As I reflect on my travels and interactions during the past year, one theme persists in my conversations with folks about collapse. Whereas the most burning questions used to relate to timelines and the speed of collapse, what I now hear more about these days is a nearly bottomless pit of longing so many people have to be held in some kind of community where one need not face the unraveling alone. When people ask me about options for intentional or unintentional communities, I have little to offer other than websites of various ecovillages and the more abundant options of informal community structures centered around food, alternative healing, Occupy Movement projects, spirituality, or other action-based endeavors. Little is yet available for those seeking residence in a community of collapse-aware individuals who are preparing to navigate the future together while at the same time attempting to maintain a cordial relationship with the world outside the community.
Forming alternative communities requires financial commitments; knowledge of vital skills; acquisition of land, housing, equipment; and strong ties among members. Assuming that all of these bulwarks of community are in place, what seems the most problematic overall is communication and a solid sense of connection, particularly in the arenas of gender issues and conflict.
Rarely are these pragmatic or logistical issues which can be resolved with the intellect. Rather, they encompass myriad emotional dynamics that reverberate much more from the soul than our sensibilities. For those who argue that “there is no such thing as soul,” I would remind them that ours is one of few cultures on earth which would make such an assertion. The ancients were steeped in knowledge of the soul, not because, as some assume, they were archaic and stupid (as compared with modern humans, the assumption goes, who are so much further “advanced”) but because they lived closer to nature. Disconnection from nature has caused us to lose touch with the soul, which is, in fact, the connecting principle of life, and it is precisely in the domain of soul where connection is enriched, deepened, and solidified.
In this culture, few people understand that conflict is an essential aspect of any human relationship. Without it, relationships become sterile and vacuous. When people, whether in a one-to-one relationship or in a community, consistently agree on everything, conflict will invariably erupt because something in us craves the color, texture, taste, and timbre of disagreement. Divergent perspectives in human relationships potentially provide the ingredients for a feast of conviviality enhanced by new experiences of the deeper layers of oneself and the other. Conflict offers the juice that lubricates the arid landscape of tranquil concurrence and facilitates unforeseen ventures into virgin territories of the heart and soul.
Human relationships need conflict in order to thrive. But for us, unlike our indigenous brothers and sisters, conflict is usually synonymous in our minds with warfare, hostility, betrayal, domination, and the intent to harm the other. Our one-dimensional experiences of conflict have usually been those that result in separation and rejection.
Furthermore, in the “polite society” of Anglophile industrial civilization, one learns to behave in a manner that accedes to the assumed or verbalized wishes of one’s peers. Disagreement is in “poor taste.” Go along to get along.
This kind of inculcation assumes that things are always as they seem and blatantly excludes the possibility of the human shadow. Overall, indigenous cultures understand that the persona we present is always attended by an “inner other” that we prefer to conceal. Carl Jung named this unconscious aspect of the psyche, “the shadow.” Thus, in traditional societies, one usually finds specific rituals or practices that honor the shadow and as a result, provide structured opportunities for its members to disagree, and even to do so mightily, but without doing harm to anyone.
An indigenous person steeped in his or her tradition, when entering a room of individuals who are conversing in “cozy concurrence,” might find such apparently seamless consensus puzzling. She might become very curious about what is not being said, or she may intentionally “stir the pot” in order to evoke controversy. Non-indigenous members of the “polite” gathering might experience this as rude, crass, or provocative, and indeed, such behavior is deviant in the context of the mores of industrial civilization.
Jung believed, and certainly most indigenous traditions would agree, that when the shadow is ignored or repressed, it does not vanish, but invariably persists and usually with a vengeance so that the untidiness of dealing with it directly is paled by comparison when experiencing its inexorable eruption. In other words, address the shadow now because it will not be ignored and in one way or other, will insist on being seen.
The shadow consists of thoughts, feelings, and impulses that we disown and dis-identify with. For example, we consciously want a particular dialog to go well and end harmoniously, but another part of us, out of our awareness, really wants to be “right” or may even want to sabotage the conversation. Or, we may be only vaguely aware that we distrust someone, and when engaged in dialog, because we want to trust them and deepen our connection with them, we ignore our distrust then end up speaking or acting in a hostile or passive-aggressive manner. Had we paid more attention to our compulsion to be “right” in the first instance and our distrust in the second, we may have behaved differently.
Ancient traditions such as Greek mythology viewed humans a complex creatures who were comprised of many characteristics which they called “spirits.” Some of these traits we may be familiar with and others to a lesser degree or not at all. From the perspective of mythology and Jungian psychology, it is as if a cast of characters inhabits the psyche and influences our thoughts, feelings, moods, and behavior. (No, I am not referring to multiple personalities.) Predictably, we feel and often express these traits when we are in conflict, although they may not be fully conscious, and because we are not familiar with the “community” living within us, we find it exceedingly difficult to abide amicably with the external community. Therefore, it behooves anyone longing for external community to become very familiar with the one inside. This is not to say that we must develop complete familiarity with our internal community before entering an external one, but it does mean that interactions with an external community will activate most of the members of our internal community. The real question is: How will we deal with that? Have we developed the necessary skills, or do we need assistance in doing so?
No one can be 100% aware of his shadow 100% of the time, but with practice, we can deepen our awareness and prevent words or actions “out of left field” that harm, alienate, or undermine our relationships. Moreover, a deepening awareness of our own shadow serves to protect us from the shadow of others and speech or behavior by them that could harm us.
So how do we engage in conflict with each other, opening ourselves to the shadow in ourselves and the other? How do we navigate what may feel like mine fields of shadow material both internally and externally?
First we must recognize that we and all human beings possess a shadow as part of the infrastructure of the psyche. Acknowledging and working consciously with the shadow is scary, risky, and threatening to the ego, but the rewards are momentous, and the consequences of not doing that work is costly on every level.
One way people can develop a relationship with the shadow that may prove useful is to journal about what they may already know or suspect about it. In addition, we might depict it artistically—paint, draw, sculpt, or write a poem. We can also ask for dreams about the shadow which often works well for getting clues sooner rather than later. And of course, after we have some sense of it in terms of an image or a dream, we can sit quietly with eyes closed and dialog with it silently and directly as if we were having a conversation with another human being.
Developing familiarity with the shadow is particularly useful in our relationships with people in the external world. When we engage in dialog that, as they say, “pushes our buttons,” we can be fairly certain that some aspect of the shadow has been triggered. Once again, as is so often the case in human relationships, it is crucial to be tuned in to our bodies so that we have an expanded range of communication “equipment” that operates not merely from the intellect, but from intuition and physical sensation as well.
In my experience, men often navigate conflict better than women. At worst, men deal with conflict through war, but at their best, they hold the tension of opposing forces in their bodies and do not act from the shadow but with consciousness and clarity in an attempt to resolve the issues at hand. On the other hand, women have been enculturated with the notion that disagreement in any form is not “nice” and that they must accede to and above all, please the other. In many cases, they have disowned their shadow for so long that accessing it is exceedingly difficult. In some situations, they are comfortable with ranting about their conflicts or complaining about them indirectly, but stepping into the fire of the actual conflict and working with it directly is too intimidating because it involves the willingness to risk not being nice—or perhaps incurring what they perceive as the wrath of males.
The good news is that when skillfully contained within the parameters of clearly-defined groundrules, often facilitated by people trained in conflict resolution and shadow work, groups and individuals can engage in conflict in ways that bring not only the resolution of problems, but even more intimacy with each other so that the “feast of conviviality” of which I spoke earlier, becomes not merely an idyllic notion, but a palpable event in the body.
Men And Women
For better or worse, the last four decades have been profoundly shaped by feminist consciousness. I am a feminist, and I have no problem with saying so. While I am not satisfied with the gains women have made in terms of equality since the 1970s, I am aware that the lives of most women have been greatly improved by the magnitude of them. I am also pleased with changing attitudes toward Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people, particularly in the new millennium. Yet these strides in human equality could vanish overnight in the likely event of a national or natural disaster or a terrorist event, and they will most certainly be drastically altered as industrial civilization disintegrates.
James Howard Kunstler has written and spoken profusely his opinion regarding the role of women post-collapse. From his perspective, as the larger systems fail and as law enforcement protection rapidly deteriorates as a result of economic meltdown, myriad eruptions of violence will occur and will escalate in many communities. While Kunstler believes it will be directed toward both men and women, he asserts that women will bear the brunt of it. Readers familiar with his novels World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, are aware of his portrayal of women in those works which essentially depict three female roles: subservient spouse or partner; physically repugnant, overbearing cult leader; and earth-mother hooker. Kunstler argues that in a chaotic, collapsing world, the status of women will devolve to a pre-feminist movement level as if that twentieth-century social phenomenon never occurred.
While I disagree with Kunstler regarding the extent to which feminist influences in the culture will be rolled back in collapse, I do believe that violence against both genders will proliferate. In the first place, one has only to observe the gun hysteria that has engulfed this culture to find this assertion plausible. Furthermore, in times of social chaos and myriad layers of collapse, violence usually becomes epidemic and most certainly will in any culture as unprepared for collapse as this one unequivocally is. Scapegoating, racism, sexism, and homophobia are likely to rage as society disintegrates.
In two of Hollywood’s recent post-apocalyptic portrayals, The Road and The Book of Eli, the treatment of women becomes profoundly barbaric. In these depictions of life post-collapse, a woman cannot survive unless she does whatever is necessary to be protected by boorish, brutal men.
Few collapse-aware women are actually talking about this. In my book Navigating The Coming Chaos, I have included an entire section on violence against women in collapse, but the conversation about this issue needs to be expanded, as well as deepened in terms of exploring the ramifications not only of the inevitability of escalating violence against women, but the emotions this reality evokes and what pro-active measures we will take as individuals and communities. Moreover, the unspoken elephant in the room in many communities and gatherings of collapse-aware individuals is a repository of wounding carried by both genders in relation to the other.
The overt assumption is that men and women will join forces to sustain and protect one another, but not far beneath the surface are myriad lingering resentments, injuries, and other shadow material that will invariably erupt in a chaotic milieu—and that in current time already subtly contaminate cross-gender relationships and discourse.
If indeed our geographic regions become more volatile and warlike, how will both genders navigate this, and to what extent will the wounds we carry which we attribute to the other gender influence our relationships with it? Escalating violence changes people, as any war veteran can attest. Is the only alternative that women become more aggressively feminist and men become more patriarchal? How will we prevent demonizing the other gender when we both desperately need to ally with each other? How will each gender take responsibility for the shadow masculine and shadow feminine, characterized by the destructive aspects of each, that we all seek to have “evolved beyond”?
Moreover, what happens with LGTB members of a community in a time of scapegoating and perceived threats to “masculinity” or “femininity”? What is the role of these individual in venues where “gender wars” have erupted? Do heterosexual women exclude some lesbians because they are “too masculine” or do some heterosexual men tell gay men to “man up or get out”?
One model to which I consistently return is that found in the West African Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso in which LGBT people are perceived as “gatekeepers” between the tangible, human world and the eternal. For this reason, in the Dagara Tribe, LGBT men and women hold special roles in ceremony and in negotiations between groups of heterosexuals who are experiencing conflict with the other gender. Because the Dagara community recognizes the value of the energies of both masculine and feminine that LGBT individuals possess, they are enlisted as liaisons between heterosexual women and men in conflict. Similarly, in the traditions of many First Nation tribes on this continent, a “two-spirits” person was valued as the bearer of “special medicine” which included esteemed roles in ceremony and in negotiations between genders.
As the discussion of near-term extinction (NTE) churns in conversations among the collapse-aware, no one can declare with certainty when it will occur or that all life forms on this planet will be eliminated by it. Small pockets of survival here and there may be possible. Obviously, any survivors would need to ask themselves if anything is left to them that merits their perseverance. If they decide to persevere, then clearly, they will need to determine what kind of human community they wish to form. We do not know to what extent they might be informed by the unhealed gender relations of their forbearers, nor can we predict the roles of women and men in those incipient communities. What we do know is that in terms of relationships with the other gender, they will know a great deal about what doesn’t work.
I am often asked if in the light of NTE, any of this really matters. For me, this is like asking, “Since we are all going to die eventually, should I get out of bed tomorrow morning?” On the one hand, the possibility of NTE does and should alter our perspective of what matters most in the demise of industrial civilization. For some, nothing really matters except bringing down empire. For others, their lives are about much more than NTE, yet they now want to prepare for collapse in the light of it.
For me, the likelihood of NTE does not cause me to simply give up and begin concocting my very special suicide potion because it matters to me how I live the rest of my days on the planet. Profoundly important to me is the legacy I leave, even if there are no survivors to assimilate it. What matters is that I have left it. Moreover, far more important to me is how I have touched other lives of the human and more-than-human community and how those lives have touched mine.
Are you a more whole and conscious human being because you knew me? Am I more alive, compassionate, and wizened because I knew you? Are other species fed, protected, and in less pain because they encountered me? Certainly my heart is more open, tender, and loving because I encountered them. Where do I make meaning for others in the last days of NTE? Where do I find and make meaning for myself as my species ceases to exist?
For me, it’s about how I touch your life and how you touch mine. It’s about how we slog through our conflict and discover one thing about each other that we didn’t know and that would have been tragic never to have seen. That, as the poet Rebecca del Rio says, is the only “Constant”: