To borrow a phrase from the reporters at the New York Times, it’s been a busy couple of weeks–not only in politics, but in the world generally. The sound byte version: major floods of biblical proportions in Southeastern Africa that devastated parts of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, taking hundreds, most likely thousands, of lives and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless; epic flooding in the United States’ Midwest as rains melted snow on top of frozen ground, causing rivers to swell and burst, and causing major highways in Nebraska to close; while major political upheaval continues with the UK’s Brexit impasse, prompting over a million protesters to march in London over the weekend demanding a new referendum vote.
Just before the close of business Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller III delivered his report concerning the Trump administration’s alleged ties with Russian intelligence during the 2016 election campaign to Attorney General William Barr. On Sunday, Barr released his short synopsis of Mueller’s report to the American public. (NYTimes, March 24, 2019). His conclusion is that there is not sufficient evidence within the report to claim that Trump, or any of his aides, committed crimes. Barr wrote “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr continued his synopsis by explaining there were two parts of the investigation, and regarding the second part, he stated “The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as “difficult issues” of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/24/us/politics/mueller-report-summary.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage)
Many readers of the New York Times commented on Sunday’s news, with the majority agreeing that while there seemed to not be enough evidence to begin impeachment proceedings, this debacle will continue under Congress in the months to come. Many commenters ended their words by exhorting readers to VOTE 2020.
The past two weeks have felt torrential—one tornado after hurricane after flood, both figuratively and literally. Part of me dreads next week’s news, and next month’s. Superlatives no longer hold much meaning, as the times we’re living through are a continuous stream of superstorms, supercorruption, superviolence, and generally a hyped-up version of everyday reality from what many of us were accustomed to for decades before this one. The relentless energies are exhausting and difficult to manage, prompting people to find any excuse to zone out, shut out, and get out of them in any way they can conceive to do it. Who can blame them? This level of reality is not for those who don’t have the mental and emotional endurance to withstand it.
I’ve been groping to find any shred of positivity within this hurricane of extremes. Toward that end, I pulled out my copy of Active Hope, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (New World Library, 2012). Joanna Macy is that rare writer who can acknowledge the pain and struggles we experience as beings in human form on this planet, while also reminding us of the absolute wonder and joy of embodiment. In the chapter entitled Honoring Our Pain for the World, she writes,
We can exist in both realities at the same time—going about our normal lives in the mode of Business as Usual while also remaining painfully aware of the multifaceted crises unfolding around us….one way of dealing with the confusion and agony of this splitting is to push the crisis out of view….but this way of living is difficult to sustain, particularly as the condition of our world continues to worsen.
It is difficult even to talk about this….when we feel dread about what may lie ahead, outrage at what is happening to our planet, or sadness about what has already been lost, it is likely we have nowhere to take these feelings.
We can be caught between two fears—the fear of what will happen if we, as a society, continue the way we’re going and the fear of acknowledging how bad things are because of the despair that doing so brings up. (pg. 65)
Macy and Johnstone go on to describe a method of working with these feelings of despair, that she coined The Work that Reconnects. They write that a “central principle is that pain for the world, a phrase that covers a range of feelings including outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread and despair, is a normal, healthy response to a world in trauma.” (p. 67)
Macy and Johnstone have been offering workshops and the template to create groups around The Work That Reconnects for many years. They argue that when we allow ourselves to admit our deepest feelings about what’s happening in our world within a safe group, a space is created where a shift can happen. They write,
When we touch into our depths, we find that the pit is not bottomless. When people are able to tell the truth about what they know, see and feel is happening to their world, a transformation occurs.
A range of factors acts together to bring about this shift. It is enlivening to go with, rather than against, the flow of our deep-felt responses to the world. Second, we feel tremendous relief on realizing our solidarity with others. (p. 70)
They describe the grief process developed y J. William Worden, including the stages of first accepting the loss and second, feeling the pain of grief. Macy writes, “each day we lose valuable parts of our biosphere as species become extinct and ecosystems destroyed—yet where is their funeral service? …we need to digest the bad news. That is what rouses us to respond.” (p. 71)
Right now it feels like more than a funeral service, but rather a global memorial is needed to honor all the sentient lives that are being lost with every passing week, month, and season. Our world is being swept away, destroyed and reformed into something different as we go about our lives, with one foot in each—the old world that’s dying, and the new one, forming under the very ground we are shakily standing on. Perhaps the best metaphor for our current state can be found in a remarkable story in this weekend’s Guardian. A Norwegian luxury liner found itself in big trouble as it ran into a section of very rough waters off the Norway coast. Huge waves rocked the ship, as its engines failed. The captain sent a mayday distress signal to the mainland, who responded by sending emergency rescue teams to take the guests off the ship to safety. This was a tricky and careful operation, involving smaller boats, several helicopters, and an entire team of rescuers. Eventually, the engines were restarted, and the luxury liner was escorted back out of the danger zone, and into a safe harbor farther south along the coast. The crew said that they were very close to a major disaster, had the liner run aground among rocks in the shallow coastal waters. Fortunately, the crew was able to prevent that from happening, and everyone got through the disaster alive, with few injuries. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/23/hundreds-evacuated-from-cruise-ship-off-norwegian-coast)
In a sea of dramatic and worse news stories, this story appears as a sign of hope. Yes, the people on board the ship were suddenly in a life-threatening situation. They, I assume, all experienced the profound fear of realizing their lives were at stake. They stared mortality in the face, in the middle of an otherwise lovely holiday on a cruise ship. By the end, they were saved from death and forever changed by the experience. And isn’t that what we are collectively experiencing together on our planet now? We are staring at the mortality, not only of uncountable numbers of species, but of coastlines, wetlands, forests, ice sheets, coral reefs, and myriad other natural formations that we’ve known for thousands of years. And we’re staring at our own possible mortality, if we can’t find the way to turn our ship around and get out of the danger zone we’ve created. We must all be willing to talk about it, as Joanna Macy points out. To talk and to acknowledge our fears, our grief, and our bafflement at our situation.