When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.
July 11, 2010 (CarolynBaker.net) -- An Italian proverb states that a person who lives by hope will die by despair. Americans for nearly three centuries have lived by hope, and as we know, our current president centered his campaign around it. It is as if since our inception as a nation we have, by whatever means necessary, warded off despair in favor of hope, and I believe that if we as a people were to abandon the shallow sense of hope we insist on maintaining, we would be driven to the depths of our despair regarding the current state of our planet.
About one year after Barack Obama became President, I noticed on one radical left website the words "the ‘hopium' is wearing off." While the majority of Americans believe that Obama is a better President than George W. Bush, Jr., it has now become painfully obvious that Obama's leadership has offered little divergence from the policies of the Bush administration. In the throes of what can only be described honestly as the Second Great Depression, Americans suffering from a deluge of unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, loss of health insurance and retirement savings have not yet fully confronted their despair. They pretend that a return to unlimited growth and delirious consumerism is possible and even likely in the long term, but all the while, just beneath the surface of that chimera the demon of despair is growing increasingly restless and ominous.
Despair moves us to confront "existential" questions, and let's remember that that big word isn't just a philosophical term but directly refers to our existence. Existential questions are questions of meaning and purpose --questions about the human condition such as: Why do the innocent suffer? Why do those who commit brutal acts so often go unpunished? If there is a God, why do these things happen? Why am I here?
Despair also brings us face to face with an emptiness that is at our core, regardless of how fulfilled and serene we feel. And while some theologians would assert that the emptiness is a God-shaped void that only religion can fill, I would argue that the emptiness cannot be filled by anyone or anything because it is a fundamental reality of the human condition. However, I hasten to add that the pain of the void can be minimized in a variety of ways.
Citizens of industrial civilization have attempted for centuries to fill the void by cherishing the delusions of unlimited growth, unbridled progress, the acquisition of material wealth, the sanctity of the family, the piety of organized religion, the status of obtaining advanced degrees, and of course, the use of substances to obviate or medicate the sensation of emptiness. As civilization continues to deteriorate, and as fewer and fewer options for filling the void are available, the masses will be brutally confronted with their own despair. When the people, things, and activities that have provided meaning for them throughout their lives no longer exist, we are likely to witness madness and suicide on an unprecedented scale. I state this, dear reader, not to incite fear, but to prepare us for a milieu of chaos resulting from a pandemic of meaninglessness as nearly all of that which has provided meaning for so many is swept away.
What is more, I realize that anyone reading these words may be at times overwhelmed with despair. This is difficult to avoid when contemplating the scale of horror that humans have inflicted on the planet in terms of wars, resource depletion, environmental devastation, and innumerable forms of injustice and brutality. Unless one lives a hermetically sealed life, one encounters these realities daily.
When I first published Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse, I was afraid that it would be reviled at the worst and virtually ignored at best. While it is true that it did not and will not become a best-seller, I have been astounded at the book's success and the comments I have received from readers. Consistently they report that Sacred Demise profoundly lowered their level of despair by catalyzing a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In most cases, readers completed the book, or re-read it, and took away a palpable appreciation of the demise and what is truly sacred about it.
As I engage with collapse-aware individuals and communities throughout the world, what I consistently hear is the profound alienation they feel in a world unraveling. We all have personal wounds that evoke despair, but as psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan notes in her book, Healing Through The Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair, "Despair grows not only out of our personal wounds, losses, and disappointments, but also out of our needs for community and a shared sense of meaning -- spiritual necessities for which we harbor a profound and aching, though largely unconscious, nostalgia."
Greenspan also notes that often our personal despair will not let up until we confront our despair for the world. You may be familiar with Joanna Macy's despair and empowerment workshops, designed to help people face their despair and create community with others who are engaged in similar work. Macy believes that despair is to be trusted because it is a natural, visceral response to a planet in crisis inhabited by beings who are committing suicide.
Generally, the psychotherapy profession does not address despair for the world. In fact, if you were to walk into a therapist's office and say that you feel grief and despair for the world, you are likely to be labeled depressed, paranoid, phobic, or pathologized in some other way, presented with myriad reasons why your despair is unwarranted in a world so full of glorious potential, and probably asked to consider taking an antidepressant. It is likely that unless you consult a therapist who is fully informed regarding the coming chaos, you will need to find support from other individuals similarly informed and share your feelings about the future with them.
Joanna Macy speaks to this directly:
But because of the individualistic bias of mainstream psychotherapy, we have been conditioned to assume that we are essentially separate selves, driven by aggressive impulses, competing for a place in the sun. In the light of these assumptions, psychotherapists tend to view our affective responses to the plight of our world as dysfunctional and give them short shrift. As a result, we have trouble crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare might be genuine enough and acute enough to cause distress. Assuming that all our drives are ego-generated, therapists tend to regard feelings of despair for our planet as manifestations of some private neurosis.
This is precisely why in recent months I have begun a Transition Counseling practice, which some people have called "Collapse Coaching," that offers people an opportunity to share their feelings about the future and receive support and practical input regarding preparation. I believe that increasingly we will need this kind of coaching in our communities as the wheels fly off of a civilization dependent on cheap fossil fuels for its operation and the illusion of endless growth and consumption for its motivation.
When we do not acknowledge despair, it reinforces our tendency toward numbness, the preferred "feeling state" of most citizens of modern culture. If we remind ourselves that emotion has the word motion in it, and if we consciously allow the despair, yes even dialog with it, asking it what it wants from us, we may find that it is indeed an ally.
In reality, despair presents us with an opportunity to enhance our sense of meaning and purpose. As Greenspan states: "Despair is faith's darker handmaiden. There is no faith without doubt and despair, just as there is no good without evil, no day without night. To be authentic, faith must be all-inclusive -- encompassing Auschwitz as much as it encompasses paradise." If you bristle at the word faith, feel free to replace it with meaning, purpose, inspiration, or some other word.
The human psyche is extremely comfortable in the territory of despair. For this reason, we need to trust our despair and allow it to guide us to the transformation that is waiting to happen within us. We also need to remember that we feel our despair in the context of a world that is withering and a species that is rushing headlong toward extinction. Our personal despair and the wider story of despair cannot be separated. This does not mean that we stay stuck in blame and abdicate personal responsibility where it should be claimed. What it does mean, however, is that suffering is both personal and collective, and that the latter is larger than our personal egos. It may be that despair is a catalyst not only for our personal transformation, but also that of our species.
Thus arises another opportunity to remind us all that service in the world is often an excellent antidote to despair. Service can give our lives meaning and help place our personal story in the context of the larger story of a civilization that has reached its growth limits and is currently in demise. However, we do not need to reach our limits of soul growth as individuals. In fact, the more we acknowledge our limitations of material growth, acquisition, and control, the more expansive our souls are likely to become, and service frequently enhances the process.
Yet another tool for soothing our despair is to follow the example of Wendell Berry in his beautiful poem which opens this article. In it he states that when despair for the world grows in him, he consciously enters nature and allows it to comfort him so that for a time, he can rest in the grace of the world and experience himself as free. Yet it is not only comfort he receives but the "peace of wild things." But how can "wild" be synonymous with "peaceful"? Isn't wild unpredictable and therefore anxiety-producing? Could this actually be one of the most important antidotes to despair: Wild, unpredictable, capricious, even dangerous? Is not part of our death-like despair the lack of wildness? Psychologist Bill Plotkin states in Nature And The Human Soul that "Something in us is truly wild and wants to stay that way through our entire life. It is the source of our deepest creativity and freedom."
I want to underscore Wendell Berry's advice. I am blessed to live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado. Recently, I have committed to journeying twice a month into the mountains and spending sacred time in some isolated places there. It may be as short as one hour or as long as an entire day. While I have taken many extended trips into the mountains earlier in my life, having lived at the foot of Pikes Peak in my late-twenties, I now journey into the mountains more contemplatively and for shorter periods of time.
My intention when taking these short trips is exactly the same as Wendell Berry's. I go in order to "rest in the grace" that is there. It is a comforting, soothing, inspiring, and restorative experience. However, without exception, grief comes, whether I invite it or not. It is, quite simply, ever-present these days as I allow myself to become intimate with nature -- and I give my grief to the earth. Sometimes I do it by lying face down on the earth and sobbing. Sometimes by standing with my back pressed firmly against a towering pine tree and feeling its strength coursing through my body until I break into laughter. Sometimes by sitting in the soil and sifting it tenderly through my fingers as tears of both sorrow and joy flow.
Part of me realizes that it is only a matter of time until the lush landscape into which I have immersed my body and soul will be destroyed by climate change. In Colorado, this is already happening with the death of incalculable numbers of trees infected by the pine beetle. Another part of me is also keenly aware of the earth's magnificent history of regenerating herself. The very elements of nature in which I revel on these journeys are remnants of the earth that have been destroyed in eons past. Perhaps in a million years, the landscape in which I sit, that may be destroyed in my lifetime, will metamorphose into another lovely landscape or other elements that will provide comfort and revitalization for some other members of the earth community.
Somehow, when I return from my short mountain getaways, I am buoyed; I feel some distance from my despair for the world, and I am renewed in body and soul. It is as if I have spent hours communing intimately with a dear friend. And even as I return to the low-intensity urban community in which I live, my "friend" remains in my heart. She is still up there in the mountains, and I can return to her, but more importantly, she is in my body, and I take her with me as I do the work I came here to do. Even if she is made extinct, she is within me, and her palpable sacred presence within cannot be made extinct. I am exhilarated by her effervescent, wild fecundity, and my despair recedes. I feel my wildness; industrial civilization has not killed it because my wildness inspires me to find meaning in the madness of a collapsing world. And it compels me to write these words and to invite you to immerse yourself in your wildness, as well as your gifts of service, because when you do, it will be impossible to be driven by despair.
This article is an excerpt from Carolyn's forthcoming book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Toolkit For Inner Transition which will contain a treasure-trove of exercises and resources of emotional and spiritual preparation for an uncertain future.