Asking the proper question is the central act of transformation.
~Clarissa Pinkola Estes~
This has not been a good year for Colorado. My home state, like so many others in America, has been besieged by drought and scorching heat, culminating last month in the High Park fire west of Ft. Collins which burned well over 200 square miles and this month, the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs which destroyed well over 350 homes in an area of 5 square miles. From the perspective of other states, Colorado had burned up, and needless to say, its tourism industry took a huge, perhaps fatal, body blow. Throughout the state one can still sense an aura of terror that one’s town or neighborhood might be next, and many people have preventively packed their cars with valuables just in case a fire might break out and they would be forced to evacuate. And as Coloradans were choking on residual smoke from the fires, Governor John Hickenlooper came forth to reassure the nation and the state that only a small portion of the state had been affected by the fires and that Colorado was still a beautiful vacation venue.
Fortunately, earlier this month,Colorado experienced nearly three days of substantial rains, which despite the mudslides and erosion they produced, were a welcome respite from the crackling vegetation and brutal heat.
Then in the wee hours of Friday, July 20, James Holmes of Denver allegedly walked into a movie theater in Aurora and opened fire on the audience—a mass execution that to date has left 12 dead and 71 people wounded. Many of the wounded are in critical condition, thus increasing the possibility that the death toll may rise. Once again, Governor Hickenlooper came forth to do damage control and declare that Aurora is a safe city and that it will “come back stronger than ever.”
Meanwhile, CNN and what suddenly became 24-hour local news reports repeatedly mentioned the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 and the Tucson massacre of 2011 in which Gerald Loughner opened fire at a shopping mall where Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was speaking, killing 6 people and injuring 14. Immediately, such conversations deteriorated into debates about gun control—as if gun control were the core issue of this madness. As a nation with massive unemployment and underemployment, its citizens battered by drought, foreclosures, bankruptcies, lack of health insurance, rotting infrastructure, and ghastly student loan debt looks on, we sense that the conversation will not venture into deeper waters anytime soon.
Coloradois in profound trauma, and so is a nation unraveling. In such a milieu, people rarely ask the proper questions, but as my fellow-Coloradan, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us, “Asking the proper question is the central act of transformation.”
The Proper Question(s)
Perhaps the most obvious one is: What is causing people, particularly young males of college age, who are or have been students, to pick up guns and perform mass executions of people they don’t even know? I do not pretend to hold all of the answers to this question, but a few issues cry out for our attention.
The most fundamental reality pertaining to youth in their twenties in this nation is that they have virtually no future. Some are already asking if the Aurora massacre is related to the youth unemployment crisis. My generation and those before mine have handed the millennials an enormous load of garbage. Even if they are fortunate enough to have no student loan debt, the perennial maxim of their parents’ generation, “If you don’t get a college degree, you’ll end up flipping burgers” rings in their ears—as they stand there, with or without college degrees, yes, flipping burgers. Or in the case of the many homeless college students in this country, flipping burgers could seem like a dramatic advance in the direction of upward mobility.
But certainly, young people in their twenties are not the only ones enraged. The entire culture is enraged, but impetuous, troubled young men are often driven to act out their rage in ways that the masses quietly bury or medicate.
Yet a more accurate and penetrating question must be asked: What in the paradigm of industrial civilization causes not only such grizzly violence of epic and epidemic proportions, but what in that paradigm causes us to so blatantly and blithely ignore the global warming-generated drought that is shriveling at least one third of this country? Are the two issues related?
To begin to address these questions, we must notice a few very basic assumptions inherent in the paradigm. Some of these are:
- We are separated from the earth and each other.
- Humans are superior to the earth community.
- The earth is here for our use and exploitation.
- There’s not enough of earth’s resources, so we must wage war for them.
- Because we are superior to all other beings on earth, we can always perfect a new technology that will assure the infinite growth model and the perpetuation of our profligate lifestyle.
I invite the reader to contemplate each of these, along with their ramifications. What happens when humans live by these maxims? What is the ultimate outcome? Who do they become, physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
An Indigenous Perspective
In the cosmology of the Dagara Tribe of West Africa, the element of fire is one of five essential elements which allow the continuation of life on earth. Both people and cultures can be characterized by fire which is an element that connects with the ancestors. Experienced in proper proportion with the other elements, water, nature, earth, and mineral, fire can be a gentle flame that keeps the community warmly aware of its relationship with the ancestors. However, when fire dominates a person or a culture, both can become warlike. Fire propels people and cultures into action, but too much fire makes for frantic, impatient, behavior and people obsessed with progress and moving forward. In fact, too much fire can catapult people and cultures headlong into destruction.
And what is the antidote to fire? Naturally, water. Fire people and cultures must be tempered by the waters of grief. Water calms and slows things down. A culture obsessed with infinite growth is propelled by fire and needs to decrease its velocity, bathe in its own tears, and gain perspective about what really matters. Water opens the heart and allows emotion to come forth and be honored.
Thus, in these tragic collective scenarios of terrorism and mass execution, the most helpful intervention is not endless rhetoric about how the community will “come back stronger than ever” or how it will “put this behind us” and “get back to normal.” Rather, there must be a profound recognition of the horror and a willingness to stop “dead in one’s tracks” as the saying goes, and forsake the pretence that such carnage can ever be put behind anyone or that there is a normal to return to. In addition to the myriad prayer meetings being conducted at the crime scene in Aurora, endless memorials should be created and people encouraged to weep, wail, and mourn for hours and days upon end. Bring in the drums, the flutes, the musicians and mystics who will support people in grieving until the last tear in their bodies has been shed. Myriad rituals could be conducted not only in the place where 71 people were brutally shot, but throughout the charred forests where fires have ravaged the landscape.
The Dagara people might tell us that we have too much fire in our culture and that staggering droughts, blazing infernos, and eruptions of terrifying massacres are cries for help from ecosystems aching for the water of our tears.
Of “Dark Knights” And Shadows
Has anyone really noticed the title of the movie in which the carnage occurred—“The Dark Knight Rises”? Fellow Coloradan, David Sirota, noted in his July 18 Salon article, “Batman Hates The 99 Percent,” that “The Dark Night” demonizes the Occupy movement. Director Christopher Nolan adamantly denies this theory, but for me, the significance of the “Dark Knight (or night)” motif feels even more primal. As a culture, we seem to be drawn to darkness, yet cannot discern it all around us. Medicating our way through the darkness of a culture unraveling—soothing ourselves with shopping and mind-altering substances and behaviors, we name the darkness “light” and allow ourselves to be victimized by the arch-villain, The Joker, with whom the alleged Aurora shooter identified.
In a culture of “white, bright, and light,” we are commanded to avoid the darkness like the plague, and when it engulfs us as it did the victims of Aurora’s “darkest night,” we can’t wait to “put it behind us” and “get back to normal.” Yet something in us gravitates to darkness because darkness is one-half of who we are. We gestated in darkness for nine months, and at the end of our days, to darkness we will return, no matter how many white lights we encounter in our journey off this planet. Darkness is a place of rest, but also a place of very challenging psycho-spiritual work. In the darkness is where we encounter the deeper Self, the sacred, the mystery. In the darkness live the ghosts of our wounding as human beings living in a culture that is killing the planet and each of us. And residing next to each wound is a gift—a possibility, a talent, a skill, a potential that awaits our discovery. Yet in order to access it, we must, as individuals and as a culture, be willing to confront the Shadow—all those villainous qualities we insist are not us because “we are good and decent human beings,” and “this is the greatest country in the world.”
Denial And The Next Chapter
In the latest from John Michael Greer in his piece “The Far Side Of Denial,” at the Archdruid Report, he notes Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief which are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Greer applies this model to one’s awakening to peak oil and the collapse of industrial civilization, and of course, it can certainly be applied in traumatic events such as the Aurora, Colorado massacre. The only issue I would take with Greer’s piece is that he believes civilization is just now collectively entering the stage of denial. I believe civilization has been in this stage since its inception, its denial exacerbating with every passing day in current time.
Greer concludes his blogpost with:
The pundits and corporate flacks who have, for all practical purposes, gone barking mad about the world’s energy supply—I really don’t think any less forceful phrasing reflects the nature of these strident claims that scraping the bottom of the barrel, via fracking or otherwise, ought to be treated as proof that the barrel’s still full—are by and large associated with the two economic sectors, finance and petroleum, that are going to be clobbered first and hardest as the reality of peak oil sets in. The elephant’s in their living rooms; that’s why their shrill denials that elephants exist can be heard so clearly all through the neighborhood. As the elephant roams a little more widely, I suspect that the same frantic tone will travel with it, until finally we find ourselves on the far side of denial and the next phase starts.
Greer then finishes with this gut-punching statement:
That phase, for those who haven’t kept track, is anger. It’s once that stage arrives in force that the explosion will follow.
Again, I must argue that we have been in the anger phase for quite some time, and nothing confirms this more than the carnage of Virginia Tech,Tucson, andAurora.
Debates about gun control are, pardon the pun, band aids for bullet wounds. In the first place, just as the powers that be will never legalize drugs and forsake the dizzying profits involved in drug trafficking, they will certainly not curtail a very lucrative firearms industry which is a necessary underpinning of international drug trafficking. Moreover, even if all firearms vanished overnight, enraged and deranged humans would still find ways to destroy one another.
Training In Trauma Management
In the anger phase of societal unraveling, we must not only be aware of its perils but prepare ourselves with great intention to navigate it. One of the first issues we must grapple with is the reality of trauma. Increasing dissolution of the fabric of the culture is by definition traumatic for those who rely on it for basic necessities, identity, lifestyle, distraction, and sense of well being. As those of us who have been writing about the collapse of industrial civilization for some time have repeatedly asserted, the less aware of impending collapse individuals are, the more traumatic it will be for them. Denial is wearing very thin in many parts of this nation, and when the veneer cracks, we must be prepared for outbreaks of violence.
The issue then is: How will we manage our own trauma and the trauma of those with whom we may experience unwanted encounters?
I recommend three of many options for training in trauma management:
- Somatic Experiencing, a modality designed by psychologist, Peter Levine
- Trauma First Aide, which educates and trains individuals, groups and communities in order to reduce and prevent the long term effects of acute traumatic stress reactions.
- Trauma Resource Institute, which seeks to create resiliency-informed and trauma-informed individuals and communities.
In addition, I suggest checking out the work of Michael Meade of Mosaic Voices. Meade works closely with at-risk youth and returning combat veterans, using drumming, storytelling, poetry, and ritual to facilitate healing from trauma and access to the inner gifts that bring a stable, meaningful life.
The “heat” is on in this long, hot summer of fire. We can expect skyrocketing food prices as a result of droughts, and we can expect more eruptions of rage in a culture unraveling from the inside out. While many wise and aware individuals and communities are planting gardens, taking Permaculture classes, moving off the grid, working to redesign their cities and local venues, creating alternative currencies, investing in local food and local economies, home schooling their kids, raising chickens and reskilling themselves superbly, it would be tragically naïve to believe that we will somehow “tiptoe through the tulips” of seamless and painless transition to a new paradigm and a new milieu.
Now is the time to ask the proper questions. Now is the time to mourn, to allow the waters of grief to flow from our eyes and hearts and water the scorched earth. Now is the time to be taught by the trauma that will not go away. May we become more resilient because of it and be re-made by it. May we know, as Peter Levine states that: “Trauma can be hell on earth; transformed, it is a divine gift.”
Or in the words of the contemporary female mystic, Rashani:
There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy.
And a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space, too vast for words through which
We pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are
Sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound whose serrated edges
Cut the heart as we break open to the place inside that is
Unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.