On page 53 of Guy McPherson’s new book Going Dark, he asks: “Is it possible for a scientist to die from a broken heart?” I can’t answer that question, but I do know that it is possible for a scientist, or any of us, to live wholeheartedly and to discover an unprecedented depth of meaning and connectedness as a result of allowing our hearts to be broken—over and over again. My friend Andrew Harvey says that the only heart worth having is a broken one.
Few scientists and few inhabitants of industrial civilization allow heartbreak, and many fewer ever admit that it has occurred and even fewer admit that it continues to occur and that they have no intention of stopping it. It appears that this particular scientist actually welcomes it, painful as it may be, because it has served to mould him into the person he is today, as opposed to the man who formerly reveled in the cozy niche of empire which he had carved for himself. Apparently, this way of life—letting his tears fall onto the soil as he digs post holes around the Mud Hut, is far more fulfilling and soul-satisfying than tenured professorship in one of empire’s more stultifying academic ivory towers.
My Non-Existent Soul
But wait, on Page 55 McPherson speaks of his “non-existent” soul. Well, I beg to differ because no one could write with such threadbare honesty as he does and genuinely embrace the notion of a non-existent soul. But then he continues, “The inability to integrate myself, to become fully human, leaves me with heartache that is irreconcilable with becoming fully human. Perhaps it’s even lethal. After all, human survival requires a heart and a brain.” See, I knew it. Heart plus brain pretty much equals soul. We all have “it,” but the problem with empire is that its primary function is to convince us that all we have is a brain, and ‘silly’ concepts like “heart,” just don’t matter in a real, boots-on-the-ground, left-brain world.
Within the past year, make that months, of reading and interacting with Guy McPherson (or as some call him “McExtinction”), I’ve witnessed a scientist, author, activist, homesteader, and human being who magnificently models what I’ve been championing for years and often fail miserably to achieve, namely, the capacity to hold in one heart and one body, excruciating heartbreak for an entire planet and its millions of species and at the same time, savor life and human community with astounding gusto. “I want to feel, even when it hurts. Until I can’t” (143) I like to think of him as Mr. Both/And Man.
But a scientist who is pre-occupied with near-term extinction 24/7 is probably bleak, dull, depressed, and moody, right? Well, undoubtedly on some occasions that must be true. We all have our Debbie Downer days. He does admit that “depression visits too” and that “Dark nights alone in the Mud Hut drive me to tears.” However, in both writing and living, Professor Emeritus McExtinction throws himself wholeheartedly into life—dialog; playful, wicked humor; anger; grief; snarkiness; resistance; and wondrous engagement with nature in the face of what he considers the certain death of this planet. What else is there, he would ask, in the face of near-term extinction? Fond of quoting Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, who somewhere between being a patient in a mental hospital and a student at Harvard Medical School, when asked “Why are we here?” answered with, “We are here to help each other through this, whatever this is.”
Furthermore, I dare you to separate the author’s snarky, acerbic contempt for empire from his compassion. All the while, woven in and out of myriad layers of disdain are poignant moments that will melt your heart. There’s the story of wonder-dog Savannah, and the saga of her passing will surely congeal a lump in your throat. But nothing prepared me for two pages on “Falling In Love Again,” after which I had the proverbial “good cry” and grasped on a cellular level at least one inspiration for the book’s final essay, “Only Love Remains.” As the former professor might say, color me easily moved to tears.
But isn’t this supposed to be a book review? Why so much time devoted to the personal characteristics of the author? Well, simply because if you are going to appreciate, savor, and be stirred by Going Dark, you have to know something about the person who wrote it. And simply because this book is the story of McPherson’s personal journey through myriad epiphanies that could not have occurred absent an ongoing (and continuing) descent into darkness.
One assertion in the book with which I take issue is that the creation of the Mud Hut “doomstead” was a huge mistake. While I understand the heartbreak that results from the huge disappointments he’s encountered so far, I also understand that so-called “results” are often deceptive. Thomas Merton said it best: “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” And of course, as McPherson already knows, “personal relationship” may have nothing to do with the ones at the Mud Hut.
Can You Let Go?
More recently Guy McPherson has been speaking and writing about the hospice nature of our predicament—near-term extinction and the likelihood that most human life on earth will end by 2040. None of the science that compels him to make this assertion is his own. You can diss the man, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more reputable sources: NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, the Journal of Physics, and the United Nations. Very recently, additional, credible voices are joining the near-term extinction chorus, although few risk being as date-specific as McPherson or John Davies of the Artic Emergency Methane Group.
No surprise there. Human beings, particular of the American variety, cannot bear reminders of death. They never received the memo that life is fatal and that no one gets out of here alive, and they seem implacably resistant to endings, especially their own, and for the most part, have little awareness of how all endings are also beginnings in some other form/dimension/territory of the universe.
When people enter hospice, they often experience a richer quality of life than they have ever known. Frequently, they share belly laughs and meaningful conversations with other patients or with family. Sometimes they paint pictures or play music. Sometimes they mourn, cry, or feel pissed off. Often they eat well, savor their food, and get soothing massages. But they usually understand that they are in hospice for one reason and one reason only. People who work in hospice say, almost without exception that people die the way they lived. So maybe, just maybe, this might be a good time to emotionally and spiritually admit ourselves voluntarily to hospice and as Robin Williams famously ranted in “Dead Poet’s Society,” ‘Suck the marrow out of life.’
In Going Dark, Guy McPherson asks us to adopt hospice consciousness and “help each other through this, whatever this is.” He reminds us that if we don’t let go, we will likely be dragged.
My friend, mythologist Michael Meade, master of paradox and word play, speaking of “dark matter” emphasizes that “darkness matters” because nearly 85% of the matter in the universe is dark matter. When we allow ourselves to thoroughly metabolize our predicament, what really matters more than the reality that we are “Going Dark”? Guy McPherson’s life and writing exemplify the light we may discover when we can stop resisting darkness. Going Dark is the real-life saga of the quality of light we may encounter when we are willing to navigate the darkness with few or no guarantees but with an open heart and mind.
Going Dark, 159 pages, is published by Publish America and is available at Nature Bats Last.