Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

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