The Story We Are Called To Be

You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.   Leslie Marmon Silko

The word “story” can be used to describe the way we understand the reality in which we live. A story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, the meanings we attach to reality. This past week we saw that people in America are holding vastly divergent stories about what it means to be American, that we hold vastly divergent understandings of the reality of our times.

One thing about stories is that even vastly divergent stories can exist in the same space, and in a sense they can all be true—because people live out their lives based on their particular understandings of reality. Stories are a way to understand reality, but stories also shape reality. In this way, stories have incredible power: to harm or to heal, to destroy or to protect, to create the future and even the past.

One story I heard a lot during the last several weeks was the story of a woman who would finally break the ultimate glass ceiling and hold the highest office in the country. This story identified its beginnings in the sacrifices of the suffragists to win the vote for women. But it also included a vision of a multicultural nation that honored all of its people, and welcomed the immigrants who came into our midst. There were many people who believed in this story, who were deeply inspired by this story. In fact, the popular vote of our country would have elevated Hilary Clinton to the presidency. When the electoral votes were all in, and Clinton had lost, the people who were holding this story in their hearts were crushed and heartbroken.

There was another story that took more effort for me to discover, a story of those who supported the other major candidate, now president-elect Donald Trump. I was able to get some insights into this story by looking at Facebook posts from more conservative members of my own extended family. In the best versions of this story there was a hope that a very imperfect outsider would bring the jobs back; that he would shake things up and pay attention to people in the middle of the country, the working Joes whose lives had been upended by free trade deals. There was a lot of pain in the heartlands that no one was paying attention to. These folks were not oblivious to the problems he represented, but they saw the other candidate as much worse. I respect those folks who wrestled with their values searching for the best way forward.

But there has been a much more troubling story in the support shown for Mr. Trump. It is a very old story, an ideology of white supremacy in this nation that originated in the destruction of Indigenous nations who lived in this land, and in the capture and enslavement of African people. White supremacy has morphed and changed through the centuries, but it has never gone away. Some hoped that the election of Barack Obama signaled a transformation had been achieved. But that was never the case, and during this election season, we saw the flames of hatred stirred up and given more oxygen. Mr. Trump played on the real pain of people in our country, and through scapegoating, channeled that pain into hatred. Hatred against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, queer people, people with disabilities.

Since election day, I have been hearing stories about people already experiencing violence from blatant white supremacists emboldened by the Trump election. Muslim women whose hijab scarves have been ripped from their heads, Latino children beaten up in school, Swastikas painted on the door to a Jewish community center, rainbow flags being burned, and heartbreaking fears about what will happen next.

A story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, the meanings we attach to reality. Some of the stories we tell about our lives are so ingrained that they are almost invisible to us. We think of them as just “the way things are.” But we do not have a shared reality as a nation, a shared sense of “the way things are.” That may not be a bad thing, if it helps us to wake up, to ask questions about what story we are telling ourselves.

There are some people saying that now is the time for our country to come back together, now is the time for us to unite as Americans and let go of the hostilities of the election season. I would agree that letting go of hostility is a good thing. Letting go of blame and hate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” It is important to understand the suffering in each other’s lives, to understand how we come to the choices we make. It doesn’t help us to hate each other.

But the call to unity covers up something very important—the call to unity relies on our going back to a story that Joanna Macy calls “Business as Usual.” This is the foundational story of our Industrial Growth Society. In this story, our economic and political systems depend on ever increasing extraction and consumption of resources. They require the generation of ever more rapidly increasing profits. In this story, human lives are valued only insofar as they can be used in the generation of profits and the consumption of products. In this story, the Earth is seen as a resource bank for the generation of profits, and also the septic tank for human waste. The underlying power in this story belongs to the multi-national corporations and elite business-owning families. This is the story that sometimes we think of as “the way things are.” We don’t really think of it as a story at all.

So I cannot answer a call to unity like that. I keep hearing in my heart a different call, a call to a whole new story, or a story that is so old it seems new. That call is sometimes just a whisper, but more and more it echoes like a great shout—a call that demands that we look beyond the superficial unity of the realm of the status-quo, and look deeper into a more essential unity that we are beginning to awaken to.

For the Business as Usual story is actually a story built on separation. Business as Usual is a story that says that human beings are separate from each other, that one can build a wall between different races and religions. It is a story that says that human beings are separate from the earth, as if the environment were a special interest and has nothing to do with our food and water and life itself.

Joanna Macy talks about three foundational stories. The first is Business as Usual. But Macy suggests that if we keep trying to follow Business as Usual, we will end up in another story, “The Great Unraveling.” This story is about the disasters the Industrial Growth Society is causing. This story is the stuff of our nightmares of the past week. Race hatred, violence in the streets, the people torn apart fighting over scraps to survive. This story is about the environmental disasters of global warming and rising sea levels and mass extinctions. It foretells a future of destruction, hunger, disease, and war, and the likely extinction of human society as we have known it.

But there is a third story. Macy calls it “The Great Turning.” In this story, people choose to create a transition away from the Industrial Growth Society toward a Life-Sustaining Civilization. In this story, people come to understand their profound interconnection with each other, and with all of the natural world. People join together to make the changes that can heal and defend life on earth.

Human beings have the capacity to meet our needs without destroying our life-support system. We could generate the energy we need through renewable forms such as solar, wind, tides and algae. We could grow food through organic permaculture methods in thousands of small farms and gardens in every yard. We have birth control methods that could bring human population under control. We have developed social structures to mediate conflict, and give people a voice in democracy. When we realize how profoundly interconnected we are to all beings, we know that we need each other, that no one is outside of the circle of worth and dignity. The name of this third story, “The Great Turning,” grew from imagining how future beings might look back on our own time, if humanity survives because we’ve made a transition to a Life-Sustaining Civilization.

Business as Usual. The Great Unraveling. The Great Turning. If we understand the stories, we realize that each of us can make a choice about what story we want to tell about our lives, what version of reality to which we want to give our energy. And there is power in that. We don’t have to sit back and observe with horror the increasing violence and destruction that have been unleashed. Instead, we must remember the story we are called to be. We must recommit ourselves to live out our deepest values. Now, more than ever.

In the contest between Business as Usual and the possibility of a great turning toward Life Sustaining Civilization, the front lines are perhaps most starkly drawn right now on the plains of North Dakota. The Indigenous people of Standing Rock have made a stand to protect the water from the destruction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They have been joined by thousands of Native people from across the Americas and the world, and thousands of non-Native allies. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore talk about it in a story called “The White Horse and the Humvees.” I want to share a few of their words:

On one side is the unquestioned assumption that land is merely a warehouse of lifeless materials that have been given to (some of) us by God or conquest, to use without constraint. On this view, human happiness is best served by whatever economy most efficiently transforms water, soils, minerals, wild lives, and human yearning into corporate wealth. And so it is possible to love the bottom line on a quarterly report so fiercely that you will call out the National Guard to protect it.

On the other side of the concrete barriers is a story that is so ancient it seems revolutionary.  On this view, the land is a great and nourishing gift to all beings. The fertile soil, the fresh water, the clear air, the creatures, swift or rooted: they require gratitude and veneration. These gifts are not commodities, like scrap iron and sneakers. The land is sacred, a living breathing entity, for whom we must care, as she cares for us. And so it is possible to love land and water so fiercely you will live in a tent in a North Dakota winter to protect them.

..The people at Standing Rock and their busloads of allies… are making clear that we live in an era of profound error that we mistakenly believe is the only way we can live, an era of insanity that we believe is the only way we can think. But once people accept with heart and mind that land is our teacher, our mother, our garden, our pharmacy, our church, our cradle and our grave, it becomes unthinkable to destroy it. This vision threatens the industrial worldview more than anything else.

Leslie Marmon Silko says, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.” I know so many are feeling discouraged right now about the change to our elected government. We can see that it bodes suffering and hard times. But here is the thing. A change in stories, a change in world view, has never happened because of the people in power, the people at the top. This kind of fundamental change always happens from people on the margins, people on the bottom, people in unexpected places.

We don’t have to follow the call to return to Business as Usual. We can follow the call of old stories and new dreams, of deep values and courageous ideals. We never know if our own acts of love and kindness might tip the balance. We never know if our willingness to welcome an immigrant to our community or visit a neighbor’s house of worship might tip the balance. We never know if our planting a garden, or living more simply, might tip the balance. We never know if reminding each other of the interconnections between all beings, might tip the balance.

This is not going to be an easy time ahead of us. But it was never going to be easy. If you were hoping it would be easy, it may be that you need to grieve that old story. Let yourself take time to weep and mourn. We are all being called upon to make a choice. We have our work cut out for us. Our job is to keep track of the story we are called to be: to remember our connections with all people and all beings of the earth, and to live in such a way to further those values. May we find strength and courage.Birch light and dark DSC07802

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Lunar Eclipse

Full MoonIn just a short while, the full moon will move into the shadow of the earth, and we’ll get to watch the lunar eclipse. I am at Rowe Camp with others who are doing the Work That Reconnects, but part of me is back home with Margy, pondering over the house she went to look at today, still on the journey of our search for greener housing. There were so many cosmic alignments for this house–the moon, the eclipse, the name of the street being Four Winds, and to top it off, I just met someone here at Rowe who lives literally down the street from this house. It is in a neighborhood near the cemetery that we would love to live in. But Margy’s instinct with the house was that while there were many great features we are looking for, the yard is too tiny, and there is no real outdoor privacy.

We are going to try to arrange for me to see it when I return on Tuesday, so she doesn’t have to carry the burden of decision alone. But tonight we are each feeling sad and empty. For me, it raises the question–do we hold true to all the elements of the home we are looking for? Or do we bend and release certain aspects of that dream for new dreams in a new place? Or perhaps more to the point, which parts of the dream are negotiable, and which are utterly necessary?

I remember years ago, when I was looking for a home to rent in Jamaica Plain, there were so many near misses, and almost magical leads that nevertheless ended in no results for four months. Is that what is happening again? The universe conspiring to send us places to look at, knowing we’ll have to break our hearts open again and again, until finally we can find our way.

Being in this workshop space, I am in a good place to hold a broken heart with equanimity. The Work that Reconnects invites us to welcome all of the feelings that pour through our hearts. Joanna Macy read this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke during a beautiful weekend workshop linking the poems of Rilke to the Work That Reconnects. It speaks to me tonight in these meetings of darkness and light on our journey. Tonight I feel full of gratitude to the moon.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Book of Hours, I 59  [Translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

The Hope that Springs from Uncertainty

This week there have been no new houses to look at, but that is just as well because we are waiting to see what loan amount the bank will approve for us. I have also shifted from sabbatical time to a week of study and preparation for fall worship and return to full-time ministry. Today I’ve been reading books on Life Coaching, to learn strategies that coaches use to help people achieve their goals. I’ve thought that perhaps the tools of coaching might be useful for leadership in my congregation, and also useful personally to achieve our goal of finding greener housing, and living in ways that unite us with the living Earth.

I completed one book, whose author describes the most important tools for achieving coaching results as: motivation, positive frames of thinking, and confidence. I am going to be snarky for a moment and say it sounds a little like the worst of new age thinking–“just believe it and you can make it happen.” I do believe that we can access resourcefulness in ways that help us to achieve our goals. I like the tools that enable us to do that. But I don’t buy how everything seems to hinge on positivity and rejection of the possibility of failure. (I have two more books to explore, so perhaps I will discover that this one isn’t the best representation of the coaching philosophy.)

I am remembering Joanna Macy‘s advice to honor our pain for the world, to honor all the so-called “negative” emotions as well as the positive. Our pain is not just a hindrance to achieving our goals, but also a resource for compassion: our pain for the world comes from our deep interconnection with all of life.

Joanna speaks about the three stories of our time–the ways we understand what is happening in our world. The first is “business as usual” in the industrial growth society, believing we can just go on as we have been doing, and everything will sort itself out. But the industrial growth society is actually on a suicidal path because it is built upon destroying the natural world. The second story is called the “Great Unraveling,” a story of the destruction of our society, the mass extinction of species, climate disasters, and nightmarish post-apocalyptic scenarios in which people fend for themselves and turn on each other. The third story is called the “Great Turning,” in which human beings make a profound shift toward a life-affirming society, through major changes in our energy consumption, our social and economic structures, and especially in growing to understand that all beings are a part of one living Earth.

My desire for greener housing springs from my hope to be a part of a Great Turning. But Joanna points out that we have no assurance of success in our work to transform the world toward a life-affirming society. We could just as easily fail in our efforts, and witness the downfall of humanity and the extinction of our species along with so many others. Yet that very uncertainty can be the source of our hope and of our motivation.

Bald Eagle, photographer unknown

Bald Eagle, photographer unknown

I went for a swim at Winslow beach today, and as I floated on the ocean waters, I saw a beautiful bald eagle flying overhead. A small bird was chasing it at first, but then it soared on a long straight path towards the western sky.

As I ponder the concepts of motivation and hope, I realize that I don’t find my own motivation through messages of assured success and positivity.  I feel more resonance with the hope that springs from uncertainty.

There is no guarantee that Margy and I will find greener housing, and no guarantee that human beings can turn our society around toward a way of living in harmony with the earth. But for that very reason, we must give it our passion and our dedication and our best efforts. We must put our whole energy into the story that offers Life.

The Sacredness of In-Between

Circle Stone MJ DSC09547I love that there is a word for the sacredness of being in between one time and another, one place and another. It is called Liminal Time, or Liminal Space. It is the moment when magic can happen, when anything can happen.

I am now in the last week of my four-month sabbatical, and I am noticing that I haven’t finished any of the big goals I set for myself at its beginning. But that is okay–I am in a liminal space with each of those goals.  One goal is to publish my book, Finding Our Way Home. I have completed another full edit, and sent out queries to some publishers and sent out the manuscript. Now I am in the time of waiting to hear back.

Another goal is to find greener housing. Again, Margy and I have started on that process–we talked about what we want in a new home, we engaged a green realtor, we looked at some houses that didn’t fit, we sorted out some financing options. I’ve begun the process of simplifying and letting go of things I no longer need. That process will take a lot more time, and we are waiting for the right house to show up on the market.

A goal that emerged during these months is to do more with the Work that Reconnects. I want to devote myself to making changes that will move human beings into a more beneficial relationship with all life on earth. That in itself is not a new goal, but rediscovering the tools that Joanna Macy has created for this work has been a true gift of these months. I am imagining how I can bring those tools to my ministry in the congregation, and beyond. I’ve had a chat with a local colleague who is also interested, and I look forward to plotting together.

I feel like I have been planting seeds and tending the soil, but the harvest time is still up ahead somewhere, unknown and unknowable. And for now, it is important to let it be unknowable. If I want to experience the sacredness of this time, I must open to its mystery and uncertainty, I must celebrate its possibility, I must wait for its unfolding. The Holy is right here.

How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy

Redwood Sky DSC06718I was away for eleven days at an intensive retreat in northern California on The Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy. I have loved Joanna’s work for over thirty years, from when she was leading workshops on Despair and Empowerment in a Nuclear Age.  If you haven’t yet encountered her work, a great book to begin is Active Hope:  How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, co-authored with Chris Johnstone.

Here is the description of the book from the publisher’s page:

The challenges we face can be difficult even to think about. Climate change, the depletion of oil, economic upheaval, and mass extinction together create a planetary emergency of overwhelming proportions. Active Hope shows us how to strengthen our capacity to face this crisis so that we can respond with unexpected resilience and creative power. Drawing on decades of teaching an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects, the authors guide us through a transformational process informed by mythic journeys, modern psychology, spirituality, and holistic science. This process equips us with tools to face the mess we’re in and play our role in the collective transition, or Great Turning, to a life-sustaining society.

A true gift I have experienced in Joanna’s work is a way to experience my own grief for the world, not as a debilitating or paralyzing weight, but as a doorway into experiencing my deep interconnection with all beings.  We begin in gratitude, and the spiral of the work takes us through grief and interconnection, and we go forth with new strength for changing our lives and our world. I came away from the intensive feeling more alive and whole, and with new ideas for bringing people together around this work. Reading a book or a blog can be a solitary experience, but gathering with others to discuss a book, or doing practices together that make the ideas come alive, can be profoundly healing.  I am dreaming of how I might bring this work to Maine.

The Work That Reconnects

Sunset Friends

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The Great Turning described by Joanna Macy is in essence a spiritual transformation. She has offered a process for people to work on that transformation together—The Work that Reconnects

It begins with the practice of gratitude. Macy says that gratitude is revolutionary in a world that tells us we are not enough, and we don’t have enough. Gratitude is a remedy for rampant consumerism. Gratitude is how we open our eyes to the beauty of what is now—the beauty of the shining sun and the nourishing rain. The gifts of creativity and relationship. The gifts of friendship and community, the food we eat, and the shelter over our heads. Gratitude can heal our souls, and give us strength to face the challenges of our time.

The second part of this spiritual work is to honor our pain for the world. When we open our eyes to the suffering being caused by the system as it is, we do feel incredible pain; we feel pain when we see how far we are from the future we can imagine. Macy reminds us that our pain comes from our sense of connection, and connection is what will save us. We hope to deepen our awareness of our connection with all people and all beings on this earth. And yet, as we deepen our awareness, we deepen our compassion, and we feel even more that pain of the world. We must choose not to run away from that, but to honor our pain as a signal of our connection.

That leads us directly into the third part of this spiritual work: to see with new eyes, to feel ourselves a part of the larger whole. We awaken to the reality that we are connected to all other human beings, that we belong to this earth, this beautiful living planet, and we have the power to make a difference on the earth.

The fourth part of the spiritual work is to go forth and use our gifts to participate in some way in the Great Turning. Macy identifies three areas of this work.

Tar Sands Protest

Tar Sands Protest
Photo by Margy Dowzer

There are what she calls “holding actions” like protests and lobbying on behalf of the environment, or against foreclosures. Some people need to be sitting in trees and marching in the streets.

Wind Turbine

Wind Turbine

There are also experiments in what Macy calls, “Gaian structures,” new, or sometimes very old, ways to live that are sustainable and connected.  Some people need to be gardening, and building carbon neutral houses, and installing solar and wind power.

There is also the important work of shifting the consciousness of those around us. Some of us need to be writing books, and creating songs, and teaching young people about how to live as if we are a part of everything else.

Because there is so much to do, we can do that which most calls to us.

Turning Toward Partnership

A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. … Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning.   Joanna Macy

 

Planting the Seeds

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Joanna Macy believes that the essential adventure of our time is the shift from our industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. She calls it the Great Turning. She says that “the ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth,” on “how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.” Based on this analysis, the mainstream arguments about how to revive the economy and the financial markets miss the point. Rather, the trouble in the markets is linked to a deeper trouble—a whole economic system based ultimately on the destruction of our environment.

In 2006, David Korten published a book, called The Great Turning, to further reflect on this transition that Macy had articulated. He describes our work in this time as a shift from the ways of Empire to the ways of Earth Community. He warns that even if we fail to change our ways, the world will change. But it will be known as the Great Unraveling, because “profligate consumption [will lead] to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remain[s] of the planet’s resources, a dramatic dieback of the human population, and a fragmentation of those who remain into warring fiefdoms ruled by ruthless local lords.”

The other possibility, the Great Turning, involves unlearning the practices of empire, of systems based on hierarchy, competition, and domination, and adopting systems that support Earth Community: “a life-centered, egalitarian, sustainable way of ordering human society based on democratic principles of partnership.” If we recognize that we are all connected to each other and to the earth, we must embrace this sustainable, partnership path.