The world I knew was gradually getting away from me. It was slowly dying. I didn’t see it that way at first; I didn’t see it. I didn’t realize that with all the job losses, some abrupt and unexpected, the relationships that had ended – also abruptly and unexpectedly — and with the continuing hit to my finances, mind, and heart, that I was inside of my own Anthropocene. I kept expecting and believing that things would turn around as soon as I got my next job, but that job never came. Then I lost my home – the sweet home that had provided shelter and warmth and happiness for me and the rescued felines I had loved and nurtured for many years, the home where I had developed additional credentials, made professional connections and friendships and which held so many memories and so much of my life. Boulder, Colorado is a beautiful place and though I lived there a long time, if truth be told, I always felt as if I were somehow overreaching in an attempt to prove that I belonged in Boulder as much as anyone. In some secret place at the back of my thoughts I understood that my tenure was always temporary. At any moment an unexpected event could overturn my world beyond which I could right it again.
We don’t like to think about it, and we may not want to accept it – but we live with the unexpected. The unexpected is regularly woven into the routines of our organized lives. It appears, again and again, inserting itself into our spreadsheets and carefully maintained portfolios. And just as the unexpected reminds us that we cannot escape the cyclicity of chaos, the weather or the seasons, it also reminds us that dying is an inescapable fact of life. Dying is as inevitable as it is natural. It is eternally woven into the profound coil of life, fathoms past fathoms deep, as inextricable as a mountain’s heart. There is not a single one of us that has not been, or will not be, affected by the loss and permanent separation that is the uncontestable signature of death. And yet, even these permanent separations are an integral attribute of the larger cycle that is life and we know this not only because we have been told this, but because we have personally witnessed it. We have lived it. Despite our losses, life will always emerge. Life will emerge and renew itself again and again, despite death, and because of it.
But then there is the death that is unique to the Anthropocene. Our current epoch is characterized by certain inarguable material realities. We are choking in energy depletion, environmental degradation and economic meltdown. We are at a crucial tipping point: we have created death zones in the ocean. Nuclear waste is everywhere. Glaciers are melting at unheard of speeds, floods and storms are decimating communities, species extinctions and loss of biodiversity accelerate maddeningly, shortages of food and water intensify daily, and the extents of these are not truly grasped collectively.
So here we are, in the midst of a mega-crisis. This Anthropocene is our own modern apocalypse, constructed through acts of unyielding power that brooked little or no compromise with its agenda. Would that it were a tale belonging to humanity’s ancient history or to previous cycles this planet has endured. Would that it was a chilling story passed down from the ancestors and told to those gathered safely around an inviting campfire. But it is not. We are living it now. We are living with dying where dying means the permanent loss of life, of plant and animal species, of oceans and rivers – of a geography and a geology that is never coming back. We are looking at the permanent loss as well of a way of life, of how we habitually carry on in a world that we assumed would forever acclimate to our desires. This is the permanent death that is extinction.
The term Anthropocene * was coined in the 1980’s by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen. It describes the present geological epoch – some say from the time of the Industrial Revolution; some say from much earlier. We can say that from about 1760 to the mid-1800’s our species no longer relied solely on the energy from animals and our own sweat. We were able to access fossilized energy from coal, petroleum products, and gas. This unleashed a new era which saw dramatic population increases, GDP increases, and increasingly heavy resource consumption. Human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes began to significantly impact the environment. Then World War II led to accelerated changes in how we organized ourselves and how we lived. Along with the population explosion came tremendous economic changes which opened up its own Pandora’s Box.
Officially, we’re in what is known as the Holocene epoch (a long warm period dating back 11,700 years), but the informal nomenclature is the Anthropocene. Perhaps when the prominent geological societies formally rename this epoch, it will be the final sounding to which we must respond. The term Anthropocene inherently recognizes the irrevocable damage wrought by industrialization to Nature. Truly grasping the significance of the Anthropocene will result in deep emotional trauma which will include great grief, great fear, and a sweeping loss of identity. After all, the social and cultural foundations to which we tethered our sense of who we are in the world, our sense of our value, our achievements and status and all the power and recognition that goes with that, will no longer be the same.
Years ago I lost my husband and my best friend when I voluntarily left our marriage. In the years that followed I came to greatly regret the loss of that friendship. That friendship had brought into my life a loyal ally who saw my gifts before I even knew I had them, who encouraged their development and who stood by me when others insisted on misinterpreting me. I also lost the sense of safety that comes with alliances. It was more certain that with two of us, rather than each of us alone, that we would have a greater chance of keeping the roof over our head. But I didn’t care then about safety. I didn’t think about it. As much as I needed this man’s extraordinary friendship and kindness, as much as I needed the insights our conversations delivered, as much as I loved this remarkable and selfless being, I needed even more the freedom to experience the world on my own terms. I longed to dive deep, deep into the recesses of my soul to dredge up, once and for all, what I was truly made of and who I was born to be.
In the years that followed I chose a path that would take to me to the profound core of what it meant to be independent and self-reliant in a world where there were no guarantees of another dollar or another meal. It was a world that showed me the devil in all his ugliness, his rotting teeth exposed by a dank triumphant leer. I had become another of his prisoners via the tangled web I had unwittingly constructed, with the unintentional consequence of making me supremely vulnerable to the whims of others’ choices. Nevertheless, I held tightly to an imaginary sprinkling of fairy dust. I hoped it would be enough to negotiate saving my life.
Losses which tear out the heart and for which there are no words are the initiation into the liman of deep emotional trauma. Once we’ve entered this muddy lagoon – we will slog out a path forward or write ourselves out of the future. In this space of total vulnerability, we don’t know if we will live or die. Death of the life we knew is the end of the current story. There will be no resurrection of what was and it is here, inside the maw of uncertainty, that we have unprecedented opportunity to weave a new story.
It will become necessary to master emotional resiliency. We will need resilience to survive the personal and collective unraveling which will come of the post-industrial, post-petroleum, post-technological collapse. To be able to bear up under change for which we have no words, and for which there is no map or guidebook, we will have to learn to rely on ourselves and each other. What is emotional resiliency? It is the ability to recover from shock or great loss. Even in the face of permanent change or damage, resilience is distinguished by the capacity to come back from the edge of despair, reeking with vulnerability, and still embrace life and move forward. How do we get there? We seek out those things that encourage and develop emotional resilience.
Push through the fear. Do it anyway – take the leap. Muster the courage to imagine a post-industrial world. Allow yourself to envision a world in extreme stages of collapse. There are plenty of post-apocalyptic movies and TV series that can assist you with picturing this. Imagine yourself as a character in any of those scenarios. Notice your grief and fear. Allow yourself to open up to these difficult emotions and be present with them. Notice if there’s anything you may want to change about the way you currently live your life, and in the way you think. We will not be able to create alternatives to living if we succumb to fear.
Develop a conscious relationship with death. This means deepening your awareness of the precious life force that runs through all beings, the very same as your own, and how fragile and temporal life truly is. We have all experienced the death of careers and relationships. These deaths won’t necessarily kill you, but they are an initiation into loss. Allowing yourself to feel into these losses can make you stronger and can prepare you for the greater losses of the death of pets and persons we loved. Surrendering to loss by death means remembering who they were and who we became because of them. We allow our memories to flourish, remembering our joy, but also allow ourselves to dive into the depths of our grief. In this way we will develop greater capacity to be with loss. A heart that is able to contain the profoundest depths of grief is a heart that can adapt.
Allow yourself to feel the grief.
Your little boy has so much rage, and you sent a lot of it my way.
Despite that, my heart opened to you even as the black storm of your anger
gathered itself behind me and broke right through my chest.
My heart split wide, over and over
as the great writhing wind
of all your loosed despair knifed its way through,
slashing, slashing, and wailing.
Maybe I should have felt some sense of violation,
bewilderment, or surprise, or anger.
I felt none of these things.
I felt only compassion, and a profound connectedness.
I have known much of the ugly futility for so many others.
The impotence and the impotent rage, the able to do nothing
but wait and wait and wait
for the day when the world changes, when glorious epiphanies are immanent
and it really is Christmas forever.
I have known that deep and nameless struggle,
the irrevocability of loss, and the implacable beyond belief,
It deepens and it deepens, and sometimes
you cannot breathe.
And if one could only speak the Word, none of this
would ever have happened, and we would be two
shiny-haired children playing in the sun.
Access a higher state of consciousness. A higher state of consciousness is about understanding the impact of your thinking, your values, and your lifestyle, and most especially, the legacy you will leave behind as a result of what you thought, did, and modeled. A higher state of consciousness also includes awareness of your connection to all things, past, present and future. Here you are aware of your greater responsibility to those who come after you. Instead of giving in to the imminence of catastrophe, you realize the need to be strong and have a clear vision for what will create sustainability in the now and for the future. It is from a state of higher consciousness that you can find your courage and be able to inspire others to step up and embrace the higher possibilities for their own lives that have always been there.
Get with your tribe. I cannot underscore enough the importance of being with people who see who you really are, and who love and respect you for that. It is very, very difficult to hold up under tremendous stress and the worst thing you can do when the chips are down is to isolate yourself. It is too easy when we are alone to rationalize that we have no value and nothing to offer. Those who see your gifts, especially those who have benefited from them, will be the ones to pick you back up and remind you how much you are needed.
Focus on creating happy experiences. We need humor, friendship, play, self-care and rest. Spend time with those who see you and love you. Indulge in activities that bring you joy. Write poems and stories. Share them. Write plays and produce them. Put an orchestra together. Be in a choir. Sing robustly. Preen that solo voice. Play your favorite instrument, even if you’re not very good at it. Contribute your gifts for the well-being of others, and have fun. Remember fun? Put that life force energy out there, in a big way. And rest.
Make your thoughts and actions count. Can we make our personal and collective Anthropocene a fruitful period? Are we being given unprecedented opportunities to create a new self, a new human, and to create a civilization based on an entirely new vision and a new set of values? I believe we are being asked to focus with laser intensity on what is essential to support life. This is the core guide to what is worth doing, and for what we must do. For each project we need to ask ourselves if the process of undertaking it observes sustainable principles, and if the results will create sustainability where it does not now exist. And this applies to your personal life as well.
Believe in yourself. Believe that you have a right to be here. You have as much right as anyone to be here, and to find your right place in this world. As the world contracts and collapses around you, ironic as it seems, it is even more important that you believe you have a right to be here. It will not help you to think of yourself as a victim, and neither will it help anyone else. Although you will likely be required to be even more dexterous and to leap ever-widening fissures with the best of them, this does not mean your role and your contribution is no longer valid. It is more valid, and your skills and insights are needed more than ever. Therefore, in these times and because of these times, it is critical that you find your soul’s calling and bring it to life. These are the times that take us out of ourselves and then draw us back in, more deeply than we knew was possible.
Many are feeling the call to draw from their souls a much deeper and richer understanding of who they are, and of their world. They realize they must become someone completely other than who they have been. We are being initiated into depths of fear, anger, despair and grief that go much beyond what we ever expected to encounter in the ordinary course of an ordinary life. Business as usual is over. The soul of life itself is asking us to let go of who we were and to be willing to discover a new identity informed by the deepened self. This requires a great deal of courage; you will now have to see who you are and what you are really made of. And then decide if you can become that.
When I left my husband, I blasted myself far from my comfort zone. I plunged forward into the unknown and into terror because I needed to take a stand for my life, for my right to find and live the life I had chosen before I ever met him. Along the way I discovered that the universe is infinitely willing to share its secrets as long as I am willing to make the journey to unveil my true self. Despite the fact that I could die trying. There was a caveat: I had to go naked and I could take nothing with me. When I started down that road, I didn’t have tools. I was naïve and lacked knowledge and skills. But I went anyway, driven by the need to know what was out there, and who I could become.
What is calling you at this time? Are you paying attention? Are you in the process of responding to your calling and changing your life accordingly? Who is in your community and how are you sharing your calling with them? Our world desperately needs the gifts you brought to this planet. It is imperative that you honor your calling – the one that will not leave you alone, and see what new material in the way of insights and practical, sustainable applications for a different way of being can emerge – from you and your community.
Resilient people make use of their losses. Resilient people have learned to make use of their losses because they have trained themselves, mentally and emotionally, to think with detachment and with a minimum of fear. When we manage our fear of the future and stay in the present, it is possible to enter into a space of clarity. It is from here that we gain access to the creative source from which we can imagine, and then make, real solutions.
* From the Greek “anthropos” meaning human, and “–cene,” indicating a geologic period.
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