Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites? Who needs a rule book with a hundred or more prescribed prayers for every micro-action of the day, like brushing your teeth and putting on your pants. We’re not nomadic tribes in the desert, we’re city dwellers with jobs. Proscribed rituals in the Talmud today would be diagnosed as OCD and medicated. This is the 21st century. We are post-modern, enlightened, rational optimizers. We’re not sinful. We’re not even neurotic. We’re just gluten intolerant, or hypoglycemic or underslept or over worked or underpaid or didn’t get in our 10,000 steps. We’re mad, sad, glad or scared – not bad – and will communicate responsibly as soon as possible. We read the paper, give to causes, and go to book groups. We’ve penetrated the mysteries of neurobiology, who needs God telling us what to do?
These are not ordinary times, though. Technological intermediaries affect every aspect of our lives – the food on our table, the gas (or electrons) in our cars, reading, writing, education, training, romance are all enabled by long technology-mediated supply chains that must function seamlessly. Y2K turned out to be a big nothing-burger. Peak Oil got f*cked by fracking. Now, though, we’ve gone too far into the machinery of the living earth, and it’s careering off course, and we know it. Fires, toxins (the frogs and locusts of ancient times), droughts and floods are driving people from their homes. Climate disruptions are not just threatening small island communities in the Pacific. They are coming after all major coastal cities.
These are Biblical times. By that I mean that these are times when a major corrective will be applied to our lives one way or another: we will grow up and face up and do what’s needed to change how we inhabit this planet, or our civilization will be smited… or smote… by floods, fires, disease, grid failures, uprisings like we see now in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, France, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Brazil – only 10-times worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued ever sterner warnings in the past year. Carbon neutral by 2050. Or better, 2040. Or maybe 2030 just to be safe. Youth movements have grown to pressure adults – who hold the reins of power – to do the right thing: Fridays for the Future, Greta-inspired school strikes and marches, Sunrise Movement. How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results as the children who are inheriting our whirlwind pressed their faces against the figurative glass of the institutions in charge.
The wisdom we need is far more radical than the everyday practices that help us stay sane – meditation, journaling, weekly religious services. The system is now hair-triggered for failure on a whole-earth scale: the oceans can’t absorb much more carbon, the ocean creatures can’t tolerate much more acidification, species and tribes are winking out of existence with the raging fires, a methane burp from once-frozen tundra will send temperatures soaring. The enormity of our likely failure to respond collectively and decisively boggles not just the mind but the soul.
Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.
We have sinned against nature. We thought we were tinkering, making things better, but our way of life has overwhelmed the adaptive capacity of our kith and kin – birds, bugs, trees, bushes, mammals, reptiles, fish, soil microorganisms. Zoos are now arks for species that are functionally defunct in the wild. Even the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, designed to preserve hundreds of seeds should a global calamity require a re-start of our food systems, was flooded by a melt event 30 years earlier than predicted.
Children when they’ve broken something valuable have more grief than we do. I remember happily picking all the tulips in the back yard to give to my mother, who was horrified at the carnage to her flower beds. I can feel now the stinging remorse I felt then as I tried to reattach each tulip to the bulb. Or when I fender bender’d my mother’s car on my first licensed trip out of the driveway. In both cases, the remorse was immediate and bitter – so mortifying I never made the mistake again. Somehow, as adults in societies where so much feels beyond our control, we are strangely mum and un-mortified about the sixth extinction underway right now. Nature will take care of that! She’s got a lot more species up her sleeve :-). Did we really need that beetle anyway? It’s unfortunate, but what can we do? When you stop feeling remorse, when the causal factors seem so far away from your choices that you don’t feel at all, this is when the situation reaches biblical proportions. When the sins are civilization wide and everyone – guilty or innocent – will pay.
This is a time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly.
To face the golden calf we’ve worshiped, the myth of human ingenuity ever optimizing the tangled mess God made and left us with. To realize that whatever we’ve done as correctives – marches, movements, initiatives, inventions, innovations, prototypes – has been too little, too weak, too shallow a cut into the religion of progress. There’s no one to blame at this late date. The autocrats and kleptocrats and plutocrats and unqualified petulant child-kings are the symptoms of the rot, not the causes. They will accelerate our drive off the cliff, and maybe that too is God’s will.
The diagnosis, too, is of biblical proportion.
We have strayed from the path Life set before us in the garden. We have lost our way. No quibbling about what you did that wasn’t that bad. That you didn’t do anything, you just followed the rule of the world you were born into. Three quarters of humanity will be die from floods, fires, droughts, starvation, tornadoes, cancers, infections for which there is no cure. This is the flood that wipes the slate clean.
Repent. Just let go and let reality speak to you. It’s only hard before you do it.
While you are still scheming or cajoling or denying or pointing to other times when the end was near but it never came, you figure you won’t have to repent. Imagine repenting and giving everything away to the poor, and the catastrophe is averted. What a chump. Before repenting you figure we’ll get through this. Humans always have. But you feel like someone on the lam. Someone with a price on his head.
To repent is to feel such direct sorrow at what you have caused that you turn your life around. You are not passingly sorry. You are sorry for the rest of your days, and come to cherish this sorrow as it reminds you to care about the lives you touch. You may stumble, but you correct course as soon as you are a half a degree off.
What other word carries the weight of repentance? The Greek word is metanoia, when the mind decisively turns towards truth, integrity. In AA they call it hitting bottom, the moment when you realize your alcoholism runs your life, that you are powerless to change, that you need to call on a higher power. A Buddhist teacher described a moment in meditation practice when you are thoroughly disgusted with your chattering mind, with the petty, sniveling you behind your public you, when the scaffolding of your ego seems as integral to you as your bones. Repentance goes down to the core, to your identity. It’s not changing behavior. It’s changing your identity operating system. You are no longer the person who does that sh*t. You know you used to be. You can own every scrap of your stupidity because you’ve repented, you’ve committed to a different way.
Here’s how it looks for me, now, as we turn to 2020, a year that seems so much closer to the climate doomsday numbers.
I am stunned by my human arrogance, through and through.
I forgot I was part of the community of life.
I have glimpses of that belonging, but most of the time I’m species-centric. Those times when I belong, I enter time, or, in other words, I enter co-existence with the life around me – and become speechless. I am a creature among creatures who all have a season and who will die sooner or later and feed the community with our rotting carcasses. Insects do their whole life cycle in days or weeks. Trees might live a thousand years. The earth is made up of all that was, old life surrendering to new life and life going on. I am awkward still as a member of the community of life, barging in like a drunk Uncle, and stumbling out, but every time I return I am welcomed back and learn a bit more.
On a recent trip to the Galapagos (yes, I took a plane), a sea lion approached me while I was snorkeling and did a few rolls and flipper flaps like an invitation to play and I just went with it. We circled and rolled and looked at one another underwater for a long time. That was holy. I used to walk to clear my head, unmindful of the life I was moving through. More and more, I tend to look and listen and stop. These are small things that I hope will shift my view from hubris to humble in relation to my kin.
I will never stop thinking – maybe won’t even after I die – so I turn my thoughts to helping as much of nature as possible survive this gash my species has opened in her body. I’m a writer so I write. I have a good garden area in my back yard so this year I want to do better at building fertility and planting for the bees, butterflies, and birds as well as for beauty and bounty. I love my friends and the island community where I live and show that love as many ways as I dare.
What I do hasn’t changed that much, but why I do it has. I am no longer trying to turn back the tide of destruction. But I am making the corners of the world that I touch a little more lively and robust. I’ve become involved in the regenerative agriculture movement and want to help it grow, however I can, as it has practical wisdom on working cooperatively with nature. In the past I would have imagined it was the key to changing the world. I would work in order to get everyone on board. Now there’s little “in order to.” I engage gratefully, happy to belong, to contribute.
Repentance isn’t an end, with a chariot coming down with some nice white robes so you look good as a penitent. It really is just facing the totality of the mess we’ve made here on this beautiful planet and pledging allegiance to the God of redemption, which is, it turns out, the garden God placed us in at the beginning of time.
We are Life’s Prodigal Sons and Daughters.
Returning to the house of our Father and Mother – our larger body of Life – isn’t just showing up at holidays or Sunday calls. It’s full inner accounting with how far we’ve wandered, how much we’ve squandered. It isn’t merely that you, individually, have done something awful or that I have tried and failed, it’s that we’ve gotten so comfortable with individualism itself that we see repentance as simply an individual reckoning and an individual redemption. I think it’s much bigger than that now.
How do “we” individuals become a “we” humanity, the prodigal species, again? “Coming back to life” means fully realizing how swept up we have been in a delusion of separation and have laid waste to what we were given for free.
Can repentance on this level happen? Can humanity be redeemed?
I don’t know. I’m just another sobered soul in this biblical time, heading to the tent revival with a heart full of sorrow and a mind that’s fallen quiet in the face of how lost I am, we are. I would find it both peaceful and hopeful if we could all just fall silent, get on our knees and then our stomachs, and kiss the ground, breath, sigh, grieve and give our hearts back to Life and see if we can become a we again after a good long while.