At least once a day I hear someone say, “You can’t make this stuff up” which is yet another way of expressing the incredulity so many of us feel as we witness the cultural madness in which we seem to be suffocating. We have just weathered the most turbulent election of modern times, and that turbulence will almost certainly persist as the Biden Administration comes to power.
Many people are relieved and even elated as they anticipate a “new beginning” on January 20. Others, more cynical, insist that nothing has changed or will change and that the new boss is the same as the old boss. I believe there is truth in both perspectives, and they must be tempered by the reality that industrial civilization is collapsing, and climate chaos is catapulting us into the jaws of species extinction. Many of us have researched collapse for years, even decades, yet collapse is so colossal, so life-altering and death-delivering that in our frail human incapacity to comprehend its magnitude, we live part or all of our lives as if the status quo will endure. No matter how long you have studied collapse, some denial lingers. One indication of our incredulity is the insistence that the recent election offers some light in a very bleak, black night, or on the other hand, that it makes absolutely no difference at all.
I would argue that both assertions hold pieces of truth.
The Lens Of Collapse
Like most human beings who are collapse-aware, I find that I need to keep reminding myself of its reality almost daily. Intellectually, the fact of collapse never escapes me, but the gut-punching reality of it comes and goes so that when I find myself feeling pleased with some aspect of industrial civilization, I need to recall that that aspect is fleeting because it too is collapsing. Conversely, when I feel disappointed or horrified on a daily basis by yet another example of humanity’s greed and Earth-annihilating brutality, I also need to remind myself of collapse. Increasingly, I’m learning that collapse is the lens through which all collective absurdity makes sense, and it is my GPS for navigating the current moment.
Yet another dire warning from scientists underscores our predicament with the December 7 Guardian article, A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse, in which scientists and academics including Prof Gesa Weyhenmeyer and Prof Will Steffen argue that we must discuss the threat of societal disruption in order to prepare for it. Scholars and scientists are now discussing openly in world newspapers the collapse of industrial civilization.
So for me, the 2020 election offers a few glimmers of light, and within the larger landscape, it makes little difference. As I have stated before, what matters most to me in terms of how humans respond to collapse is that the unraveling happens slowly and with the least amount of suffering. This is clearly a preference over which I have little control. Whereas I would love to see US immigration policy radically transformed to enact the kindest, most discerning, most hospitable practices on Earth, I am happy in the immediate future to see every child in a cage or immigration prison released and reunited with their parents or relatives. At the same time that I would love to see 700 US military bases around the world shut down and repurposed as hospitals, food banks, or shelters for women and children, I am well aware that is not likely to happen. Even as I know that any measures to mitigate climate change will be glaringly inadequate or useless in the face of an impending sixth great extinction, I am thrilled not to witness the savaging of every national park or wildlife refuge or the intentional pollution of every river or stream on behalf of corporate profits.
In other words, I prefer to live in a society where sociopathic, intentional, calculated, sadistic cruelty directed at defenseless humans and members of the Earth community is not the criterion for every public policy.
A kinder, gentler collapse? Yes, that is what I’d prefer.
The Folly Of Pining For Better Government
To put it bluntly, it’s time for those of us who consider ourselves politically progressive to grow up. It is highly unlikely that we will ever witness wide-scale economic, ecological, social, or restorative justice—I mean ever.
The military-industrial complex will endure.
Corporate whores will remain.
The prison industrial complex will flourish.
Humans will continue to ignore climate catastrophe and pillage the Earth.
Universal healthcare will never happen in the United States.
The widespread violence we have managed to avoid prior to the 2020 election will ultimately explode into warring factions within our culture or full-on civil war.
Our political work now is to prevent full-fledged fascism from becoming the modus operandi of our world. We succeeded in the 2020 election, but neo-fascism in the United States is not going away and is likely to prevail in the later stages of collapse.
Here is what we must acknowledge: We have failed at every turn to prevent the collapse of industrial civilization and Earth’s ecosystems, and it is naïve to wish for improved government as collapse unfolds.
Goodbye John Muir, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Ralph Nader. We were enlivened by your passion for Earth and sane living.
Goodbye Noam Chomsky. We loved your brain, your courage, and your solid presence as one of the wise elders of our culture.
Goodbye Howard Zinn. Your brilliant historical research was without equal in the twentieth century
Thank you AOC, Rashida, Ayanna, and Ilhan. You beautiful women of color were too much for a culture marinated in racism, sexism, and xenophobia. You have amazed and enchanted us, but you will not prevail.
Sorry Bernie. You were a breath of fresh air, and we were proud to claim you as our “crazy uncle.”
Where To Go From Here?
It is not entirely true that in the face of collapse, there is nowhere to go but inward, but if we don’t begin there, we will only be like dogs chasing our tails.
Where is our grief that our ideals did not come to fruition? As a friend recently said to me, “You and I have been watching empire collapse all of our lives.”
Where is our anger about the narcissism and entitlement of our species?
Where is our fear of what a collapsing and fully-collapsed society will be like? What will it mean for us personally in terms of our own survival and the survival of those we love?
If we are not dealing with these feelings, and if we do not fully grasp the magnitude and implications of collapse, we will continue trying to improve leadership on the Titanic and be terminally enraged that the collapse-unaware masses are deceived by false hope.
What is more, what do we gain from seizing one of the two poles of perception that I mentioned above? If all we see is “bright light” resulting from the recent election, we are clearly in denial, and we do not understand the limitations that the reality of collapse places on how far the light can radiate. Conversely, if all we see is hypocrisy and “more of the same,” we also do not recognize the futility of the radical progressivism that collapse renders impossible to bring to fruition in the twenty-first century.
In any era of collective or personal collapse, it is difficult to avoid emotional bypassing, that is, denying painful emotions by numbing ourselves to them or choosing to feel other emotions that protect us from the more painful ones. For example, we protect ourselves from the sorrow of losing our planet by grasping straws of hopefulness about efforts to mitigate climate change that fall far short of actions needed or that are far too late to make any difference. Likewise, we may choose to remain angry at our political predicament as a way of avoiding the feelings of despair that we keep at bay with our anger. So each of us must ask ourselves what feelings we are not feeling about our planetary predicament and what avoiding those feelings, or the lack of feeling altogether, is doing for us. False hope protects us from the grief, anger, and fear of facing species extinction. Rage and vitriol can piss away energy that could be more wisely used to prepare inwardly for collapse. It may be pleasurable to “stay pissed,” but more often than not, that leaves us “pissing in the wind.”
An Unlikely Guide From Another Pandemic Era
The United States is in a very dark place as USA Today reminds us–a dark place we have not been in since the 1918 influenza pandemic, or even worse, since the Civil War. We have few role models for navigating a pandemic, let alone one who can help us encounter our deepest humanity in the process.
Enter Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century mystic who lived most of her life surrounded by the Black Death. What we first need to know about her is that while she was a Christian anchoress, someone walled up inside a small space for spiritual purposes, she was a remarkable thinker whose Christianity more closely resembled pagan or indigenous spirituality than the institutional Christianity with which we are familiar in the twenty-first century. The plague struck her town in 1349 and continued in waves throughout her life. Although she lived into her seventies, the population of England was cut in half during her lifetime. She grew up surrounded by death and fear, and she never fully escaped that horror anytime in her life. Although she was an anchoress, a single window in her cell opened to the streets of Norwich where she would counsel people suffering from the repercussions of the pandemic. When she was not counseling people, she was writing about what we today would name as eco-spirituality
Julian was a practitioner of creation spirituality which begins not with a deity, but with nature. It looks at the natural world as a reflection of the divine. While we recognize it today as a tradition honored by indigenous people globally, the pre-modern world contained many intellectuals and mystics within the church, who held nature above and beyond theology or dogma.
In his recent, riveting book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom In A Time of Pandemic–And Beyond, Matthew Fox (with foreword by Mirabai Starr) notes that as a result of a pandemic that killed 25 million people in Europe centuries before germ theory of contagion were discovered, terrified humans looked for someone or something they could blame. While the church had been distancing itself from nature since the fourth century, the Black Death exacerbated a sense of alienation from the natural world. Whereas there had been a deep sense of the divine presence in nature, nature now became an enemy, and a new emphasis was placed on redemption and finding refuge away from this world. As Fox and Starr put it, “As people moved from loving nature to fearing it, humanity shrunk its soul and came to see itself in a battle against nature.” For this reason, “When two hundred years later, Europeans sailed to foreign shores and found indigenous peoples at home with the wonder and sacredness of nature, they accused them of being ‘savages’ while savagely killing them in the millions and ravaging their culture.”
Julian was a panentheist, that is, a person who holds that the universe is sacred–that the divine is within all things and all beings. As Julian often wrote, “God is nature, and nature is God.”
Unlike the masses who came to conclude that a pandemic demonstrates that nature hates us or that God is punishing us, Julian did not succumb to that theological rabbit hole. In fact, she became an even more adamant defender of nature, and surely today would challenge us to face our own potential extinction in the face of climate chaos.
While Julian is famous for her statement that “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” she did not live in some uber-optimistic dreamworld of emotional bypassing. In fact, she counseled people to face the darkness and not deny it. What she meant by “well” did not mean what the word means to most people in today’s consumeristic, “everything will work out in the end” culture.
In fact, Fox concludes that:
In a culture as thoroughly marinated in instant gratification and consumer fetishes as ours, one so deeply in bed with consumer capitalism and instructed daily in how best to worship the gods of the latest gadgets that promise to make life easier and quicker and more satisfying–but never accomplishes delight and repose–the experience of the dark night is a deep wakeup call. Whether it comes at us from climate change or coronavirus or failures of politicians or the destruction of ideals of democracy or failures of religious promises, or personal pain or combinations thereof, there is plenty to grieve, and there is much dust to be tasted. Loss is in the air, as the dark night knocks loudly on the doors of our souls. Julian dared the dark night…she even dared the dark night to awaken her. She did not run from it, but rather hung around to learn what it had to teach her. It can do the same for us.
From Julian’s perspective, her society was collapsing too. It seemed as if a never-ending pandemic was manifesting the end of the world. Since there was no understanding of the biology of the disease, people were only able to explain it in terms of sin, heretics, and God’s punishment of both. Witches and heretics were hunted, tortured, and burned, as well as Jews. These groups bore the brunt of the conspiracy theories of Julian’s day. Other mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Mechtild of Marburg, and Hildegard of Bingen, who all embraced creation spirituality, were viewed as heretics because they championed humanity’s intimate connection with nature as opposed to empire-building and wars of conquest which would follow the Black Death.
Julian’s Seven Lessons For Navigating A Pandemic
Fox summarizes Julian’s teachings regarding humanity’s response to the Black Death as follows:
Facing The Darkness
- Look darkness squarely in the face.
- Do not deny or scapegoat the realities of the pandemic.
- Take the pandemic as an opportunity to examine your goals and intentions.
- Your life is short. How can you contribute? What gifts do you have to offer?
- Stay connected with your fear, anger, grief, and despair.
- Beware of addictions that numb and make you stupid and silly.
- Face the darkness of our own personal shadow and do shadow healing work.
- Stay close to the teachings of mystics, poets, indigenous wisdom.
Welcome Goodness, Joy, and Awe
- Fall in love with nature and human goodness.
- Realize what a blessing it is to be here in an amazing universe on an amazing planet after an amazing journey of 13.8 billion years.
- Nature is God; God is nature. Immerse yourself in nature.
- Seek and cherish awe. Julian says that “A reverent awe is the proper response to the supreme beauty of the sacred.”
- Practice gratitude moment to moment.
Practice The One-ing of The Sacred and Life
- Live your life as if there is no separation–between you and the sacred, between you and Earth, between you and other living beings.
- All of nature is interdependent. We are interdependent with each other and with nature.
- Understand how the story of separation shows up in your life. Notice your own “othering” in relation to people with whom you disagree. What might happen if you stopped “othering” them?
Understanding the Sacred Feminine and Divine Motherhood
- Regardless of your gender, be aware of the patriarchal influences in your life, past and present.
- Remember that patriarchy and gender are different. Women can be as patriarchal as men since patriarchy is simply a way of life based on power and control.
- Learn how to be a spiritual warrior against patriarchy.
- Learn how to be a spiritual midwife on behalf of goodness, compassion, generosity, awe, joy, and creativity.
Practice Non-Dualism and Living With Paradox
- Practice holding the tension of opposites. Cultivate a both/and consciousness.
- Consider that in the age of extinction, something profound is trying to be born in you and in the world.
- The extinction of our species is likely, and at the same time, nothing is certain.
- In Julian’s life, the Black Death came in waves. When people thought it was gone, it came again. Know that pandemics in our time are likely to repeat that pattern.
- Stop asking “When will collapse happen?” It’s happening NOW, and we don’t get to know the outcome.
- Experiencing joy will deepen your capacity to grieve. Grieving will enhance your capacity to experience deep joy.
- The more you open to death, the more enlivened you become.
Trust Your Body and Your Sensuality
- Julian said, “God is in our sensuality.” This is hardly a statement from an institutional, industrially-civilized Christian. Julian’s perspective was wild and nature-based.
- Be at home with your body. She says, “God willed that we have a twofold nature: sensual and spiritual.”
- Ground yourself in Earth-based spirituality and sensuality. Reject any spirituality that emphasizes transcendence, “rising above,” or escaping “this vale of tears.” Julian rejected the transcendent theology of her time, preferring to embrace nature and the body as holy.
Celebrate The Power of Love Over Evil
- Know that all beings are “swimming in an ocean of divinity.” We have every right to dislike any being, but it is our responsibility to acknowledge their humanity and their divinity.
- Embrace “mystical hope,” not conventional hope. Mystical hope is not tied to outcome and does not depend on external circumstances. It is nourished by our connection to the sacred within ourselves and in the world. As with Viktor Frankl’s experience in a Nazi death camp, mystical hope is about finding meaning and making meaning in all circumstances.
- “All shall be well,” is not a declaration of naive optimism. It depends on our willingness to wake up and do the inner work that “pandemic times” demand of us.
If we are responding consciously to the current pandemic, like Julian we are “sitting in our cells” in lockdown or voluntarily choosing to stay at home in order to minimize the spread of the disease. We may be conversing “through the window” of Zoom as we connect with friends, relatives, or colleagues. Our pandemic, like the Black Death, seems to be traveling in waves. Equally important as following the guidelines for preventing the spread is conscious and safe immersion in nature. Never have we needed so desperately to commune with nature in solitude and intimate wonderment. Nature, this pandemic, and collapse will incessantly compel us to let go, surrender, and release our perspectives on everything the ego has held dear. We will be challenged often to repeat in innocent vulnerability, “I thought I knew, but I didn’t.”
At the end of the day, if we are fortunate, we may also repeat with John Keats: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”
In this way, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”