Step out of the center and take the wider view


The last week has played out for some of us as the classic stages of grief. Denial shows up as the petition to get Electors to vote for Hillary instead of Donald, or more ambitiously to do away with the baffling, arcane Electoral College altogether. There’s plenty of anger, too, with blame to make it extra spicy. Luvvie Ajayi lays the whole mess squarely at the feet of white women. Others blame the DNC, the FBI, Breitbart,Wikileaks, the ignorance of certain voters, the gullibility of others, Hillary Clinton herself for running. So much blame, so little time.

Is it bargaining or acceptance that many charitable organizations and nonprofit news sites have seen record donations in the last few days? (Or opportunism that they’ve sent out so many appeal emails?) What category does the Million Women March come under?

After the first shock wave hit, I sunk to the depression stage. From down here, the horizon of acceptance isn’t yet visible. I do see people trying on the reality that this is what we have to live with, so we may as well make the best of it. I’ve entertained that thought, even going so far as imagining that this might somehow, mysteriously, be for the highest good. Who can say how this will all play out? (Sadly, my imagination isn’t up to this challenge.)

Whatever the lens or metaphor, I definitely feel called to a greater level of service, compassion, creativity, tolerance, and love. No more timidity, no more fooling around. I must speak out more often and with a stronger voice. I must listen with curiosity and empathy. And avoid judgment.

The last week has been a roller coaster ride from hell. The kids may get top-secret clearances, or desks in the West Wing. Their dad plans to spend weekends in New York, as if important matters of state only happen Monday through Friday. As if being Leader of the Free World is a part-time gig. I am not loving the idea of our government in the hands of non-elected appointees 30% of the time. Especially given the names that have emerged so far.

Among the white males of privilege who’ve been tapped for lead roles are a white supremacist, a climate denier, and a fossil fuel lobbyist. The VP is a self-righteous controller of women’s health and a proponent of “pray the gay away” conversion therapy. Can Wall Street bankers be far behind? When I go even a tiny way down that rabbit hole, the despair and anger multiply.

Protests and petitions, donations and vows to “keep fighting,” even the wearing of safety pins are all refusals to admit one crucial point: this thing is out of our control. Odd to say, since our whole lives we’ve been told that this representative form of government is how we exercise collective control over the values, policies, and direction of our country. We’re so used to this way of thinking, we’ve come to believe it.

True, corruption, deceit, and incompetence thwart our control, but there’s another thing that all rational people know. Control is never possible, not entirely. The way forward from here involves not so much a pitched battle between the forces of good and evil (save that for the climax of the show). Let’s set aside the already developing day-to-day struggle to wrest control from undeserving hands, and dolly out for a wider view of the context of our actions.

Our country is governed by laws that do not consider the larger systems upon which human and every other kind of life depends, and from which all value, all wealth, and all well-being derive.

The framework that underpins our system of government (and our entire economy) is as 100% human-centric as the good Enlightenment philosophy that it derives from. The wider context that begs consideration goes by names like nature, the environment, or natural resources. This matters for more reasons than the simple (or not-so-simple) continuance of the human species.

Back in 1962, Rachel Carson suggested that a healthy environment be a constitutional right. There was even an amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed in 1996:

“The natural resources of the nation are the heritage of present and future generations. The right of each person to clean and healthful air and water, and to the protection of the other natural resources of the nation, shall not be infringed upon by any person.”

Even this human-centric language acknowledges that any system that ignores the larger system within which it is nested, and upon which it depends, is doomed to failure. As designed, our system fails consistently to consider and safeguard the condition of water, air, soil and even weather. Our system, in short, deludes itself. Operating from this depth of ignorance, decision-makers and leaders within our system are incapable of making sound decisions for the short or the long term.

Our president-elect has sons who go on trophy safaris in Africa. He appears to surround himself with all manner of glitz in entirely artificial environments. He enjoys the outdoors solely when out promoting his golf courses. It seems unlikely that he has had any unmediated experiences in nature, let alone a wild place, untouched by human intervention. The closest he has come to the wild is a gazelle head mounted on a gold-leafed wall or a tiger-skin rug spread over an imported marble floor.

You might say, none of this matters. You might point out that much of our landmark environmental regulation was passed during the Nixon administration. He was not a man known for his outdoorsmanship. My point is not that the president must be an environmentalist, but that it’s time for more Americans to recognize the limitations and failures of our national story. We have a mistaken and destructive sense of who we are in the world, and therefore a distorted view of our rights and responsibilities with respect to the natural world. And, tellingly, with respect to future generations.

The myth of King Midas may not be an original thought when it comes to the president-elect, but it is useful to explore. Bacchus granted Midas’ greedy wish, knowing the result would be disastrous for him. When Midas appealed to Bacchus to be restored from his hideous affliction, he was directed to find the cure at the headwaters of the River Pactolus. Midas was told that he could wash away his fault and punishment only by plunging his head and body into the river. To this day, the sand of that river contains flecks of gold.

Isn’t that interesting? To cure his greed, Midas had to bathe in a wild river. Poets understand this need. Wendell Berry writes of it in “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Many of us understand that the stakes and consequences of this election could not be greater. Something compels me to try to connect the national head-scratching and soul-searching to this simple truth: the answers will not be found within the system and the methodologies that have failed us. In the same way that a death in the family softens us into bigger questions and realities beyond our day-to-day cares, we can use this time of unknowing and confusion to question the stories we tell ourselves.

There is treasure beyond the narrative of nature as a storehouse of raw materials and as a garbage dump for our waste. All human civilizations that have had any longevity revered the living world, of which they understood themselves to be an interconnected part. They expressed, in ritual form, their gratitude for the abundance of gifts freely given: sunlight, rain, beauty, and marvelous resilience and diversity. They understood that human beings are woven into the intricate, wondrous, vast web of life. It’s a matter of imagination, and I believe we are up to the challenge.





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