Winter solstice awakens possibilities of both/and

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Tonight is the longest night of the year. In the Baltimore / Washington region, we will have about nine hours of daylight and fifteen hours of night. There’s a magical simultaneity of this moving into darkness while also lengthening of days, as our hemisphere also begins to tilt back towards the sun. In a culture of either/or, today is a good day to entertain the possibilities of both/and.

In the spirit of everything being interconnected, we might choose to contemplate applying both/and to big problems we face today: energy, race relations, addiction and mental illness, the state of the environment, and the treatment of women in the military, for instance. It would make a refreshing change from the usual wrangling about right and wrong, good and evil, and putting forth expert theories about solutions.

I often wonder how both/and could apply to the way we think about energy. I admit to getting a thrill when I see news stories like New York State and Denton, Texas banning fracking. Everything I’ve read and seen about this way of extracting natural gas from shale formations raises serious questions on many fronts: its impacts on rural areas, the amount of fresh water required, the many toxic chemicals used and their affects on water and air quality, the dangers to animal and human health, estimates of the amount of gas that can even be recovered being revised downward, and the truth of national “energy independence” as a slogan when energy is now a global market.

As satisfying as it may be to see the fracking industry stumble on its own clumsy feet, I have to be aware of falling into the trap of either/or thinking. There are no simple solutions here, even if fracking is banned in all fifty states and around the world. We live in a time of “energy descent,” when all the costs of extracting fossil fuels are rising, as are the stakes of continuing dependence on these forms of energy: climate change, environmental degradation, and suffering of the most vulnerable people, to name a few. At the same time, our economic system is wired with subsidies and cheap energy is a factor that every sector relies on for survival – manufacturing, health care, transportation, etc.

A both/and approach wouldn’t pit fossil fuels against renewable sources. It would make space for coexistence during this transition from damaging, outmoded fuels to harnessing the power of the sun and wind, with energy efficiency as a vital part of the mix. This can only happen by embracing the messy simultaneity of both/and, with awareness and compassion.

Rather than leaders of the fossil fuel industry employing smear campaigns against environmental groups, buying politicians with money and influence, and doing anything to maintain the status quo, they would come to the table with the big picture in mind: how to leave the world better than we found it. Additionally, environmental groups and advocates for efficiency and renewable energy would resist temptation to paint the fossil fuel industry as the irredeemable evil enemy, and bring their insights and values to the broader conversation as fellow travelers in this land of mystery and paradox, expecting the turn to the light to come at the very time when the darkness is greatest.

On this solstice, I would love to see the wisdom and magic of both/and applied to any number of problems and controversies in current events these days:

How would both/and affect the way we think about and talk about race in the U.S., particularly as daily injustices and unfairness erupt into fear, anger and violence in our streets?

How would both/and affect the ways we approach addiction and mental illness? Could we summon more compassion, instead of relying on shame and judgment?

Can we tap the power of both/and to forge a different, more life-affirming, relationship with the natural world? And to help us make the transition from seeing it as a source of wealth and goods, and a dumping ground, and instead renew our relationship with our kin in the animate community of life?

Could both/and inform the conversation around the treatment of women in our branches of the military? It’s a vexing paradox to root out a mentality of domination and control in an institution with the purpose of waging war on enemies.

Community Conferencing is the best “technology” I’ve seen for creating a space large enough to hold both/and conversations. As developed and practiced here and elsewhere, Conferencing transforms conflict into community by giving everyone involved in an incident the opportunity to tell their story and be heard by the others. This is done with care and intention: in a circle, people speak in a certain order, allowing time and space for the full range of emotions to be felt and expressed, and inviting them to tolerate different views, find shared values and craft their own solution for righting wrongs.

Both/and conversations are transformational for everyone involved, and are possible at any time of the year, not only on the solstice. In her book, Active Hope, Joanna Macy tells the story of the Shambhala Warrior Prophecy. The story is a beautiful dance of opposites that reminds us to embrace the contrasting qualities of compassion and wisdom within ourselves. Wisdom gives us the cool insight to cut through assumptions and prejudices, while compassion gives us the warmth of connection and non-judgment of our fellow beings.

Today, on the solstice, I will explore how I can emulate the energies of the day: the ways in which both the cold of the coming winter and the warmth of the hearth can awaken within me the cold truth of wisdom and the heat of compassion. I will embrace the threshold qualities of both/and — the magic and mystery of paradox and the promise of holding opposites lightly in a vessel of possibility.

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