by Carolyn Baker
Edward Abbey famously said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Clearly, if we find ourselves engulfed in despair, anger, fear, or any other painful emotion, one way to move through it is to “minimize” it on the screen of our emotional operating system and take action on behalf of whatever cause is calling us. What is more, it is not enough to just feel our feelings about the obscenity of planetary pillage that the human species has wrought. Even though our action cannot undo it or reverse the inevitable, it is the least we can do in response to environmental ecocide, and it is a means of practicing good manners toward all of the species that have not yet vanished.
That said, it is equally irresponsible to take action while repressing, ignoring, or minimizing our feelings. This essay attempts to address why this is so.
First, it is precisely because of denying our emotional response to the miracle of life on Earth that we are in the process of eliminating it. It is likely that as children, we experienced moments, perhaps even hours or days, of enchantment with the natural world. Although we may have known intellectually that we aren’t actually frogs, birds, bugs, flowers, or streams, our physical bodies may have felt as if we were. We may have become so immersed with these living beings that we experienced ourselves as part of them. That experience, or what Carl Jung called participation mystique, is what people of all ages in ancient cultures experienced continuously. The most excruciating anguish of all when indigenous cultures are uprooted, conquered, and forced to assimilate into modern cultures is the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense of union with the ecosystems which is brutally violated in the process.
Adults in modern culture rarely experience a visceral sense of connection with the Earth, and the absence of that experience impairs our ability to recognize its limits. If I don’t feel another human being in my space, I am almost certain to transgress their boundary. Likewise, if I do not feel the physical and spiritual presence of nature—in fact, if I do not recognize that I am not a part of nature but that I am nature, my exploitation of it is guaranteed.
What is more, early on, ancient cultures developed sophisticated rituals for coping with loss. Whether the loss of a member of the village or a member of the Earth community, these cultures recognized that loss is a part of life—and that grieving loss is healing for the individual and for the community. Likewise, they came to understand that when losses aren’t properly grieved, the people experiencing them become toxic to the community.
I believe there is enormous wisdom in this perspective—wisdom that has withstood the test of time. Enter any city or community in the modern world, and one finds people carrying unfathomable quantities of grief. We all know the messages the culture gives us about grief: It’s a private matter; don’t burden others with your grief; grief shows your weakness; stay strong; real men don’t cry; keep busy; get over it; put it behind you; it’s time to move on because life goes on; if you grieve too much or even just a little, you’ll get stuck in it; if you don’t get over it, you’ll get depressed—and on and on ad nauseum. Meanwhile, none of the grief gets metabolized, and as a result, it invariably becomes toxic to one’s own body and psyche and to the community.
The world recently witnessed an act of domestic terrorism perpetrated in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist young man against nine African Americans. If you were fortunate enough to see some footage of the black community’s response to the tragedy, you undoubtedly saw black people wailing, screaming, crying loudly, and behaving in a desperate, “disorderly” fashion. That’s because this is a community that knows how to grieve. Unlike most white communities responding to similar carnage, the sorrow of the black community is generally not sanitized or well-behaved.
Moreover, this is a community that one moment can wail and cry out in grief and in the next moment, pick up the protest placard and march in the streets for justice.
Where is it written that we must either grieve or take action?
Furthermore, if we only take action, the fire of our activism can easily become an inferno that burns us out and drives us into egoistic action that lacks heart and may even be injurious to ourselves and the community. The fire must be balanced with the tears of heartbreak because only in heartbreak do we find our compassion and our deepest humanity. And in fact, it may be that discovering the depths of our humanity is the most important outcome any of us can experience as we meet our demise. In other words, through consciously grieving, we discover richer, sweeter, and more robust layers of love than we have ever known.
But there is yet another reason to grieve regardless of what the future holds or doesn’t hold. Cultures that understand the power of conscious grieving have arrived at their understanding for one reason beyond all others, and that is the capacity of grieving together to bond the hearts of individuals by way of their sorrow. As we descend into the well of grief together, we discover that we have never been and never will be separate. Could this be the missing piece in those many communities we hear about that fall apart or cannot sustain the differences between their members? It may be that when grieving replaces groundrules, love happens, and from it, unprecedented solidarity.
I recently had the privilege of facilitating a grief weekend workshop in Providence, Rhode Island in which 15 people gathered for three days to engage in deep, conscious grieving. Each time I facilitate a grief workshop, I am in awe of what happens when people do this work, and I find myself challenged to verbalize what happens in me as I witness the power of such an event. I touch into something timeless that issues from ancient memory and that has never been more relevant to the future than in the present moment.
We need each other’s grief as food for the soul—as medicine for the community. And it may be that the Earth community itself is asking us to grieve for the same reason. After all, if we will not grieve Gaia’s destruction, who will?
Conscious grieving in a safe, supportive container is anything but passive, pointless work. In fact, it is the most consequential and meaningful work we can be doing in the era of extinction. Yes, action is the antidote to despair, and as Griefwalker Stephen Jenkinson writes:
Here’s the revolution: What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding. In a time like ours, grieving is a subversive act.
McPherson was interviewed on the Gary Null Show yesterday. You can read the description and hear the interview here. The segment with McPherson begins at the 54:53 mark.
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McPherson will be interviewed for Revolution Radio at 4:00 p.m. Eastern on Monday, 20 July 2015. To listen live, follow along at Studio A here.
Ivey Cone at Fuki Cafe shot and edited the video embedded below, which features a casual conversation between McPherson and Dillon Thompson. It’s from 24 June 2015 in Eugene, Oregon.
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This week’s show features an interview with Cindy Robert Jensen, professor and activist at the University of Texas. Catch it live this afternoon. You can find our interview with Ray Jason, the Sea Gypsy Philosopher, in the archives from last week.
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McPherson’s latest book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. The revised second edition of Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind is available. Electronic copy is available here from Amazon.
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