Hallowing the descent
"One might say with the Buddhists, that this is an important form of "mindfulness" and try and cultivate the inner posture in which such consciousness can be relatively sustained. Consulting the dictionary I find that for the word "hallowing" the following definitions are offered: 'make holy or set apart for holy use, consecrate; to respect greatly; venerate." It was a new and most encouraging idea to me - that one's diminishments could be "made holy," "consecrated," "respected greatly," even "venerated."
I saw that the first step for me in learning to "hallow" the progressive diminishments in store for me was deep-going acceptance. But the acceptance would have to be positive, not a negative one, if it were to be a real hallowing. I must learn to do something creative with it."
Quaker writer John Yungblut writes this in "On Hallowing One's Diminishments," using the ways of thinking he found to deal with his Parkinson's disease to provide a new way "into" times of personal and collective hardship. I'm indebted to my friend MEA for sending me Yungblut's pamphlet, and introducing this idea of the hallowing of loss to me, which has been in my thoughts a great deal lately.
There is no question in my mind, or in the minds of many thinkers, that we cannot go on from here the way we have been. That is, whether global warming, peak oil, world water supplies or financial crisis becomes the tipping point, things cannot continue the way they are. At the moment, most people do not know this yet - they believe fervently that if they just carry a cloth bag and vote for higher CAFE standards, the world will more or less go on for them as it has. They believe this, in large part, because they want to believe it. But that has to change.
My own takes is that if to convince people that their lives have to change dramatically, it will require a mix of different approaches - we will have to show the consequences of not doing so, show the rewards of doing it, provide social and cultural support, tell people that making changes is patriotic, cool, sexy and fun, also warn people about pain and suffering, and tell them that they are sacrificing for a cause - that is, we're going to need all the tools in our boxes. And one that I hadn't considered is Yungblut's fascinating notion of "Hallowing the Diminishment." It is a tool, I think that for some people - those who are religiously or spiritually inclined, may be quite powerful, and thus, it deserves a wider audience. It would be deeply false for us to argue that such a change will come with no hardships - so how do we help people accept these hardships, and move on? Here, I find Yungblut most useful.
What does it mean to consecrate or venerate your own losses? Yungblut does not lay them out this way, but there seems to be three strategies involved here. The first is the notion of treating your losses and suffering as companions to whom you are obligated to feel a friendly spirit towards. He notes that if your diminishments are not tormentors, it is easier to have a sense of humor about them, to seperate yourself from your sufferings.
The second point Yungblut raises is that each diminishment comes with gifts - the physical limitations that come with aging also bring with them "the reconversion from earning a living to cultural activity" - that is, there is time to talk to others, to think, to devote to the outside world as we retire and age. The definition of success changes - instead of focusing on work and outer definitions, success becomes children grown well to adulthood, the love of family, warmheartedness, kindness. Yungblut reminds us to look for the gifts in our losses.
Finally, Yungblut notes that we can view our losses as leading us gently towards our adaptation to the ultimate diminishment - death. That is, we can come to recognize that sometimes, the point is not whether we can alter events, but how we face them. We can find meaning, even when we cannot change things, in our ability to shape the meaning of things - to do right, even when the right thing is not enough, to face even very hard times with courage and honor, even though it won't make the hard times go away to do so.
What would this mean going into peak oil and climate change? How might we begin to "hallow" our descent. The first thought would be to recognize our companions entering into the future - name them, "peak energy" "Climate change" and "Depletion" and call them what they are - our future, and our companions for the long haul. Because once we acknowledge them, we might be able to get to know them, to get over our deepest fears that if we look too closely at the future we will not be able to bear it, and recognize and go on from there. Perhaps if we saw them as our companions in the future, we might be able to get over our own sense of personal punishment - the belief, for example, that our suffering is particular, and deeply important. That is, we might be able to recognize that turning the heat down to 55 is not an unjust cruelty, but simply what is asked of us, our share of the burden. Perhaps we might even develop a sense of humor about it.
The idea of venerating these companions does not mean we accept that they are good - peak oil, climate change and depletion are undoubtably evils for the world. But they are less fearsome when we understand them fully, and less fearsome still when we recognize that this is the world as *WE* have made it - this is the consequences, not of some unjust suffering inflicted upon us, but on the world we chose. There is a generation of people coming who did not choose this, and our children and grandchildren will have the right to be angry that they have to suffer. But we who are adults now must meet our descent as our choice, and our responsibility to ameliorate as best we can.
Finding the benefits will not be hard. There are enormous benefits, as well as losses, in the diminishing of industrial society. We can gain time with one another, stronger families, cultural wealth, more nutritious food, more exercise, peace and beauty, less stress, and a future for our children and our planet. These things are of great value, and we need to start recognizing their value immediately. There is a great deal of talk in the culture about "what really matters" - at the same time that we all have less and less of what we claim really matters. Pointing out that most of the virtues of a less industrialized, lower energy society are the things that we say we want most is going to be essential.
We must, however, do this in the context of recognizing real losses - that is, what I like about Yungblut's analysis is that it does not attempt to erase those losses. There are things that will get better for some of us, and things we will lose. We shouldn't lie about this, and pretend that all will be happy, easy and cool. The truth is that this will hurt us - and finding beauty and peace and better things in the midst of self-sacrifice is our only hope. Our choices are whether to lie, or not to lie - and I tend to think that the true message is far more powerful than the false one.
Finally, Yungblut's analysis reminds us that we cannot change everything. We must do all we can to prepare, to make things better, to ameliorate the suffering of others. And there's an excellent chance that what we do will be insufficient. But just as it matters how we enter death and leave life - whether on our feet or our knees, with courage or with cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, it matters how we act now *EVEN IF WE CANNOT CHANGE THE OUTCOME.* I am not claiming we shouldn't complain - and neither is Yungblut. I am not saying we should be perfect, without anger or fear or cowardice - we cannot. But we should understand that what we accomplish is one thing, and what we attempt is another. Our reach must exceed our grasp here - anything else would be a diminishment of ourselves and the meaning of our lives. We must try and do the impossible.
I doubt there is a single person out there reading this who does not fervently wish that we had addressed peak oil and climate change 30 years ago and that we really could go on the way we have been. But we're past that - the change in our world is as inevitable as death. We now only have the choice of facing the change - and how we face it. But the difference between embracing our future and changing our thinking to place the long term, the future of future generations at the center of ourselves, or running in fear and denial, is a difference beyond speaking.
Yungblut and I do not share our vision of what death is, and I'm sure there are many people reading this from other faiths and no faith at all. But the notion that we can make even our hardships into moments of creativity, honor, consecration, I think has value regardless of your faith. The truth is, we have power in two realms - the first is what we do. The second is in the meaning we apply to what we do - the way we face the world, the stories we tell ourselves. We must claim power in both realms - that is we must not only act to avert tragedy, but we must ensure that we have, to the extent we are able, made everything we can out of the meaning of our choices.
A long, long time ago, I wrote an undergraduate dissertation arguing that for the poet John Milton, this is the limitation of God - that is, in "Paradise Lost" God is omnipotent - except in the realm of meaning. God can make things happen - but God cannot choose their meaning. I think, for those of us who believe in some God or Gods, this is what human beings are for - the creation of meaning. And for those who believe in no God at all (and trust me, I'm not ranking these choices), we are the only people who can make things mean anything at all. If we want the legacy of our diminishment to be something other than that we, in greed and selfishness, did not understand and made our choices from no meaning at all, we must find a way to hallow, or at least apply meaning, to our descent.
Indeed, the Torah commentator Rashi suggests that the human capacity for meaning creation is tremendously powerful, perhaps more powerful than the ability to act, for he says in his gloss on the story of creation,
There was no vegetation on the earth when creation was completed on the sixth day, before man was created. Even though God had commanded “Let the earth sprout vegetation” on the third day, it had not emerged, but remained just at the rim of the soil, until the sixth day. Why? Because God had not sent rain. Why not? Because “there was no man to til the soil and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.”
That is, the rain came because we knew we needed it, we saw the emptiness of the world, and we made it necessary. It may be that we need to make peace with our companions, find our blessings and understand that how we face the future may matter as much as what the future is, in order to bring about the rain that will make the future bloom.
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