The chaos grows and grows, everything around us faltering, falling. Who do we need to be and who are we becoming?
Once I was in a room with Margaret Wheatley, one of the people whose thinking on emergence and complexity helped me understand emergent strategy. I (or someone else) asked how we bring down massive systems through small, complex organizing. She said, essentially, that systems that are top heavy will inevitably collapse from their own imbalanced weight.
How do we survive these falling systems? Especially when many of them need to fall? How do we prepare for the opportunities in collapse?
I am thinking about that in this era of Covid, climate catastrophe, natural and unnatural disasters (this week there are wildfires, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and disaster capitalism feeding off of all of it), cultural shifts, and long-term war consequences from indigenous struggles locally in the U.S. to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s all connected – decisions made from a competitive, supremacist, dominant mindset lead to top heavy economies and infrastructures, which inevitably collapse, leaving the survivors to contend with the detritus of empire.
Much of the crisis now feels out of our hands – even to me as a fairly connected radical movement person, most days it feels like a series of unstoppable events, to which I can offer prayer and donations, witness and attention. There are so many frontlines, each equally important to the soldiers in that particular battle. Stepping back to see it whole, there’s definitely the sense that we are trying to hold back tsunamis by plugging a million holes in a dam.
I realize that this sense of total pending and unfolding disaster is all over my Covid responses, thoughts and interactions. I am writing to face this disastrous feeling within me, to see if I can center a different perspective down in myself.
As both an antiwar and climate activist, I remember the devastation I felt when I first realized we weren’t going to be able to stop the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. People were not going to sustain direct action, they were still going to pay their taxes towards the war, and be satisfied with resistance in the form of liberal punditry that changed nothing. This week we leave behind another nation long violated, knowing it will be eaten alive. It has taken so long to say, with humility, we lost a war we should never have been fighting.
With the climate catastrophe, I realized in my gut that we weren’t going to pivot our nation, our states, our towns to be in a just transition, not in time. Organizers inch forward proposals of survival and boundary, documentation and data, the responses much smaller and slower than the pending crises demand. We are up against capitalism, which feels so big, has so many heads. It is all so daunting. It is still the right work. But how do we make it matter? How do we meet the moment?
It could feel reasonable to give up the fight, all the fights, in light of this overwhelming comprehension of our species in its limitations. But then we are also in a period of massive cultural shift around race, anti-Blackness, rape and patriarchy. Systems designed to allow the total violence and control of those given power through a mythical supremacy are suddenly exposed down to the blueprint. Again, that labor of exposure is largely done by organizers who cleared space for the truth to be told with calls of Black Lives Matter and Me Too. We are rejecting these systems of harm in policy, action, and interpersonal encounters.
It’s all crumbling, concurrently. We are living through both the devastating fall of systems that guarantee life, and the necessary fall of systems that uphold violence.
So then Covid enters, stage right. It’s fast moving, wreaking havoc along the fault lines of existing vulnerabilities – those struggling to piece together enough inside of these multiple intersecting crises are hustling, hungry, taking risks to go to work, trying to survive eviction and exposure. Nations who let collective thinking lead are responding intelligently, and then there’s us.
Since the beginning, Covid has asked one thing of us: act collectively. First, the collective actions were maintaining the social distance of breath, hand washing, wearing masks. Then it was staying home unless you were an essential worker. And quarantining if you were sick. Then quarantining even if you were not sick. Doing work and community through virtual connections. And then, most recently, it’s been getting a vaccine that reduces the hospitalizations and deaths of those exposed to the virus. I cannot truly comprehend how many people have died as we figured out the necessary actions to take together. And now people are dying because we struggle to take collective actions.
To be fair, we are also in a period of peak socialized distrust. The divisions between us are dangerous and near total – we look to divergent news sources, have different conversations, suspect different aspects of government (from police to politicians to scientists) of wanting us surveilled, tracked, controlled or dead. Four years of a destructive and immature president did result in a wall, but not the border wall he threatened. The wall that now feels so solid in the U.S. is a cultural one that has deep roots and an ancient design, 3D printed hateful troll bricks stacked on top of colonial ruins.
Trying to be curious, to ask a question, to express a fear, to make a request, to assume a commonality – all of it quickly gets interpreted as building the division. Inside of this, on whatever side is for life moving towards life, I have been asking myself about boundaries, expectations, solidarity, and collective action. And love.
I now live by these words from my friend Prentis Hemphill, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” Love. Not tolerate or survive, but love. When I speak these words, as reminder, as mantra, they give me hope that no one has to be disposable, cut off from that vast connectivity of love. It’s just a matter of distance.
I learned some time ago that not everyone was going to survive and see liberation, or right relationship with the earth, in this lifetime. Not everyone was going to be in vibrant, accountable communities in this lifetime. Not everyone was going to choose love. Not everyone was going to even be aware that they could want or need such interdependence. For so many people, it feels impossible to experience love, to give and receive that sacred extension of adoration, devotion, care, growth, belonging, loyalty and shared experience.
But with distance, perhaps even as far away as the moon, I can always see the species as lovable. I can see that everyone deserves that deep belonging which displaces greed and grasping. I can see us, young, beautiful, powerful, clumsy, tender, selfish – and generally lovable, like a rambunctious and curious child. Or sometimes lovable like the traumatized, neglected bully child who needs so much more love and attention to soften and trust and connect again.
With enough distance, I can love even those who, up close, hate me, or hate the earth, or hate anything different from them. I know “only love can conquer hate.” From far away I can see the haters of the world – those who hate nature, difference, complexity, freedom in others – in the grip of their own spiritual work, which is daunting, which devours from within. Knowing almost nothing of the mysteries of the universe, having only our own planet’s wisdom to learn from, I deduce that even the haters are processing something for the whole, though it may be something toxic, or something heading towards extinction.
With that guidance, I have been earnestly asking myself: what is the distance at which I can love those who choose individual freedom over collective care in the short-term, at the cost of a future? Those who choose to go unmasked? Those who still don’t wash their hands? Those who breathe and cough too close to me? Those who have access to and capacity for the vaccine and choose not to take it?
This year has been a brutal and necessary reminder that control and manipulation don’t work, for anyone involved. I have had to practice self-awareness of my own controlling nature, I have had to soften my grip on a fearful future narrative and return to the humility of the present. I am not in control of any choices or boundaries but my own. I cannot manipulate others into collective action, into choosing life, not even with all my best words. I can only be vulnerable, I can only live into my own values, I can only invite others to join me, and to teach me.
Collective action is still made up of individual choices, which is the beauty and bane of our species. Especially in the colonized capitalist borders of the U.S. Even in the face of policy and punishment, the American way is to choose individual thinking and action under pressure, to fight for superiority on any hill. This focus on dominance over the living rather than partnership with life is how we have racism, rape culture, climate catastrophe, economic disparity, war and disease all in rampant disaster states at the same time.
It is perpetually disgusting to contend with the reality that these disasters benefit a bloated elite. And too many of us participate in our small scale versions of their individualistic and hoarding worldview, thinking we are better than each other and the earth, deserve unlimited resources and access, and should never have to adapt to protect others.
This is humanity at our worst. How will we change?
At a certain point, even if collective action feels far away, there has to be an awareness of the pattern. We have to develop the systemic intuition to sense that the same glitch is present throughout all the systems. Thinking that your choices only impact you or those you immediately know – that you needn’t be concerned with or accountable for the results – is supremacist thinking at the root. It gets packaged as freedom and independence, but we are not individual entities. Humans, like all of nature, live within systems of relationship and resource. Our freedom is relational. Individualist supremacy is a delusional concept, perhaps safely enjoyed as fantasy but not to be applied as common practice. One way to see all of the current crises is as a single delusional wildfire consuming time and space.
What do we do though? How do we practice another way inside so much crisis?
I have a very small circle of beloveds now. Covid required me to get clear about who I absolutely had to be in contact with, who I would invest my time in arguing boundaries with, who I would risk my life to go see. Relative to the number of people I’ve met, the number of people I’ve marched with and for, the number of people on the side of justice and liberation who populate this earth…it turns out there’s a tiny handful that I can actually hold onto. And I now believe my work is to be a good member of the human flock with that small number. Yes, I can still sing out my birdsong to the whole forest. But I move in community, in relationships that are visionary and loving at the root.
I light candles every day around my hope that the distance at which I can love most people in this era isn’t that mortal boundary between life and death.
Covid keeps adapting, like a shepherd herding us as a group through the one gate that leads forward. When we think we alone can run off and stop attending to the whole, a variant emerges to gather us back groupward. The idea of being herded generates such resistance in me, “WE ARE NOT SHEEP!”, “I AM NOT A COW!” (“imspecialimspecialimspecial”)…and yet, are these not also sacred and communal creatures from whom I can learn? In this moment, perhaps theirs is the wisdom we need. Can we adapt to be herd, to be meek, to belong, to move together, to be humble together? Or maybe it’s more simple, more literal: can we be satisfied in a smaller range of physical space? Can we be satisfied inside of necessary boundaries?
It’s quite clear that one activity that keeps the majority of people safe and, coincidentally?, has a positive impact on the planet, is to stay home, stay still, travel less, reduce each personal footprint towards a collective reduction of negative impact. Perhaps variants like Delta will come every time we attempt to return to a normal that the planet cannot sustain.
I heard someone call it the Darwin variant and I can’t stop thinking about that.
The first waves of Covid deaths were our loved ones and strangers who didn’t know what it was. Then those who knew the name and symptoms but didn’t stand a chance. Then those who didn’t realize or trust just how dangerous it was. Now we are seventeen months into the official global pandemic, playing chicken. Most of those who are getting sick and dying in the U.S. now are doing so as a result of choosing not to believe in Covid, in its viral nature, or in the benefits and safety of the vaccine; or those who think they are beyond the reach of guidelines; or those most susceptible to misinformation from unverified sources; or those unable to avoid interaction with others caught up in denial or misinformation, tragically including our precious babies.
They all still expect and need care.
I feel empathy for those who don’t trust the government, even as I feel my own righteous distrust. What’s been helping me in this moment is how much I love the divine work of science. I believe that the sacred force that designed hummingbirds and eagles and the symbiosis of bees and flowers and the desalination of the ocean through vapor and rain also moves through the minds of our scientists. I feel a primal longing for more people to trust in the curiosity-based practice of science. I feel a political need for science to be decoupled from big pharma, which feels so close to how I need movements to be decoupled from big philanthropy. But currently it’s all the same tangled rope of innovation and struggle and funding to which we cling over an apocalyptic abyss. I am not trying to be dramatic here, I’m just being with what is.
Charles Darwin was a scientist whose writing explored many concepts, including one from Herbert Spencer: ‘survival of the fittest.’ The concept reverberates into moments like this. The common misinterpretation is that it means survival of the most physically fit, an ableist view. I’m sure you, like me, have seen able-bodied people argue against Covid safety protocols by saying those with strong immune systems will survive. Many of those I’ve seen take this stance have gone on learn through sickness or loss that that’s not how Covid, or any of our other current apocalyptic conditions, actually work.
I was reminded recently (in public) that Darwin’s own writing points to ‘fittest’ meaning those most adaptive and collectively oriented, those most suited to the immediate conditions. Our immediate conditions are chaotic, frightening, fast-changing and inevitable. What is grossly imbalanced is teetering and falling. What is wildly anti-planet and inhumane is exposed and falling. What is cruel and violent and unfair and ridiculous, it’s all falling.
And the persisting question for me is, what is the work of love in all this falling? Can love help us be the fittest our species has been?
I have sought to offer and experience all kinds of love throughout my life. I have learned that I can love people who will still choose to leave me, to risk their lives, and I will feel grief. I have been learning that there is the big collective massive love I feel for all that lives, and then the tangible offer of love as an energy, resource and commitment which I can only give to those with whom I am in a mutual, consensual and aligned relationship.
I find it hard to love those who hate science, and hate me…not impossible, at least in the big picture setting. But working to actively love those who hate me is immense labor, and if I am honest with myself, it’s generally not something I’m even interested in cultivating in the irreplaceable hours of my remaining life.
Because my love feels rooted not just in myself, but in myself as a fragment of the miraculous natural world, I notice the patterns of hate at the interpersonal, interspecies and global level. There is an undeniable overlap between this resistance to science and the resistance to wear a mask, socially distance and/or vaccinate, in spite of data that affirms the life saving impacts of each choice. And all of that overlaps with the resistance to do right by the earth. The resistance to move beyond capitalism to economic models that allow shared abundance. And the resistance to give up patriarchy and white sociopathy. And national supremacy.
How do I love this vast diversity of human beings, beloved and stranger, who are currently toxic to our collective survival?
I only see one way. If I define love as the willful extension towards spiritual growth that bell hooks and M. Scott Peck told me about, then when I come across all this resistance to the miraculous and collective aspects of our species, I willfully extend my energy towards the necessary and inevitable growth evidenced by that resistance.
It liberates my love to see the resistance to science and nature and interdependence as a cry for help, a sign of how important it is that we grow our capacity to act as collective beings. And, as is my practice, when I can see where that edge of growth is, I seek it in myself. Where in my own life do I still persist in actions that presuppose my importance and supremacy, rather than accept my small role in our collective existence?
I have begun to feel gratitude inside my Covid grief. It’s the result of thinking collectively, even trying to think as a cell or atom of this planetary existence, awkward as that may sound. Even as I despair at the deaths of those who didn’t have a chance to choose, and those who did not survive their risks, I have to acknowledge what else I sense here…at a certain point we have to consider that Covid might be aligned with the earth, of the universe, designed to get us to fight for ourselves, love ourselves as collective beings, love ourselves enough to set and hold boundaries that serve more than our individual wants and needs.
Can I surrender the recent-normal for the present need? Can I commit to practicing a new and limited present-normal for the sake of a species-future? Can I listen more deeply to the earth, to the patterns? Can I keep finding the space to feel for direction within the chaos?
It’s so complicated.
It is much easier for me to love those who want collective human life to continue, in right relationship to the planet. But perhaps that’s evolution moving in me, perhaps this is a sacred attention, a ‘love of the fittest?’
Even now, as I write this, I still love people who choose themselves over the collective every time. And, I’m noticing, every day they feel further and further away. Or I do.
Seeing the pattern of life unfolding inside the destruction and chaos, I keep bringing my attention to it. I despair and then seek laughter, seek the community of others who feel afraid but keep working to connect. I relinquish being right for being present. I don’t deny reality as I find my place in the present moment and try to be of the fittest in constantly changing conditions.
I don’t wait for perfection or magic, I participate in the mundane work of staying alive. I keep my distance, wash my hands, wear my mask, carry my vaccine card. I get tested at every possibility of Covid. If something gets through my mask, if a variant finds me in spite of my best effort, it won’t be for lack of trying to live. If the vaccine works for most people who get it, but somehow not for me, I accept my role in the collective story.
And in my life I keep writing, keep working to shift myself out of the center of anything. I shift my practices one at a time away from capitalist socialization that says I need to be the best at something to deserve a quality life. I redistribute attention, time, donate money…and ask for help.
I am rooting myself amongst people who are learning to think and act together, as pairs, small groups, communities. We ask each other more questions, about what we are choosing to practice and why. We know so much more about each other’s lives and patterns than ever before. We process our inevitable risk-taking with each other because we are imperfect, and we long for each other. We are raising children inside these unclear, ever-shifting boundaries, and we are moving our resources around amongst us to get through. Sometimes we find that in the light of all this new transparency, we aren’t as compatible as we thought. It’s OK. We let each other go on different paths through the adventure, and root with the people on our path.
So are these answers, these small breaths in the maelstrom?
Small circles rooted in love.
Relinquishing control and offering love.
Mundane practices as acts of love.
Humility in the face of the unknown is self-love.
Seeing and shaping the whole, not as a million overwhelming waves, but as a sea – this is collective love.
Living in generosity and gratitude, every day, is living love.
Being nature, is being love.
It certainly feels like love is the way.
And this may or may not fit in this piece of thinking and writing, but love is asking me to mention that I am centering pleasure even now, within the small circle. We are a pleasure flock, comforting each other, cheering each other on towards our best lives even today in these conditions. Pleasure connects us to ourselves and each other, to the aliveness at the funeral, to the blessing in the crisis, to the sweet new life pushing green up through the sludge.
We who are not yet dead are responsible for living fully, without regrets, with deep reverence for the wide range of emotion in the human experience. I look for the pleasure of home, of rooting and nesting, of growing things, of moving slowly, of being honest, of writing, of cooking, of dancing, of gratitude, of love. Every single day I dose myself with pleasures small and large, knowing that as it all falls apart, so much is growing; knowing that within myself and my circle I am seeding a path towards a future in which feeling and growing pleasure and aliveness and delight, in relationship to each other and our abundant and perfect planet, is our central focus.
There. It is long, but I have shifted myself from despairing overwhelm back to visionary center. It is a gift that I can only fulfill my own small destiny, follow the instructions that are clearest to me, move with my own consecrated choreography. When I feel completely lost, I can focus each day on being kind, being generous, and being honest. I light candles for all I cannot carry, and then move into the present moment with only my love. As everything crumbles above and around us, it is still true that the most strategic move is the ever changing dance of love.