Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Part 1

By Carolyn Baker

This article is excerpted from Carolyn’s forthcoming book, Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive, to be released March, 2015.

This sneak-preview of Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse is part 1 of a 3-part series of excerpts to be published in upcoming issues of SHIFT.

 

Chapter 3: Friends, Neighbors, and the Community

People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.

~Wendell Berry~

Love in the Age of Ecological ApocalypseOften our relationships with friends and neighbors do not feel as necessary or urgent as our relationships with significant others. However, anyone preparing for collapse who is not in a primary relationship with a significant other is probably well aware of the importance of friends and neighbors in his/her preparation. And even if we are coupled with a partner who is totally on board with collapse, we must consider our relationships with friends and neighbors in our preparation because they will play an enormous role, for better or for worse.

When I speak of community, I am generally speaking of trusted others living in the same vicinity or region. While many of us have close friends who live in other regions whom we consider part of our “community,” unless we live on a desert island, quite unlikely in the twenty-first century I might add, we are part of a regional community. If we live in a large urban area, the entire city is our community, but more specifically, our immediate community is our block or neighborhood. The same is true if we live in the suburbs. Rural living may make the community harder to define if our neighbors are a mile or more away, but even so, we inhabit a community, distant though it may be.

In the event of a sudden collapse or collapse-related disaster, communities are likely to react similarly. Everyone will need to eat, have access to clean drinking water, and be treated for injuries and trauma. As the infrastructure of our regions continues to deteriorate, the likelihood of these necessities being available dramatically decreases. Thus, as we contemplate a sudden collapse or disaster, we need to prepare logistically for our own access to food and water, and we should have some emergency response and first aid training and know how to treat basic wounds. In all likelihood, most of our neighbors will not be prepared on the same level. For this reason it is wise to begin dialoging with them about how the neighborhood might handle an emergency situation.

If you have not already done so, it is time to get to know your neighbors. It is not necessary to educate them about collapse or even mention the word, but it is important to begin a conversation about how the neighborhood can respond to an emergency. As both the blatant and telltale signs of collapse have accelerated in the past decade in the form of natural disasters and infrastructure failures such as pipeline explosions, more people are thinking about disaster preparation. While they may not wish to talk about it on a daily basis, most individuals are willing to discuss it from time to time.

The most prudent way to approach neighbors we do not know is not by beginning with the topic of disaster response. Rather, it is wise to cultivate relationships with them over time. One of most effective ways to begin this process, and it is a process, is by sharing. Sharing food, tools, or services paves the way for deeper conversations about the future. For example, baking an extra batch of cookies and sharing them with your neighbor can open the door to conversation. In fact, any time we share food with a neighbor, we are subtly communicating with them that we are not willing to let them starve. In my neighborhood, I have been practicing sharing food with a number of neighbors, and in return, they have begun to share food with me. As a result, in an emergency situation, neighbors sharing food is not a novel idea and comes naturally as a result of past practices.

Additionally, you may be somewhat familiar to your community because you are serving it in some fashion. You may have organized local food events, participated in fundraising for non-profit organizations, served on the city council, had a booth at the farmers market, or gathered signatures for various petitions. The more visible you are, the more your neighbors and fellow-citizens will look to you for leadership in crisis situations. A double-edged sword indeed, visibility nevertheless can establish you as a trustworthy ally. And while you probably know more about the realities of collapse than your peers, your challenge is not so much to educate as to cooperate in helping the community survive and, if possible, thrive in the midst of myriad disruptions.

As noted above, we must always be attuned to cultivating relationships in the community that will serve ourselves and others. Constant assessment of who our allies are and what additional allies we need is superb preparation for the future. If we remain committed to this process, opportunities for building strategic relationships will invariably present themselves.

Perhaps you have experienced subtle or dramatic shifts in your relationships with friends over the course of your collapse preparation. Some may have exited your life entirely because they could not abide with your pre-occupation with collapse, whereas others may still be hanging out on the fringes, relating to you perfunctorily or superficially, hoping that someday, somehow, you will “come to your senses” and stop being a doomer. Still other friends may embrace some aspects of collapse but not other aspects, and some may actually be as engaged with preparation as you are. Assessing current friendships and how much support we have from those is important, but equally important are friendships that we consciously forge with people who are deeply engaged in preparation—as well as those who know little of collapse but with whom making alliances will serve both ourselves and them.

Activists and serious collapse preppers well know the necessity of developing relationships with allies in the community. If you are working to make your community self-sufficient, as noted above, it is not necessary that everyone in the community agree with the reality of collapse. They only need to understand the reasons why joining the endeavor you are promoting is advantageous to them. For example, if you are working to solarize your neighborhood or community, the people you want as allies do not need to understand the finer points of peak oil, and perhaps they do not need to understand it at all. Perhaps their motivation is community self-sufficiency and not needing to depend on an aging, deteriorating power grid or greedy power companies.

Or if you are working to shift your community to the consumption of more local, organic food, your allies do not need to be experts in understanding Monsanto’s attempt to control the world’s food supply, nor do they need to be experts in organic farming. They only need to want to eat food that is safe and free of toxic pesticides and keep themselves and their families healthy and disease-free.

Collective community endeavors are superb places to form friendships that will be mutually supportive as collapse intensifies. In this context, we can form alliances that could help save our lives in times of disaster or acute collapse conditions. Moreover, these friendships are not about everyone agreeing on everything, or even everyone agreeing on the reality of collapse.

Forging friendships and alliances with friends and neighbors takes time and patience. The culture does not lend itself to forming these kinds of relationships but rather, disregarding them and living in our own individualistic bubbles. Therefore, some conscious effort will be required. Furthermore, these relationships will flow more freely if we can quietly ponder what we might be able to offer these individuals as well as what they might be able to offer us.

Kindness

There are two factors we need to consider and utilize when we consciously develop relationships. The first is basic human kindness. This requires some risk and some vulnerability. If we initiate the connection, we need to confront our fears and perhaps our feelings of awkwardness as we speak with people we may know of but not really know. While we may feel intimidated by breaking out of our societally-designated role of “nameless neighbor,” the truth is that our neighbors feel as vulnerable and awkward as we do. Otherwise, they would have made the first move! Whether we actually like them is less important than the fact that they are, like us, human beings at risk of being devastated by collapse.

We live in a culture that fundamentally does not know kindness. We are taught to donate clothing and money to organizations and people in need but never really deal with them up close and personal. In volatile situations, we feel comfortable with calling 911, but we don’t want to get involved. Let someone else deal with it. Sometimes this is appropriate if our lives would be endangered by getting involved, but very often, modern humans, particularly Americans, don’t want to get their hands dirty. Genuine kindness, however, is about going the extra mile and demonstrating compassion where it isn’t required or asked for. A verse from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness,” captures its essence:

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.

In other words, kindness flourishes in the soil of compassion, and compassion only flows from the rivers of our own suffering. And this is precisely why many do not want to “get involved.” Exposure to the suffering of others often rips open the scab so tentatively covering our own wounds. We’ve been inculcated to believe that avoiding our pain is preferable to sharing it with others or demonstrating acts of kindness that would help heal our pain.

Yet there are appropriate ways to demonstrate kindness and other ways that harm more than heal. For a profound visual example, I suggest viewing the 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in which well-meaning, white healthcare professionals want to assist dirt-poor black swamp dwellers in the context of Hurricane Katrina but fail miserably because their kindness is not tempered by cultural sensitivity.

Yet another factor that must be considered and implemented in developing relationships is personal boundaries. Boundaries are limits we set on our personal, physical space and our emotional interactions with other people in order to stay safe and take care of ourselves. We may feel tremendous compassion for another suffering human being, but we must also maintain our boundaries if we decide to assist them. Allowing ourselves to be exploited or endangered is unacceptable. The great Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, spoke of the difference between genuine compassion and “idiot compassion” in which we want to help but do not maintain our boundaries and actually put ourselves in danger on many levels. Another word for this is enabling. When we enable, we assist the other person to remain in their suffering by allowing ourselves to be exploited.

Again, poetry often conveys the deeper meaning of a concept than prose. For example, these lines from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Something in us doesn’t like walls between ourselves and other people, but sooner or later, we discover that while “walls” may not be necessary, strong and healthy boundaries are. The dance between demonstrating kindness and keeping one’s boundaries intact is always a tricky one. None of us is trained in how to do this, but with time and practice, we become more skilled.

Intentional Communities

I occasionally interact with individuals who are living in intentional communities or would like to. I must confess that often it is difficult to get beyond the horror stories I hear about such communities, but I salute individuals who have been living in intentional communities for years or even decades. I honor their willingness to navigate the vicissitudes of a living arrangement where nearly every psychological issue known to humankind is apt to surface.

In current time a great deal of energy in intentional communities is invested in processing emotional wounding–although some residents of intentional communities would not name it as such. In fact, it is virtually impossible for inhabitants of industrial civilization to possess the skills necessary to reside harmoniously in long-term intentional communities. Such living arrangements are guaranteed to evoke emotional and visceral memories of growing up in families where individuals did not engage authentically with each other and where there was almost no awareness of or support for communicating directly and cleanly with other family members.

I believe that it is still too early in the collapse process for residents of intentional communities to avoid onerous emotional processing. For most inhabitants of industrial civilization, our situation is not yet dire, and as a result, we do not depend on our peers for our survival. When our interdependence with each other reaches a state in which survival needs supplant the residue of our personal, emotional wounding, the latter is likely to be eclipsed by bedrock compassion and a focus on keeping each other alive and well.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, groups living communally need to invest significant amounts of energy in learning and practicing masterful communication and listening skills. Often, this concern is near the bottom of the list of priorities in a group considering living together. For example, I have occasionally facilitated workshops for groups of people who are considering creating an intentional community. It is not unusual for such groups to have acquired the financial resources and property for launching their endeavor, yet learned little about personal dialog. In one such workshop, after introducing several exercises in which individuals sat one-on-one with another member of the proposed community and dialoged for extended periods of time, one participant commented, “We have hardly ever sat and talked with each other like this. We have talked extensively about our financial resources, how to grow gardens and raise chickens, the land we might purchase for our community to live on, but we’ve never really gotten to know each other in this way.”

In this culture, few people understand that conflict is an essential aspect of any human relationship. Without it, relationships become sterile and vacuous. When people, whether in a one-to-one relationship or in a community, consistently agree on everything, conflict will invariably erupt because something in us craves the color, texture, taste, and timbre of disagreement. Divergent perspectives in human relationships potentially provide the ingredients for a feast of conviviality enhanced by new experiences of the deeper layers of oneself and the other. Conflict offers the juice that lubricates the arid landscape of tranquil concurrence and facilitates unforeseen ventures into virgin territories of the heart and soul.

Human relationships need conflict in order to thrive. But for us, unlike our indigenous brothers and sisters, conflict is usually synonymous in our minds with warfare, hostility, betrayal, domination, and the intent to harm the other. Our one-dimensional experiences of conflict have usually been those that result in separation and rejection.

Furthermore, in the “polite society” of Anglophile industrial civilization, one learns to behave in a manner that accedes to the assumed or verbalized wishes of one’s peers. Disagreement is in “poor taste.” Go along to get along.

This kind of inculcation assumes that things are always as they seem and blatantly excludes the possibility of the human shadow. Overall, indigenous cultures understand that the persona we present is always attended by an “inner other” that we prefer to conceal. Carl Jung named this unconscious aspect of the psyche, “the shadow.” Thus, in traditional societies, one usually finds specific rituals or practices that honor the shadow and as a result, provide structured opportunities for its members to disagree, and even to do so mightily, but without doing harm to anyone.

An indigenous person steeped in his or her tradition, when entering a room of individuals who are conversing in “cozy concurrence,” might find such apparently seamless consensus puzzling. They might become very curious about what is not being said, or they may intentionally “stir the pot” in order to evoke controversy. Non-indigenous members of the “polite” gathering might experience this as rude, crass, or provocative, and indeed, such behavior is deviant in the context of the mores of industrial civilization.

Jung believed, and certainly most indigenous traditions would agree, that when the shadow is ignored or repressed, it does not vanish, but invariably persists and usually with a vengeance so that the untidiness of dealing with it directly is paled by comparison when experiencing its inexorable eruption. In other words, address the shadow now because it will not be ignored and in one way or other, will insist on being seen.

The shadow consists of thoughts, feelings, and impulses that we disown and dis-identify with. For example, we consciously want a particular dialog to go well and end harmoniously, but another part of us, out of our awareness, really wants to be “right” or may even want to sabotage the conversation. Or, we may be only vaguely aware that we distrust someone, and when engaged in dialog, because we want to trust them and deepen our connection with them, we ignore our distrust then end up speaking or acting in a hostile or passive-aggressive manner. Had we paid more attention to our compulsion to be “right” in the first instance and our distrust in the second, we may have behaved differently.

Ancient traditions such as Greek mythology viewed humans as complex creatures who were comprised of many characteristics which they called “spirits.” Some of these traits we may be familiar with, and others to a lesser degree or not at all. From the perspective of mythology and Jungian psychology, it is as if a cast of characters inhabits the psyche and influences our thoughts, feelings, moods, and behavior. (No, I am not referring to multiple personalities.)  Predictably, we feel and often express these traits when we are in conflict, although they may not be fully conscious, and because we are not familiar with the “community” living within us, we find it exceedingly difficult to abide amicably with the external community. Therefore, it behooves anyone longing for external community to become very familiar with the one inside. This is not to say that we must develop complete familiarity with our internal community before entering an external one, but it does mean that interactions with an external community will activate most of the members of our internal community. The real question is: How will we deal with that? Most of us need assistance with developing the skills necessary to do so.

No one can be 100% aware of their shadow 100% of the time, but with practice, we can deepen our awareness and prevent words or actions “out of left field” that harm, alienate, or undermine our relationships. Moreover, a deepening awareness of our own shadow serves to protect us from the shadow of others and speech or behavior by them that could harm us.

So how do we engage in conflict with each other, opening ourselves to the shadow in ourselves and the other? How do we navigate what may feel like mine fields of shadow material both internally and externally?

First we must recognize that we and all human beings possess a shadow as part of the infrastructure of the psyche. Acknowledging and working consciously with the shadow is scary, risky, and threatening to the ego, but the rewards are momentous, and the consequences of not doing that work are costly on every level.

One way people can develop a relationship with the shadow that may prove useful is to journal about what they may already know or suspect about it. In addition, we might depict it artistically—paint, draw, sculpt, or write a poem. We can also ask for dreams about the shadow which often works well for getting clues sooner rather than later. And of course, after we have some sense of it in terms of an image or a dream, we can sit quietly with eyes closed and dialog with it silently and directly as if we were having a conversation with another human being.

Developing familiarity with the shadow is particularly useful in our relationships with people in the external world. When we engage in dialog that, as they say, “pushes our buttons,” we can be fairly certain that some aspect of the shadow has been triggered. Once again, as is so often the case in human relationships, it is crucial to be tuned in to our bodies so that we have an expanded range of “communication equipment” that operates not merely from the intellect, but from intuition and physical sensation as well.

In my experience, men often navigate conflict better than women. At worst, men deal with conflict through war, but at their best, they hold the tension of opposing forces in their bodies and do not act from the shadow but with consciousness and clarity in an attempt to resolve the issues at hand. On the other hand, women have been enculturated with the notion that disagreement in any form is not “nice” and that they must accede to and above all, please the other. In many cases, they have disowned their shadow for so long that accessing it is exceedingly difficult. In some situations, they are comfortable with ranting about their conflicts or complaining about them indirectly, but stepping into the fire of the actual conflict and working with it directly is too intimidating because it involves the willingness to risk not being nice—or perhaps incurring what they perceive as the wrath of males.

The good news is that when skillfully contained within the parameters of clearly-defined ground rules, often facilitated by people trained in conflict resolution and shadow work, groups and individuals can engage in conflict in ways that bring not only the resolution of problems, but even more intimacy with each other so that the “feast of conviviality” of which I spoke earlier, becomes not merely an idyllic notion, but a palpable event in the body. 

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