“The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
“The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” Joanna Macy
It was February 2005, and after several months of front-line reporting from Iraq, I’d returned to the US a human time bomb of rage, my temper ticking shorter each day.
Walking through morgues in Baghdad left scenes in my mind I remember even now. I can still smell the decaying bodies as I type this, nearly a decade later. Watching young Iraqi children bleed to death on operating tables after they had been shot by US military snipers has left an equally deep and lasting imprint.
My rage towards those responsible in the Bush administration bled outwards to engulf all of those participating in the military and anyone who supported the ongoing atrocity that was the US occupation of Iraq. My solution was to fantasize about hanging all of the aforementioned from the nearest group of light poles.
Consumed by post-traumatic stress disorder, I was unable to go any deeper emotionally than my rage and numbness. I stood precariously atop my self-righteous anger about what I was writing, for it was the cork in the bottle of my bottomless grief from what I’d witnessed. To release that meant risking engulfment in black despair that would surely erupt if I were to step aside, so I thought.
My dear friend Anita Barrows, a poet and writer, translated Rilke poetry with a woman named Joanna Macy whom I’d met once before, briefly. Anita, who is also a psychologist, had taken one look at me and shortly thereafter let me know Joanna wanted to have tea with me.
Shortly thereafter, I made my way over to Joanna’s home in Berkeley, driving through the chilled, foggy morning, unaware of how much help I needed at the time. I remember seeing only fog, not the trees.
I knew Joanna was an eco-philosopher and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. I knew she and her husband Fran had been anti-nuclear activists for longer than I’d been alive, and that she ran workshops for artists, writers and activists called the Work That Reconnects, of which Anita had spoken very highly.
Beyond that, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.
Joanna invited me in, and we then went upstairs at her kitchen table while she prepared our tea.
After quietly pouring our mugs full, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, slowly, “You’ve seen so much.” My own grief beginning to be witnessed, tears welled in my eyes immediately, as they did in hers.
Thus began my learning about what those of us on the front lines of the atrocities being carried out against the planet, and those living amidst what she calls “the industrial growth society” must do, if we are to sustain ourselves, both within and without, as the future rushes towards us with ever increasing speed.
The Mortality of the Moment
“This is really happening. There’s nothing to stop it now.” These are the words of Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research for a recent report that showed the ongoing massive collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet that will raise global sea levels by at least 10 feet.
News like this finds us daily now, as the fire hose of information about the destruction the industrial growth society has brought to the planet gushes. It is an overwhelming amount of information. Being a mountaineer, every time I learn of the collapse of yet another massive glacial system, or the baring of a magnificent peak that was once gleaming in ice and snow, it feels like a punch in my stomach. Like I’ve lost a close relative, or a good friend. Again.
Macy, during the interview I did with her for this article, warned of the consequences of not allowing ourselves to access the feelings elicited by our witnessing.
“Refusing to feel pain, and becoming incapable of feeling the pain, which is actually the root meaning of apathy, refusal to suffer, that makes us stupid, and half alive,” she said. “It causes us to become blind to see what is really out there. We have a sense of something being wrong, so we find another target and project our anxiety onto the nearest thing handy, whether it is Muslims, or gays, or Jews, or transsexuals, or on Edward Snowden, who is now being accused of being a Russian spy and behind the Ukraine conflict. See how stupid we can be?” She laughed.
After a pause, she added, “The closer we get to midnight, the more we lose intellectual capacity. So not feeling the pain is extremely costly.”