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: #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: #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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