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.

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. 

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