Everything about us seems to be absorbed into a vast celebratory experience,” they say.  “There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of self-conscious awareness” (264).

In other words, our role is to be the storytellers of past, present and future.  Of all the amazing beings on the planet, no one else can fill this particular niche.

It is our privilege and our curse as humans to KNOW so much about what we are doing at any given moment on the planet, and to ceaselessly narrate that knowledge.  Now in the 21st century, aided by the global neural network of the World Wide Web, we have never been more tuned into the on-going global story, but this knowledge often becomes oppressive, since so much of what we are asked to absorb is negative, bad news.

It’s time to rebel–to resist the battering of the bad news, to become producers rather than just passive consumers of knowledge.

We need to start telling new stories.  Empowering, positive stories that light the way towards the human beings we could become, the human civilization we could create, in concert and harmony with the rest of the Earth community.

What stories do you hold locked in your heart, tenderly sheltered from the glare and cacophony of contemporary pop culture?

I suggest you look to the home ground of your deep childhood for inspiration.  Remember the stories you told to yourself then, or that you heard the flowers and the insects singing.  Remember the way the motes of dust twirling in the sunlight spoke to you.

Remember what it felt like to have an unmediated, imaginative connection with the world around you.

Then speak the truths that come out of that primary knowledge.

The Audacity of Hope, c. 2012

For those of us who supported President Obama, the last 24 hours or so have been positively giddy.

There were the nail-biting first few hours of the election results…followed by the glad tidings of more and more of the big electoral states turning a glorious blue…capped by the wonderful thrill of seeing the President stride out onto the stage in Chicago to give the most rousing acceptance speech most of us have ever heard.

What a big heart this man has, to include in his acceptance speech itself the invitation to his opponents to meet him in the aisle and try to seek common ground!

In the very first words of his speech, before he even thanked his running mate, he reached out to Mitt Romney, offering to work with him to move the country forward onto a better, firmer footing:

I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign. 

We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.

In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.

And then, towards the end of the speech, he said so memorably:

America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

This audacity of optimism is why we elected Barack Obama back in 2008, and why we continue to love him.

Whatever his personal or political failings, Barack Obama stands for the best hope of the USA: the raw immigrant passion and drive that founded this country and still makes it great.

He also represents, in his very skin, the polyglot future of the USA, the inexorable movement away from the European aristocracy of our founders to the broad multicultural diversity of our descendants.

Mitt Romney’s concession speech 2012

The Republicans are still stuck back in the good old days of the good old guys’ party.  As one commentator aptly noted, Republican political rallies look suspiciously like Ku Klux Klan rallies of the early 20th century.

For those who might rather not recall, let us remember that the Klan not only hated and lynched African Americans; they also hated and lynched Jews.  And they didn’t liked the Irish or the Italians much either!

Let’s not even talk about gay folk.  And women?  For the Klan and many contemporary conservatives, they belong in the kitchen or in the bed.

This is not the country we want to be as we move into the 21st century.

Although I thought the Obama campaign’s slogan “Forward, not back” was a little hokey when I heard it trotted out at various rallies, it does have the ring of truth to it.

We do not want to go back to the intolerance and violent hatred of our past.

We need to move forward, and we will need all hands on deck to confront the deeply unstable, uncertain future that awaits us in the age of climate change.

I want to see Barack Obama rise to the challenges of our time with all the power of his big heart.

I want to see him not just think about jobs, but think about green jobs, about jobs that will move our country forward into a longterm, sustainable future.

Enough kow-towing to Big Oil, Big Agriculture and Big Chemical.  It’s time to force these industries to bend to the winds of change, to adapt to the new paradigm of sustainability sweeping our country and our planet.

I applaud Bill McKibben for waiting until the election was over to come out swinging—and I applaud his continuing efforts to get the climate change issue into the center of political discourse.

Those who are still suffering from the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, along with their insurers, should be his best allies.

We need to face the truth that all the matters of social justice that concern us will be moot if we don’t face the pressing need to get our planetary civilization onto a sustainable footing.

We need to convince our President of this, post-haste.

But let’s take a moment to breathe a big sigh of relief that it is Barack Obama we’re dealing with, and not Mitt Romney!

This election proves that Big Money is not infallible.

Democracy still matters; individual votes still matter; as a country, we are not as corrupt as many of us feared.

Now is the time for all of us to embrace the President’s big heart and let it reach out even further to encompass our entire beautiful planet and all of her creatures.

This is the task we humans were born to undertake: to become the thoughtful, compassionate stewards of our planet, and the collaborative leaders of our own multifarious tribes.

It is so good to see more and more women stepping up to the plate now.  We are sorely needed, but we can’t do it alone.

Men and women of all heritages must work together as never before to reestablish the equilibrium needed to move our civilization forward sustainably into the 21st century.

These are not just words.  This is our urgent reality.

Barack Obama has answered the call.

Will you?

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