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.
We know it in our bones, as well as our brains – the enormity of the times we live in, the cultural and environmental challenges, the opportunity to re-vision a human culture living in harmony with our planet.
Animals can be superb teachers for humans preparing for the future. Carefully observing their capacity for being present in their bodies and therefore living in the moment is critical. Studying an animal’s instinct for survival and self-protection can enhance our own resilience. What is more, I have experienced that animals are extraordinary teachers, not only in life, but in death as well. Every animal with whom I have had to part has profoundly opened my heart and impacted me in ways I could not have imagined. Allow yourself to give your heart to an animal companion, and when you must part with it, allow yourself to grieve your loss thoroughly. You may be surprised at the parts of yourself that will be revealed.
A paradigm shift is desperately needed. And it will not come from those who have created the crisis and who are looking for new ways to extend the life of the greed economy by commodifying and privatising all life on earth. They will come to Rio+20 to paint the “greed economy” green, and call it the “green economy”. And they will have powerful governments on their side. Movements for ecological sustainability, social justice and deep democracy will come to Rio+20 with another paradigm — one centred on the rights of mother earth, the rights of future generations, of women, indigenous communities and farmers
Despite the fact that we have clearly entered uncharted territory in relation to the effects of industrial civilisation on the fate of the earth and her creatures, big government of all persuasions seems intent on relentlessly pursuing economic growth, environmental plunder and social and political control at every level.