We are being asked to bear witness to the ending of days.
Lest I find myself categorized immediately as a ‘doomist’, I wish to say up front that I am not suggesting hopelessness. I am agreeing, as Martin Shaw has said, that we are in the Underworld, though many aren’t willing to know it yet:
“We still get to go on holiday, drink wine, watch beautiful sunsets. We still pay insurance and kids still go to college. But there is something happening. An unravelling. A collapsing, both tacit and immense in scale.”
Modern society believes that to be human means to circumvent every limit that opposes us — ultimately seeing death as a biological flaw to be eliminated. Yet, indigenous cultures the world over know the law of life to be the exact opposite —as Stephen Jenkinson says in Lost Nation Road: “it is the limit that gives us the opportunity to practice being human.”
By eliminating endings we have triggered the end of everything else.
“We are right where we were headed all along.” — Catherine Ingram
“‘Hopelessness’ and its related emotions of dismay and despair are understandably feared but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation. Alex Steffen warned that ‘Despair is never helpful’ (2017). However, the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas. The loss of a capability, a loved one or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008). In such contexts ‘hope’ is not a good thing to maintain, as it depends on what one is hoping for. When the debate raged about the value of the New York Magazine article, some commentators picked up on this theme. ‘In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes,’ wrote Tommy Lynch (2017).”
We didn’t start the fire It was always burning Since the world’s been turning We didn’t start the fire But when we are gone Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on
— Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
A couple of months ago, I went to see the premiere of the film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It’s a visual exploration of the impact of industrial civilization on the earth. The movie opened on a scene of thousands of elephant tusks, recovered from African poachers, being gathered in huge piles. It looked like some kind of avant-garde art installation … or maybe an altar.
Editor’s note: This excerpt from Dougald Hine’s recent article describes something new happening under the umbrella of environmental activism recently. It is darker, less hopeful, and more radical than the environmentalism of just a few years ago. I encourage you to goread the whole article here.
“… on a scale not seen before, people are having an encounter with climate change not as a problem that can be solved or managed, made to go away, or reconciled with some existing arc of progress, but as a dark knowledge that calls our path into question, that starts to burn away the stories we were told and the trajectories our lives were meant to follow, the entitlements we were brought up to believe we had, our assumptions about the shape of history, the kind of world we were born into and our place within it.
Civilization is ending, but the World is not. The World has lived through far greater changes than us. The World was here for billions of years before we came along, and will be here for billions of years after we’re gone. We are not so grand that we can kill Life itself.
This story was first told by Donna Haraway in her book, Staying With the Trouble. You can read the original story here. My revision of the story is shortened and simplified for accessibility. If you’re familiar with Donna Haraway, I think you’ll agree she wouldn’t mind and would probably encourage you to make up your own stories about the Children of Compost.
This story was first read at Beverly Unitarian Church in Illinois as part of a service. The woman I asked to read the story actual brought live examples of Monarch metamorphosis, from caterpillar through chrysalis to adult butterfly. At the end of the service, she helped several children release the butterfly.
I want to share this amazing article by lawyer, grief therapist, ritualist, and community builder (wow, what a resume!), Holly Truhlar, about the complicity of mainstream psychology in the systems which are destroying our society and our planet. You can read the whole article on Holly’s website. And here’s a link to an interview of her on Last Born in the Wilderness.
“Give me your moldy, your stale, your sprouting
potatoes. Bring me that wilted, pitiful bag of salad you really meant
to eat this time. Bring me your bananas too brown and mushy even to
make bread with. Bring me your grass clippings and fallen leaves. Give
me the wretched refuse of your teeming refrigerator, yearning to rot
free. Give me these, and we will make life itself.”