LOAVES AND FISHES
This is not the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
It’s Memorial Day, 2013, and I’m awaiting my flight to Denver from Baltimore. This year, re-entry from the Age of Limits Conference into the unreal world of industrial civilization has been particularly challenging. After being safely ensconsed in the forest for four days with fellow-doomers, a return to empire is even more jarring for me than it was last year. Was it the fact that yet another year has passed and life on this planet has gotten so much worse? Was it the dire realities of climate change with which we are now confronted that seem certain to shorten our time on earth? Or was it the likelihood that we have crossed some vague threshold of which we are all aware in our bones but have been really been afraid to name? We feel it, but it’s easier to use words like “400 parts per million,” “Fukushima,” “a recession that never ends,” and “endless war” than to actually articulate the reality of a point of no return.
At the conference, the food was delicious, and the conversation even richer, but this doom girl can only hold so much distressing information in her body for so long before she numbs out, feel pissed off, or start dissing the people who are communicating it. Like the other attendees of this conference, I need a place to talk about these formidable feelings and share them with others who feel as overwhelmed as I do. I need to touch and be touched. I need to sing, hear some poetry, and possibly tell a story with my drum…oh, and please pass the Kleenex when you get done grabbing a handful for your own use.
The Age of Limits Conference is a microcosm of the collapse-aware community worldwide. Myriad variables apply, but one constant remains: People are hungry for something more than cognitive presentations and Power Points.
Four Quarters, the venue of the Age of Limits Conferences in 2012 and 2013, is an interfaith sanctuary and non-intentional lifeboat community situated on 150 acres of beautiful and functional land, paid off last year and now owned outright by its board of directors. The consciousness and natural beauty of the land offer an ideal setting for conversing about collapse, community, and how we will navigate a daunting future. Particularly appropriate, from my perspective, is Four Quarters’ emphasis on earth-based spirituality. No one who attends any function there is required to buy into any particular philosophy or spiritual path, but I can think of no other venue that is more suited for intimate connection with the earth community and the sacred than what Four Quarters has created and tended over the years.
I could tell you about each presenter at the Age of Limits and what he or she said, but you’ve heard it all before. However, what you may not have sufficiently heard is the cry of your own heart and the hearts of others who know in their own heads what you know in yours. Rather, as Mary Oliver says, “Tell me your despair, and I’ll tell you mine.” Sadly, in this culture, few people have learned that while knowledge is power, how we hold that knowledge in our bodies, and what we do with it from there is potentially far more powerful than the mere accumulation of data.
In the light of David Whyte’s poem and the information overload that many of us felt at this conference, I was intrigued by the use of the word “hungry” and “craving” which many participants expressed when they described their longing for spiritual and emotional processes that would facilitate their holding megadoses of new and disturbing information. The attendees at the conference represent only one segment of the collapse-aware population, but as a result of my experience at the conference and traveling throughout the country and working with individuals nationally and around the world, I hear the exact same longing expressed repeatedly and almost verbatim wherever I go. If anyone has any doubt that this aspect of confronting collapse is crucial, they are not listening.
Throughout collapse literature I hear references ad nauseum to the Five Stages of Grief, but when some individuals actually have the opportunity to feel their grief in a safe, supportive container such as the one provided this year at the Age of Limits Conference or other venues, one may hear responses like “Well, I’ve finished my grieving,” or “I prefer to grieve in private.” I can appreciate the latter response since in this culture we have been taught that grief is a private matter and that no one around us really wants to see, hear, or feel it with us. Unlike many indigenous cultures, we have been told that our grief is messy, cowardly, and somehow infringes on the personal space of others. We have never known the deep, bedrock solidarity that comes from members of a community grieving together, and perhaps if we had, we would encounter fewer interpersonal difficulties when we attempt to create or inhabit communal living because what many indigenous cultures have discovered is that members of the community need each others’ grief. In grieving together, we not only validate the grief we carry and the grief of the other, but we provide a caring container—a soft place to fall where we share our common humanity and dip into a healing well of compassion from which civilization has forbidden us to drink.
As for “finishing” our grief, I believe that is nothing less than humanly impossible. Asserting that one has finished one’s grief is like saying that one has finished breathing. That is precisely how natural grief is—and how necessary, particularly in a culture as suicidal and psychotic as this one. Grief is an integral, fundamental part of the human experience. It is, in fact, a barometer of our aliveness and vitality as well as our empathy and compassion. Declaring that we are done with it merely attests to a fear of what we have attempted to bury in the body that aches to be felt and shared. The truth is that feeling our grief is profoundly empowering and enlivening, which many people report as a result of allowing themselves to enter it fully. They soon discover that grief strengthens us whereas resisting grief wears us down.
In venues where collapse and collapse issues are discussed, a palpable cloud of grief permeates the atmosphere, and try as they may, people cannot remain in their heads indefinitely in their attempt to evade it. Eventually, a diet of pure information becomes overload which becomes revulsion which then leads to avoidance. Why else do the masses refuse to recognize collapse for what it is? Most inhabitants of industrial civilization have erected massive walls of denial precisely because of the seething sea of emotion and meaninglessness that lie just beneath the surface and that are eerily stirred by any consideration of losing their preferred set of living arrangements. This is why, as my friend Mark Rabinowitz says, “Denial is an infinitely renewable resource.”
Our anger and fear in relation to collapse may come and go, but grief seems to be a bottomless pit that the human condition does not allow us to “finish.” In fact, if we were to ask some indigenous individuals to “finish their grief,” they would simply smile and affirm that they cannot and will not because although they may have never heard of William Blake, they know in the cells of their bodies that “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.” People who allow themselves to grieve deeply, invariably report this exact paradoxical experience.
In terms of the collapse-aware community overall, myriad variables apply, but one constant remains: People are hungry for something more than cognitive presentations and Power Points. Unfortunately, most of what is written and spoken by collapse watchers originates from and appeals to the intellect. And while I do not disparage reason, we need to remind ourselves that the so-called Age of Reason is not only over, but gave birth to the very industrial civilization that is destroying the planet and the future of our grandchildren. If reason alone could deliver us from the total disintegration of the industrial paradigm, it would have by now.
This year’s Age of Limits Conference included a grief observance at which 44 people (one-third of the attendees) were present. At one point in the ceremony, I noticed perhaps twenty or more people standing close to each other and holding onto each other as they chanted together an African song. “Holding onto each other” is a metaphor we often use when speaking about navigating collapse, but in this particular moment, the metaphor became a literal event and one which several people told me later took them to a discernible, profoundly new and embodied sense of community and deep connection.
While on the one hand we must always welcome new information about the realities of collapse, we are increasingly being compelled to grapple with the limits of purely cognitive means of preparing for it. Isn’t it time that we admit our insatiable hunger for something more—for the loaves and fishes we create for ourselves when we feel our emotions about collapse and share them with our companions on the preparatory journey? The loaves and fishes will not provide “solutions,” but they will sustain the soul and nourish our humanity as we confront the increasingly agonizing realities of the planet’s demise.
Tell me your despair, and I’ll tell you mine. What matters is not the removal of our despair, but the fact that we are sharing it and thereby creating something eternal—something that cannot be erased by the collapse of industrial civilization but endures beyond it.
The Age of Limits Conference model is an experiment and by no means a failed one at this point. Its planners are willing to learn from errors and adapt accordingly. Plans are already being implemented for next year’s conference which will include several small process groups where participants can gather in order to share the feelings and insights that come up for them in large group presentations. Other kinds of small groups may also be included such as those that offer the opportunity to channel emotions artistically or give and receive healing touch.
While participants want and benefit from hearing presentations from leaders in collapse awareness, it is now clear that this is not enough because the longing for conversation and community appears to be surpassing a desire for information. As a result, I expect that going forward, AOL Conferences will become the gold standard of collapse gatherings—increasingly magnetic beacons of sanity and kinship as the unraveling intensifies, especially if conference planners skillfully read the hunger for loaves and fishes, as well as information. I hope you’ll join me there next year.