Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health. To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly.
It is hard for us to take in the reality that Earth is an extinction machine, and it has been here before. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The ‘ecological crisis’ we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off – well, who says it is a ‘crisis’? Humans do – and educated, socially-concerned humans at that. For the Earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a ‘crisis’ – it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to ‘save the Earth’ what are we really trying to save? And which Earth?
What does this mean? I’m not a scholar, but I can say what it means to me: it means that if you make nature your witness, and if you act as a witness for nature too, there is a truth to be found. It even means, perhaps, that the ultimate witness to who we are comes from the earth itself. When you sit with the earth, when you make it your witness and when you act as a witness for it—what do you see? What are you compelled to do? These are questions that take us beyond political stances, beyond principles, beyond arguments about engagement or detachment. They are questions, it seems to me, that can never be answered in any way other than the strictly personal. Sitting or acting; engagement or retreat; perhaps there need be no contradiction.
What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse — not better — in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.
When hope is used to reject reality, this is called denial, and denial usually has a darker side than the (fertile and therefore rejuvenating) darkness it initially resisted. When we accept the dark and difficult side of side of life, the experiences that are not rosy and peaceful, we give ourselves an opportunity to undergo transformation, a transformation that can deliver us in earnest to a new level of fulfillment, integration, and therefore healing.
Our time is one of apocalypse, an archetype found in the lore and myth of many times and peoples. As we face crises of ecology, economy, religion, politics, finance, education, agriculture, housing, water, air, and soil, as Earth overheats, species go extinct, and the air-giving oceans die on every side, we wonder how to make sense of it all, or indeed whether it’s even possible to. “It’s all a question of story,” wrote “geologian” Thomas Berry, priest and environmentalist, as things began to slide downhill. “We are in trouble just because we do not have a good story. We are between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”
Yet, despite all the horrors we have created, we are still doing precisely what we know will be ultimately destructive. Denial! Denial! We are still accepting a cultural value that annihilates the Earth. If we don’t change, we are going to our own extinction. This is precisely what addicts do. Addicts—in other words most of our society—pretend there’s nothing wrong. As they laugh and talk and plan, they deny their dying souls. That’s what we’re doing to the planet. We fight about things that won’t matter if we are extinct.
Again and again we see in the spiritual traditions the demand to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 3:11) and act like responsible adults. By contrast, to plunder without thought, to take without giving back, to make messes without cleaning them up, to demand that others pay for one’s own mistakes, to foster dependency instead of independence, to lie about the harmful impact of one’s business practices, and to attack the poor while remaining on permanent public welfare: these are the acts of exploitive narcissists who never escaped childhood.
Thomas Berry’s acknowledgement of the “Others” may seem archaic or romantically idealized to contemporary Western people, or perhaps even superfluous. His words may seem innocent of, and irrelevant to, the urgency of our times, much as the Dalai Lama’s hopes for teaching children about compassion may seem hopelessly naïve to Western minds. But the Dalai Lama is not looking through the same lens of consciousness as most of us, and neither was Thomas Berry. He inhabited a magnificent, animated world, an ensouled universe. His offerings to the other-than-human beings were not naïve, but rather, deeply informed by the body of Earth and by the cosmic mystery – and intentionally reciprocal. He expressed a consciousness of participation – as if gestures such as acknowledging the more-than-human community actually matter.
If we do manage to pull back from the abyss, or if enough of us survive the plunge, it will surely be because small groups of us have formed mutualistic communities for the express purpose of helping one another eke out a largely local living from a depleted planet Earth. We will be painfully aware, by then, that a sustainable lifestyle must involve subordinating our reproductive inclinations to the long-term well-being, not just of our own community, but of the larger ecological community on which our well-being depends. We will certainly understand that a global ecosystem is a sacred trust that demands our respect and, yes, our reverence. Finally, we will need the humility to understand that we need a healthy global ecosystem far more than it needs us, and that we need to invest at least as much of our treasure in husbanding that priceless natural legacy as in pursuing our own material well-being.