I am reading a book at the moment called Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton– and although it is a hard read (emotionally hard, not hard to get through) – I would suggest that it’s required reading for our times. It’s essay length, but I’m taking my time with it – using it as a meditation more than anything as I navigate the minefields of traumatized people and events on my Facebook feed and in my life.
Because it’s been a crap few months hasn’t it? I mean – it’s been a hell of a time for us humans here on this planet – even those of us who are far away from the violence and the deadly heat waves, the water shortages and the extra-judicial killings by police. Every day seems to bring a reminder that we are doomed, that we are in danger, that anything could happen to us at any time – and that feeds the fear, the fear that is causing US citizens to shoot each other with such ferocity, the fear that brings a young man into a church to behead a priest.
The fear the fear the fear – that I will not live forever, that my family will not live forever, that our culture is doomed, that if I don’t win someone else will, that I won’t have enough, that if my God doesn’t win someone else’s will, that I’m going to die, die, die, just like everyone else before me has died.
I feel Ernest Becker looking over my shoulder as I write these words, wishing that the venerable philosopher had lived at least this long to see the naked manifestation of his writings splashed across every news site and television station. This, he said, is what will destroy us – our fear of death is what brings evil into our world (in a nutshell), giving rise to war and hoarding, anti-environmental policies and short term thinking, and tribal violence. These things seems to be reaching a fever pitch at the moment, don’t they? It seems as if the onslaught just won’t stop.
I’m not going to move into a Pollyanna view here, (even though I strongly believe that humans will survive these current global challenges, that some animal species far from dying out are making population rebounds, and that the so-called western world has a much more developed conception of human rights than ever before in our past. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of people screaming on the margins, but the human rights agenda has pretty much been consistent in its march forward over the past fifty years. It’s true also that technology gives us a greater capacity for world view than ever before, and has some pretty specific solutions that could ride through some of the climate change catastrophes that are coming.) because I know that no matter what I say you’re not going to believe me, and also it’s important to recognize that some pretty world altering changes *are* coming down the pipe, and changes or no – we really are all going to die. For real, no one gets out of here alive, which is the root of what we’re so upset about.
So yes, we’re facing some deep suffering on this planet, not to mention the suffering *of* the planet itself – with an eventual death that is inescapable for every living being (including the planet because asteroids! and the sun going into supernova!).
Sometimes there are small things we can do to alleviate the suffering of others, or help our wild places, and we should do those things when we can – but it’s also key that we recognize that there is not much we can do about the really big scary stuff (climate change, Trump, Daesh) out there. And what I’m going to suggest is that we not only work to eliminate our own fear by embracing the fact that we are mostly powerless, but that we stop transmitting it to others with the click of a button. (Scranton, by the way, has a great take on the social media fear spreading we all engage in – and I suggest you read his essay for that alone.) Perhaps it seems like all we are doing is raising awareness – but really – think about it – traumatized people don’t make for good decision makers. People who are afraid don’t make rational choices.
When I started this blog twelve years ago I came up with the (rather catchy if I do say so myself) tagline: More apocalypse, less angst. And although my worldview has shifted and my approach to life has broadened from the narrow activist perspective I once came from, I have continued to use it. When I came up with that line, I was of the opinion that the end of the growth economies would be good for the planet (more apocalypse) and that we should approach that from a spirit of transformation, joy, and problem solving rather than fear (less angst). Each time I have redone this blog interface I have asked myself the question of whether I still ascribe to that philosophy – and the answer is always a resounding yes! I do believe that we need to face the current economic and environmental problems head on, but we need to do it from a place of fearless love, which is pretty much the antithesis of what’s on Google News this morning. My Buddhist learning also suggests that we need to detach from our own individual outcomes (that is – our very lives) in order to do so.
Roy Scranton prescribes just this kind of detachment – the recognition that each new day is the death of the previous day, that we cannot hold on to what is an ever-changing present. And that by trapping ourselves in the ideas of what should be, that is clinging to some previous incarnation of ourselves or our world (yesterday’s version, a fifties version, the view from our childhoods), we impede our ability to act on our actual present. At the end of the first chapter of his essay (which you can read here) he sums up by saying:
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
(For the record, Ernest Becker says pretty much the same thing in Escape from Evil and Denial of Death but Scranton is a much easier read.)
So I’m going to suggest that before forwarding that terrifying news article, or reminding everyone that climate change is really here now, we meditate on these thoughts before clicking that button. We definitely cannot change everything, but we can stop ourselves from driving fear and trauma into others repeatedly. That’s a possible starting place. And once we take those first steps back from fear, we can observe whatever else comes into our frame as the view widens to include everything that our present moment provides us.