I believe that our human survival depends on waking up to our connection with the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The natural world is utterly vital to our lives. The earth is my Bible, my sacred revelation and my paradise. But that beautiful connection also gives rise to deep anguish.
We see the melting of ancient glaciers as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted and the rain forests that renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that nuclear stockpiles could destroy most life on earth many times over.
We know so much, but we don’t know solutions to these problems threatening our future. And that might create a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to restore our relationship to this earth.
When we affirm a vision of living in harmony with the earth and other beings, we enter an in-between place: we become increasingly aware of the brokenness of our world, but don’t yet have access, as individuals, to solutions that fit with our vision. Our entire social and economic system has been built upon the exploitation of the earth for resources, and the exploitation of human beings for profit. We find ourselves trapped in this system.
I think about petroleum. The industrial economy treats oil as a resource free for the taking, with the price based only on the cost of extraction and delivery. It shaped a world which became completely dependent on cheap oil. But we have passed the time when oil can be easily extracted; now riskier and dirtier methods are required, such as deep sea drilling like that which caused the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada that destroys the forest and devastates the health of the people and animals of the region.
I know that burning oil for fuel will increase greenhouse gasses and bring our climate closer to the brink of disastrous changes. I know that we have to stop burning oil. But then I look at my own life.
Our home is heated by oil. I drive a car than runs on gasoline (made from oil) to buy food and other needed items, and also to go back and forth to the church I serve. It would take several hours to walk to these destinations from my house and there is no public transportation nearby. The whole structure of suburban life is dependent upon oil. My church is a suburban church, and almost every person who comes to it drives there in an automobile. Without oil, it is likely that the church and my house would never have been built in these locations. The whole geographic structure of our society has been shaped by oil.
So each time I drive a car or turn on the heat there is, if I am paying attention, a kind of sadness that envelops me. I feel disappointed and angry that I can’t just make good ecological choices. Despite my values and idealism about how I want to live on the earth, despite how much time I may put into research, it seems impossible to find workable and affordable choices. My options as an individual are closely tied into what our society chooses to do with its resources.
And even if I were able to create a partial personal solution—even if I could afford a zero-carbon home from which I could walk to every necessary function of my life—oil companies would still be breaking open the earth in Alberta, and spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The children living near refineries would still be getting asthma. The ice of the arctic would still be melting, and thousands of species would still be going extinct each year. It breaks my heart.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy teaches that we must honor our pain for the earth. We must not push it away, or pathologize it, or shortchange what it has to teach us. She reminds us, “Don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, for these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.” Our grief for the earth is part of the cycle of healing, one more way that we wake up to our connection to all of life. If we can feel our grief for the earth, we have the capacity to stay awake during these difficult times.
In order to be alive in this world, I need to grieve, and I also need to embrace the messiness of what is, as it is now. I need to accept that human beings as a species do not live in harmony with the earth right now. We are broken off. In order to do the work of healing, of reconnection to the earth, I need to have compassion and forgiveness for myself and my people.
When I feel despair, I am tempted to separate myself from what is broken, to separate what I think of as good from what is bad, to identify the saints and the sinners. I am tempted to retreat—to find a community of like-minded souls, grow our own food, live off the grid, leave behind the chaos and destruction of the larger society. Or the temptation may be more subtle. I may choose to connect only with people who share my values and ideals, and stop talking to those who seem unenlightened. After all, I say, I am on the right side of a very great battle. I am tempted to draw a circle around myself to try to achieve some sort of individual harmony and balance.
But that would cut me off, into another brokenness of separation. Just as I must welcome all the parts of myself, I must welcome all the parts of the larger whole. If I am a part of the circle of life, so is everyone else. If all people and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between us. This is at the heart of spiritual practice—opening our hearts to the larger whole of which we are a part.
However, when I open my heart to the whole, I experience more profoundly its brokenness, the ways we hurt each other and our earth, the ways we are not in harmony. I feel more grief. I realize in this tension that there can be no individual salvation. If we want to heal ourselves, we must be healers of our world. If we want to heal our world, we must be connected to the broken people. We must embrace the broken to heal the broken.
Relationship is at the heart of everything. To be whole in this time is to be broken. Stanley Kunitz, in his poem “The Testing-Tree,” writes: “In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.”
At the edge between our vision of wholeness and the brokenness we experience, there is a place of transformation, if we can learn how to keep our balance on that edge. There are many temptations that can threaten our balance. We may fall into retreat, or judgmentalism, or perfectionism—the ever-dangerous shadow sides of visionary idealism. We can be derailed by the fierce conflicts that rise up within circles of people who care passionately about healing the world.
There is no utopia in which we can leave behind our brokenness. In the very midst of our vision and our ideals we bring our full and wounded selves to the table. I have seen this in every community to which I have given my energy, from the Catholic Workers to the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, from organizations working for ecological sustainability to church congregations. Our friends can sometimes break our hearts more deeply than our enemies.
To keep our balance, we must be rooted in compassion and forgiveness. Forgiveness of others for the failures we see in them, for the ways that people betray the ideals we hold dear and hurt and wound each other. And forgiveness for ourselves, when we, too, are unable to live up to our values and ideals, which happens almost every day. Only when we can forgive can we keep our hearts open, keep hold of the dreams we cherish, keep hope alive.
After all, what do I learn from the natural world? The sun shines down on all of us, despite our brokenness. Its light is constant, never changing because of ideology or virtue, but merely following the rhythm of the seasons and the turning of the world, lighting up the blue sky or the gray clouds. It shines every day, making no distinction between the good and the bad, making no distinction between when I am in tune with my values or when I fail. It warms my face. It gives life to all creatures. The sun teaches me about forgiveness and connection.
And the truth is, even our brokenness, even our limitations can become doorways into connection. We are incomplete without each other. We each hold just one small piece of the puzzle. Alone, all we see are jagged edges and random colors—and maybe all we see together is just a jumbled pile of jagged pieces. But sometimes we catch a glimpse of the puzzle box cover—what we might become, all together.
And sometimes we find another piece that fits together with our own jagged edge. We find our joy in each moment of connection. Our jagged edges teach us that we need each other. When I reach the limits of my knowledge or ability, it is a gift to reach out to another person, whose knowledge and ability might balance my own.
We must embrace the jagged edges, embrace the broken pieces. Forgive and be forgiven. This is the path to wholeness. We must hold each other and all beings tenderly, for we are one.