Apr 202020
 

Does the species Home sapiens belong? Do we have a rightful place among the billions of other species that inhabit the astonishing biosphere in which we find ourselves? Would Mother Nature, Gaia, Pachamama, or whatever name you bestow upon this, our home, be better off without us?

I have contemplated these questions for many years and have concluded that none get to the core question that must be asked of us: do we even want to belong?

Make no mistake, we want to be here. We certainly want the species to exist, but existing is not the same as belonging. How many people have found themselves in a community where they existed, but never felt as though they truly belonged? To belong to a community means you are completely immersed in, and willingly abide by, the traditions, ethos, attitudes, and tenets of that community. The moment you breach the culture, you find yourself very much alone—on the outside, looking in.

Charles Eisenstein, in his remarkable work, “The Ascent of Humanity,” documents the history of Homo sapiens as an endless journey to ascend from our animal origins.

“From the very beginning, fire reinforced the concept of a separate human realm. The circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.”

As a species, we abhor the thought we are nothing more than animals. One of the most savage things we can say about another human is that he (or she) is “nothing more than an animal.”

Animals are wild, we are sophisticated. They are cruel, we are kind and generous. Nature remains dirty and dangerous, humanity has produced purity, safety, and beauty. We speak, write, and sing of the beauty and wonder of nature, but we do so from an emotional distance. Even during temporary incursions, we enter, always certain of an escape back to the safety of our villages. Most of us would be horrified to find ourselves “there” with no means of escape.

In nature, every species faces times of peril. And when they do, they do what they have always done to protect themselves: flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment. I am not aware of a species that races to find sources of water to extinguish a forest fire. I have not heard of a species that builds levees for protection from massive flooding. No species, to my knowledge, ever sought a vaccine for a threatening virus. In the end, often accompanied by horrific loss of life, nature finds ways to live with the “enemy.”

My answer to the question of whether we want to belong is, we do not. In the face of COVID-19, SARS, or H1N1, if the traditions, ethos, attitudes and tenets of the community require us to simply flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment, thanks, but no thanks. We will use our innovation and creativity to fight. We will stop at nothing less than annihilation of the enemy. In the face of H5N1 we killed tens of millions of birds.

Do we belong? If, unlike other species, our response to any challenge is annihilation, I wonder if the biosphere might be healthier without us. Perhaps, the recent onslaught of potential and real pandemics is Mother Nature’s way of telling us we are on the outside looking in.

Jun 102015
 

Note: This has been submitted for the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Humanity is, I believe, on the cusp of a new era. Depending on the choices we make, the future will be informed by wisdom beyond our dreams, or imbued with ignorance and wanting.

Am I alone in feeling that many of our species’ collective actions seem self-centered and selfish? It’s as if we are still in our adolescence searching for identity. We grab Earth’s resources because exerting power over Mother Earth—or as I prefer, Pacha Mama—affirms an identity we doubt.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey, an individual’s passage through the depths and darkness, emerging on the other side with wisdom and sagacity, the profundity of which can only come from the struggle. What most separates youth from elderhood is a deep understanding and acceptance of self, much of which comes from the many struggles through which we visit the depths and return, burnished, refined and wiser…less ego-imbued, self-centered and selfish.

The people we embrace as wisdom keepers throughout history were, at some point, torn asunder by journeys of nearly unfathomable pain and heartbreak, only to return with an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s ego-crushing years in prison comes to mind.

As a species, we have faced many journeys through the darkness: world wars, genocides, famines and natural disasters. We have gained wisdom from each, but we seem to forget so rapidly, returning to wasteful, selfish ways—ignorant of the delicate, life-giving balance of the planet. Today, we deplete precious resources at increasingly alarming rates.

Perhaps the hero’s journey that will provide lasting wisdom—move us closer to elderhood of the species—is yet to come.

My brother-in-law, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Hawai’i, has spoken of a world depleted of oil…a world he feels is approaching swiftly, much sooner than we can find alternatives. Having read and listened, it is an often frightening picture that can include famine, institutional collapse and chaos. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus from Harvard, once referred to the 21st century as the bottleneck humanity must negotiate if we are to survive.

I wonder if what lies ahead is a collective hero’s journey unlike those through which we have already traversed. A journey that will refine and burnish the species in ways we cannot yet imagine. If such a journey is in our future, I also wonder if we will find the courage to endure the depths required for our resurrection as wiser, more mature inhabitants of the Earth…to move as a species from adolescence into elderhood.

If we do find the courage to make generosity and compassion our dominant voice, those moments are perhaps the greatest opportunities we have ever had for acquiring wisdom. If we do not, I fear we will never advance beyond our current selfish ignorance.

We could be standing at the doorway, upon a huge welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pacha Mama the next epoch of her future. Not a future separate from humanity and not a future for humanity separate from Mother Nature. But a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined; a future in which we finally understand and fully respect our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species. The next century offers us an advanced degree in existentialism. Why do we exist? Do we truly belong here in this Universe? And if we do, what is our role and how should we be in relation to life itself.

If the hero’s journey I am suggesting transpires, we are approaching a time during which we can allow Pacha Mama to extract from us, individually and collectively, the infinite wisdom of which we are capable. That future holds for all creatures, riches of joy, wisdom, generosity, understanding and love beyond anything we have ever imagined, or ever could imagine. Will we get there without pain, heartache, suffering and sadness? That would contradict the very definition of wisdom. Will the riches we will discover be commensurate with the heartache and suffering we may face? Not only is it possible, I believe the wisdom available to us far exceeds the price we are asked to pay.

I fervently believe it is human nature to be generous rather than selfish. When we stop long enough to re-connect with parts of the biosphere from which we have become aliens, I hope we will re-member we are part of a much larger whole.

I must have hope. Because if I lose hope, what have I left?

Feb 202014
 

Note: The following essay first appeared on Tikkun Daily at www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily. I appreciate their work and am thankful for their generous support of mine.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, a retired geophysicist, invited us to join him on a trek across the lava on the island of Hawai’i so we could see red-hot flows making their trek toward the ocean—nature’s way of making the Big Island even bigger.

The hike was several miles without the aid of a trail. Having spent many hours on the flows, my brother-in-law had many words of advice as we prepared, but it was his final admonition, as we came within a few feet of the blazing river of lava, which lodged itself in some deep crevice in my brain. Since even the “cooled” lava had been molten not long before our visit, he warned, “If your feet get warm, move to a different rock.” There’s wise but useless counsel, I thought. Who would stand motionless in life as the soles of their shoes begin to burn?2010-04-10 07.42.11

I wonder if the same is true for humans as a species. To believe we can continue on our current path is folly. Our collective feet are getting warm—as is the global environment. How long can we keep from being scorched by an economic system based on digging up resources we turn into temporary trinkets to use briefly, discard and bury? How will we continue to feed 7 billion people, even as we become 12 billion, as farmland is increasingly turned into strip malls and housing developments? But then, to save corporate mega-farms is to preserve a different kind of ecological disaster. How long will Mother Nature—Pachamama—put up with a species that shows so little regard for the delicate balance required to support all life? At what point might she call a halt to our self-centeredness?

Our current thinking, and what flows from our thoughts, is in profound misalignment with the natural cycles of life. To continue thinking in Newtonian ways about how to “fix” Pachamama will further heat the rocks on which we stand. Our future depends on our willingness to be in, and of, this world—partner with Pachamama—in ways that are far more than adaptations of our current ways of thinking and doing. Our Newtonian infused minds want to plan, organize and manipulate—forge a future we believe is knowable and predictable. What if, we must instead, allow new visions of the world, and humankind’s role in it, to emerge slowly, and in unpredictable ways?

An image returns from my trip to Hawai’i. As I stood amid the endless black landscape, I beheld a tiny green shoot that found its way through the lava. It was there not because it planned, manipulated and organized, but simply by being there to rebuild the tropical paradise.

Humanity has always known how to be in the world; perhaps we have simply forgotten. The biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in studying living systems, learned that health can be restored to an ailing system only by reconnecting it with more of itself. What would it mean for us to reconnect with other parts of the living system known as Gaia? Can we learn to listen more deeply for what is trying to be born? Can we hear what life is asking of us rather than telling life what we expect from it? Is it time we remembered ways of listening that transcend the rational mind; ways that penetrate our hearts as well as our minds? What if returning home means we need to stop, listen and allow the Universe to find us. Do we have that much courage?

The next moments in human history offer a boundless opportunity for learning and wisdom. We are standing upon a welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pachamama the next epoch of her future—not a future separate from humanity, and not a future for humanity separate from her. We are poised to rediscover our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species, and help create a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined.

On a walk up the steep volcanic slopes of Oahu, I struggled to navigate a narrow, craggy, roadside path to avoid trampling a beautiful, carefully cultivated yard on the other side of the road. An elder tending to the lush beauty, called to me; “Please, walk here; it is safer.” If, collectively, we can find that voice of welcoming, generosity, grace and wisdom—and if that should become the dominant song of our species—perhaps, in the end, there is hope.