Eventually we will abandon our bunker mentality and understand that the only security comes through giving, opening, and being at the center of a flux of relationships, not taking more and more for self; security comes not from independence but from interdependence.
~Charles Eisenstein, Ascent of Humanity~
In the first episode of my current five-part webinar, my guest Andrew Harvey and I were emphasizing the importance of adopting an attitude of service and giving in this era of collapse and possible near-term extinction when at one point I received a question from a student which asked something like, “You mean, love humans? The scum that is destroying the planet?” (My paraphrase) At the time I gave a short response to the question, but it set me thinking about the necessity of a longer and more detailed response, and for that, I am profoundly grateful to the student. This article is my attempt to articulate why an attitude of service and giving in relation to humans is as urgent as serving and supporting other species and why contempt for humanity is not helpful, but perhaps even ironically, anthropocentric.
Ah yes, that dreaded word anthropocentric which is essentially an assumption that the human species is the center of the universe and holds more significance than other species or living beings in the cosmos. Once we fully understand what humans have done to this planet, once we grasp the ghastly, breath-taking, mind-boggling pillage, plunder, and ecocide that homo sapiens have perpetrated on the earth, we are hard-pressed not to despise them. I know this one well. I admit it. I’m extremely selective in the company I keep with humans, but I have many fewer barriers in the company of animals. When I can afford to make financial contributions, I am far more likely to give to organizations that protect or rescue animals than I am to give to causes that benefit humans.
Self-Flagellation Profiteth Nothing
Yet I have come to understand that while I honor my comfort with and magnanimity toward other species, it is important that I do not revile humans. In the first place, to vilify other humans is to vilify myself. When I do this, I am doing something that probably no other species is capable of doing. A hyena may be angry with another hyena for being territorial or stealing its food, but it is not likely to hate another hyena for being a hyena or even for being un-hyena-like. As friendly as a lion may become with a lamb, each knows instinctually what it is and that it will never be another species. When I despise other humans, and therefore myself, I unintentionally remove myself from the circle of terrestrial beings and unconsciously deem myself unworthy of walking and breathing on the earth. Rather than cultivating appropriate humility in the presence of other living beings with whom I share the planet, I declare myself not an equal, but less than other species. Vilifying myself and quasi-deifying another species serves neither the other being nor myself. In fact, it demeans my own animal nature, and regardless of how much I sing the praises of the animal kingdom, to deem myself less than the animal is to deny my kinship with it.
Moreover, when any human recognizes his or her part in harming another being, human or otherwise, they have two options. One may choose to vilify oneself or one may choose to take conscious, intentional responsibility for one’s error. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is also where things get really uncomfortable. Taking responsibility for our transgressions against the earth community means that first, we acknowledge that we are part of a species that is murdering the planet. Perhaps we are not at the moment poaching rhinos or bashing out the brains of seals on behalf of the fur industry, but no matter how pristine our lifestyle may be at the moment, we have in the past polluted, littered, contributed to overpopulation by bringing children into the world, consumed far too much energy, wasted too much food, and not have come close to replacing what we have taken from Gaia.
What then is the appropriate response to our abuse and neglect of the earth community? I believe that it should be one of remorse and accountability, but also of grieving our behavior and making restitution to the best of our ability in present time. When we do this, we end the wall of separation between ourselves and all other beings. And here’s the gut-wrenching part: We are deeply humbled and perhaps ashamed that on some level, we are as guilty as the rhino poacher or the seal-murderer.
In fact, if we are impeccably honest with ourselves, we will be forced to acknowledge that there is a Dick Cheney and a pair of Koch brothers within us. This is called the human shadow, and it’s the curse/blessing of being human. The shadow is the part of us that we say is “not me.” The human ego says, “Oh I would never be a trophy hunter or work for the fracking industry.” Yet the unconscious mind knows otherwise. It knows that despite the cacophony of our arguments to the contrary, any one of us could be the poacher, the fracker, the drone operator, or the NSA snoop. When we are forced to face this reality, we are also humbled by the territory of the human condition in which we abide. As long as we project the image of “human scum” on our fellow homo sapiens, we get to feel better about ourselves because we don’t have to confront the shadow. A moment ago I said that the shadow is a curse/blessing. The curse is very clear, but what is the blessing?
For me, the blessing is that when I confront the shadow, I am humbled into both grief and gratitude. I mourn deeply for my transgressions against the earth community, and I also grieve for the omnicidal acts of other humans (and my own in the past) which, if I am honest with myself, is the emotion that I am warding off when I vilify them. What is more, when I can own my part in the omnicide, I have the capacity to arrive at more gratitude for the earth community than my hatred of other humans could have ever wrought. I committed my transgressions against the earth community out of ignorance and misdirection by my culture and family and was never taught how precious, how exquisite, how breath-taking, how unequivocally amazing Gaia is. When I confront my shadow and mourn for the ways I have harmed the earth community (which is an act of self-forgiveness), I can savor it more incisively and more passionately, and this is what I want to experience more than anything as extinction intensifies.
This is not about letting oneself off the hook for anything. As Charles Eisenstein writes, “Does this mean that I can excuse myself from all the hurt I’ve caused in my life thinking, ‘Well, my wound drove me to it, and I needed to do that to recover’? No. The healing comes only through the realization ‘My God, what have I done?’ It is the remorse that is healing.”
How Do You Want To Live During Your Stay In Hospice?
If our days on earth are as drastically numbered as they appear to be, if we have entered a hospice condition, then how do we wish to live? What does it do to us to despise other humans? What does it do to us to open our hearts to them?
When we vilify other humans, we obviously separate ourselves from them, and we, among other things, perpetuate the Cartesian dualism of “myself and the other.” In so doing, we increase the likelihood of becoming violent dominators. We never have to like poachers and polluters, we may never break bread with a Monsanto chemist or hold hands and dance around the world with Jamie Dimon, but hospice is not the time for hating other humans. Hospice is a time for recognizing the tragedy of the human condition and the horrors of human behavior, as well as committing to the most serious and thorough review of our own lives as humanly possible. Hospice is a time for compassion—for ourselves and all beings on earth. Collective salvation may never come, but if any salvation is to come, it will only come, as Charles Eisenstein says, “…when we face up to the ugliness of our own past and feel the mirror image of the pain of every slave lashed, every many lynched, every child humiliated. One way or another, we must weep for all of this.” And yes, we must weep for the more-than-human world victimized by our madness.
In fact, unless we weep repeatedly, we can never know kindness toward anything as Naomi Shihab Nye proclaims in her classic, poignant poem, “Kindness”:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
In some sense it is much easier to be kind to other species because they are the innocent ones. They have not left the planet in shambles. It is much more challenging to be kind to humans—the perpetrators, the plunderers we may despise but which some part of us has the capacity to become.
The human species is far more connected than it is divided. I speak not in platitudes but rather in terms of the hard science of quantum physics, and I heartily recommend Paul Levy’s recent article “Quantum Physics: The Physics Of Dreaming, Part 1.” John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and colleague of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr stated that, “Nothing is more important about quantum physics than this: it has destroyed the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there’.” In fact, there is no “you” and “me.” Yes, you have a body separate from mine, and you live in another place on the planet, but we are interdependently connected.
Hospice can be nothing more than a waiting area on the way to extinction, or it can provide a deeper level of connection with all living beings than we have ever experienced, but in order for that to happen, our focus must be service and contribution. The question of the day and every day should be: How can I serve? What can I offer all other species and my own that will make their transition easier? Where can I offer kindness and compassion? This perspective requires an open heart, and while opening the heart always risks being rejected or misperceived, it also guarantees that at some point, one’s own heart will be met by another, and just one moment of profound connection with another heart, whether human or animal, could make life worth living and death worth dying.
So as my student asked: Are we to love and care for humans who have destroyed the planet? I answer with an unequivocal yes. If we accomplish nothing else in hospice, may it be that we fall back in love with the earth community, and yes, that earth community includes humans. “Our relationships—with other people and all life,” writes Eisenstein, “define who we are, and by impoverishing these relationships, we diminish ourselves. We are our relationships.”