By Robert Koehler
Oh, sacred planet!
The crises humanity faces have been a long time in the making. Why are there 22,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, disappearing rainforests, oceans dying of plastic, a floating garbage dump in the Pacific the size of a small continent, 65 million refugees uprooted by war and looking for their lives?
What’s needed is change at the roots of civilization.
I feel a desperate impatience, a tearing at my soul. What can I do that’s bigger than anger, bigger than a demand for governmental and corporate entities to make changes they are essentially incapable of making?
Maybe I can help rewrite the story of civilization, which begins with acknowledging the unexamined consequences of our present story and our own untended participation in it. From the Dark Mountain Manifesto, for instance, here are two of the “eight principles of uncivilization”:
“We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’ These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
“We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.”
I would add that even when storytelling has degenerated to “mere entertainment”—when it’s a for-profit industry—it retains its power to shape collective consciousness. Perhaps it has more power to do this than ever because awareness that stories shape consciousness is missing on the part of the public that is being entertained.
Consider the way in which violence permeates the media, both news and entertainment. Bad guys are always on the prowl. And when “bad violence” presents itself, the only solution is “good violence.” Violence is the driving plot device for thousands of forgettable, special-effects-permeated movies. Its opposite is wimpiness. Movie and TV violence is abstract and consequence-free: the quickest way to solve a problem, find love, attain manhood, do good. America’s Army, the violent but bloodless videogame maintained by the U.S. Army, sucks in 13-year-olds. Violence occupies the American consciousness. “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” asked journalist Colman McCarthy. The answer: We’re taught to read.
As television and Internet culture permeate American households, the distinction between news and entertainment continues to blur. Peace and nonviolence are far too complex to grab readers’ and viewers’ attention. Violence sells. Violence advertises. Give us a war, any war, and the media will line up behind it, at least until it starts to go bad. “I guess I was part of the groupthink,” Bob Woodward lamented several years into the Iraq war, when the Washington Post examined its early failure to be the least bit critical of the disaster. A serious part of the defense budget is public relations; it’s always money well spent.
Violence makes for neat, simple news. The New Human Story must begin, I think, with a determination to tell the complex story: Two neighbors, say, are at bitter loggerheads over a barking dog. All communication breaks off, but they eventually find themselves doing a mediation process with each other. One of the parties is asked to state his point of view. His neighbor is then asked to summarize what he said – but, whoa, she just can’t do it. Seems simple enough, right? But all she can do is spin and re-spin her own story, her own all-consuming grievance. This goes on for an hour or more, but finally, slowly, she manages to reiterate her neighbor’s story. It was an ordeal. She had to state it word for word. But when she did so, the world changed.
A star begins as a single cosmic grain . . .
That’s what it felt like. Someone told the above story at a conference I attended a few years ago. I was one of about 175 people — peace workers and peacemakers from around the world — who had gathered at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, to envision and begin designing a National Peace Academy.
This was the larger message of the conference: The time has come. We know how to build peace; we just have to do it, at every level, from the staggeringly huge to the infinitely minute.
Our broken system is based on fear, violence, waste and war. The alternative is nothing less than a cultural shift from violence to peace. Peace, cooperation, and creativity have been the driving forces of human evolution since its dawning. What’s new today is that we are becoming aware of it, and the awareness changes what we do.
And so I return to the neighbors who hated one another because one of them owned a dog that barked too much. Their story, one of dozens of vignettes shared at the conference, was told by the mediator who was able to broker an understanding between them. After the woman was able to repeat — not sympathize with, but simply repeat — the viewpoint of her enemy, a transforming shift took place. Within a short time, the two sides could hear, and thus talk to, each other, and were able to work out an agreement. The session ended with hugs all around.
“The day will come,” said the scientist-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
The New Story bubbles fire and love, but it also keeps telling truth. It addresses the wrong and harm perpetrated by the story we currently live under:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
I think about my family’s trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was a teenager (sometime in the previous century) and the tourist awe I felt as I gaped at Old Faithful and the gurgling springs and the incredible vistas of the Yellowstone River. America, America, God shed His grace on thee.
We’ve been preserving slices of scenic “wilderness” — keeping them out of our own exploitative reach — for 150 years now. What could possibly be wrong with that?
The problem, it turns out, is that the national park system is full of the bloodstains of American history. Manifest destiny meant the conquest of nature as well as the conquest of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. It was all part of the same militarized arrogance. We evicted the natives, or forced them to dress up like movie-screen Indians and perform for us, and proceeded to “appreciate” cordoned off fragments of nature, which were labeled scenic. The mentality that we’re tourists in the natural world is, I believe, a facet of the massive, unexamined alienation of our consumer and spectator culture.
After a century of our dominion over the Yosemite Valley—to cite one example—its diversity declined and, because there was no longer controlled undergrowth burning, part of the eco-stewardship of the indigenous peoples we evicted, the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires, as Eric Michael Johnson wrote in Scientific American.
Turns out eco-stewardship doesn’t mean simply putting “nature” behind a glass case. Human beings have an active role to play in sustaining, as opposed to merely exploiting, the Earth’s ecosystems.
We hunger for participation. We hunger for sacredness. We hunger for a more profound communing with the world and with each other. We hunger for connection. We hunger for atonement.
The Lakotah, writes Rupert Ross, “had no language for insulting other orders of existence: pest . . . waste . . . weed.”
Oh, sacred planet!
Forgiveness and Return
The New Story we must tell revives the Ancient Story, when we walked softly on Planet Earth and felt deep communion with her ways. But the New Story also contains forgiveness: for our departure from the circle of life, for pursuit of self-enrichment and the exploitation of our Nurturer. We alienated ourselves from our origins, learning in the process that conquest is just another form of imprisonment. The New Story is our release from that prison.
So let the New Story begin. Let us bless our predatory impulses, and set them aside. We walk softly into the world with an awareness so acute it fills us with trembling. We cradle the moment, kneel in its presence, worship that which we have never noticed: the lost souls, the littered and broken sidewalks, the bare patches of earth and the worms that bequeath us our soil. We melt into the pulsing consciousness of which we are its evolving cells. We are the universe and the universe is us. We say hello to death because death is only a new beginning: birth. And because we no longer need to fear death, we disarm and face the universe with the fullness of who we are.
The collective soul opens, we bloom, we touch the sun.
Robert Koehler is a nationally syndicated columnist and self-proclaimed peace journalist. He describes his essays as “prayers disguised as op-eds.” He has been a Chicago-based reporter, editor and columnist for 40 years. He is also a teacher, public speaker and poet, as well as a dad and widower. He teaches a class at DePaul University called Peace Journalism and is a trained restorative justice practitioner. He is the author of the book Courage Grows Strong at the Wound, a collection of essays on grief, single-parenting, and the quest for peace. He has received numerous awards for his writing and has been called many things. His favorite: “blatantly relevant.”