Images of disaster proliferate. Even those of us whose homes are not flooded, bombed, or bulldozed, are living with a sense of catastrophe. I reflected on this Saturday with Anita Barrows, as we were translating a Rilke poem. Speaking out of her large psychotherapeutic practice and her years of teaching graduate seminars in psychology, she said: "Collective trauma and extinction of life are the backdrop of everything else we do."
I discovered this 28 years ago when I started the despair and empowerment workshops, which were the first form of the Work That Reconnects. I learned that within everyone--whatever their political views and however competent or complacent they may appear--there is, at some level of their consciousness, grief for our world. Like cells in a living body, we feel it when our larger body is in trauma. Whether as sorrow, anger, fear, or any mix of them, we feel what I came to call "pain for our world." It comes with being part of the web of life, which can be expressed differently as Indra's Net or Gregory Bateson's "wider circuits of knowing."
Seeing the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf States triggers not only sorrow for the victims, but also dread of more and vaster horrors yet to come. Those who know hurricane Katrina's true name, global warming, can sense the dimensions of suffering in store for all of us.
Last month at the August intensive in the Work That Reconnects, Dahr Jamail, fresh from Iraq, showed us videos of Falluja. In distance shots of the bombardment, you can see fireballs like nuclear blasts erupting inside houses from uranium artillery. Then there are long silent close-ups of the rubble, survivors looking for their families, picking up body parts and peeling patches of skin off the walls, as they step through rooms and courtyards guttered of life by clusterbombs.
To watch these scenes arouses not only outrage but foreboding. What fate, one wonders, awaits a nation that has perfected such diabolical weaponry, and used it with such deliberate extravagance. Already the psychic retribution can be measured in terms of our own censorship, lies, and corruption--and such moral obscenities as the hero-action movie being made with Harrison Ford: "The Battle for Falluja."
The question that has haunted me for decades surfaces again. How to live with the knowledge of the destruction we are bringing on ourselves and all life? No amount of activism, prayer, or meditation can alter that knowledge. So how do we stand open-eyed in the face of apocalyptic events, and still find joy in serving life? And, if we can do that, what transformative powers will arise in us?
Years ago a French magazine carried an article about despair and empowerment work, entitled "Travailler avec l'angoisse planetaire" (working with planetary anguish). In his introduction the editor, Gerard Blanc, calls it a rite of passage. He points out that in adolescence we internalize the reality of personal death, and primal societies formalize this stage through rituals offering access to the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Blanc wonders if humanity, in its planetary journey, has not reached a comparable stage, since we perceive for the first time in our history the possibility of our death as a species. Facing our despair and anguish for our world is, in effect, a kind of initiatory rite, necessary to our growing up, required for our maturation as a species.
This implies, of course, that growing up--in this case, acceding to the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood--involves radical uncertainty. It means accepting that we do not and cannot know whether we are here to serve as deathbed attendants for our world or as midwives to a new chapter of life on Earth.
At the end of an interview this year with a British-based Permaculture magazine, I reflected on this radical uncertainty. I used the double metaphor of hospice worker and midwife, then went on to say:
The process of being with someone who's dying and the process of attending a birth have many features in common. We can only be grateful for this moment, this breath, this incredible capacity to direct our attention. With our self-reflexive consciousness, we're given that capacity. No need to get whiney and demanding about whether things are going to be just the way they always were. Well, just the way the way they always were wasn't actually that great, when you look at it.
Whatever happens, this can be a moment of unparalleled awakening. We have a sense of what it means for an individual to wake up. For the collective to awaken, we cannot even imagine what it will be like. The evolutionary pressure on us now, which can feel so ghastly, pushes us toward this awakening. Life-forms have gone through periods when it must have seemed totally hopeless. For example, when oxygen was a poison, who could have imagined that life would develop the breathing apparatus to use it?
M (the interviewer): Do you think that it is because of the nature of the human mind, with its huge creative abilities but equally destructive impulses, that we have to be taken to this brink before we can focus our energies creatively?
J (me): It sure seems that way. But I am open to the possibility that this could be the end and that we will discover our capacity to love each other at the moment of our collective death. I don't think we've been given any absolute guarantee that conscious life on Earth will continue. It might. It might not. In either case, this is a most extraordinary and beautiful moment. Because in this moment we can make a choice for loving life and taking care of each other. Right up to the end, we can make that choice, and that's glorious. So we don't need to ask, "Will it go on forever?" This moment is forever. In this moment I can honor the ancestors, honor the future beings, honor you, Maddy and Tim, and the beautiful work you are doing. And there's no end to that.
M: And that's enough for you?
J: Well, there isn't really room for much else.
Blessings to you all,
P.S. Do you know that Anita Barrows' and my second book of Rilke translations is out? Look for In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. We're happy that it includes the German originals. Our first volume, Rilke's Book of Hours, will be republished later this year in a centenary edition with new material and (at last!) the German too. That first book has had a wonderful career, selling over 60,000 copies, inspiring many choral works and songs--including (ta-daa!) a Carnegie Hall concert with Renee Fleming. There will be a concert tour soon and a CD, which I'll try to note here when dates are definite.
Anita and I find the process of getting inside Rilke's poetry so deeply rewarding that we seem unable to stop. At a gentle pace we proceed with a third collection. Saturday, when we got to talking about extinction, we had just translated these two from 1905:
In the fading forest a birdcall sounds--
how strange to hear in a fading forest.
And yet that birdcall roundly rests
in this moment that it made,
as wide as the sky over the fading forest.
All things weave together in that cry:
the whole land seems to lie within it,
the great wind seems to rest within it,
and the instant, which wants to persist,
stops still, as if knowing things
arising from that cry,
that one would have to die to know.
How far from us everything is,
and how long gone.
I think the star whose light
reaches me now
has been dead for thousands of years.
I think I heard
in the boat that went by
something anxious being said.
In a house a clock
has struck the hour...
In which house?
I would like to go out from my heart
and stand under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
One of all those stars
must surely still live.
I think I used to know
which star may have kept on shining--
which one, like a white city,
rises still at the far end of its light.