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  • Writer's pictureLisa Garnham

After the fires - staying with compassion

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

I don’t think I was alone in feeling overwhelmed with grief, horror and helplessness watching the bushfires during the summer of 2019/2020 on the South Coast of NSW Australia and in other areas. Our communities and newsfeeds were full of flames and devastation.

This is what I remember:

  • the photo of the burnt kangaroo on the fence

  • the dead birds of Mallacoota

  • the video footage of the fire storm and the fire fighters caught in it

  • koalas drinking from human hands

  • day after day of smoke filled cities

I felt at the time that in the direct aftermath of the fires, as people's shock turned to anger that something was changing - that the voices of opposition against the inaction of governments and environmentally destructive companies and policies - were getting louder. A change was a'coming.

So many people donating, protesting, helping where they could. And this is still happening in the communities most affected by the fires - community meetings, loss and grief work, people rebuilding their lives. In other places though, I wonder - are the voices of outrage fading? How do we maintain the momentum - the demand that our government take stronger action on climate change - when as the affected communities heal and our newsfeeds roll on with other catastrophes it seems natural to turn back to our own problems?

Coming back to life

“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on our way to destroying the world - that’s been going on for some time - it’s that we are beginning to wake up - as from a Millenia long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world”.

This quote is from the excellent book Coming back to life’ by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown.

It’s about the suffering and destruction of the natural world and how humans deal with it - and don't deal with it. It offers a clue into what we can do with our emotions - how we can participate in the great turning - instead of the great forgetting.

Who's responsible?

In a recent ABC News article about accountability and responsibility for climate change, a friend asked about his own responsibility for the current state of the world: “Am I responsible for flying to the UK last year? for eating meat? for driving a car? for not protesting forest clearance? for not joining a political party?"

The answer is - yes, yes you are - we all are. It's a sobering thought. I don’t like the idea of being an accomplice in the destruction of the planet either.

But as Macy says in her book ‘Coming Back to Life’ - “It is almost impossible in today’s global economy to feed, cloth and transport ourselves without unintended harm to the natural world and other people.”

And we hate feeling guilty. It undermines our self respect. So we get defensive, deny any wrong doing, repress our feelings, and in doing so she says, we lock up our pain for the world.

Feeling pain for the world is says Macy, akin to the original meaning of compassion: “suffering with”. “It is the distress we feel on behalf of a larger whole of which we are a part…a collective suffering of what is happening to our own and other species, to the legacy of our ancestors, to coming generations and the living body of Earth”.

Macy says that this pain is the price of being aware - of consciousness - and that it is absolutely necessary component of a collective healing.

Deadening our heart and mind

The problem says Macy lies not with our pain for the world but in our repression of it.

She calls this a “deadening our heart and mind - the greatest danger”. And there are many ways we do it. It’s also very normal to want to protect ourself from feeling these painful feelings for the world - but we do so at great cost to our selves and the planet. Here are some of the ways we inhibit our experience:

  • We fear of getting permanently mired in despair (with no future or purpose our lives may be drained of meaning).

  • We fear pain ( overwhelming emotions, madness)

  • We fear of getting embroiled in a debate and not knowing the facts and looking stupid (so sticking with ‘our tribe’).

  • We fear of powerlessness (I don’t think about it because there’s nothing I can do about it).

There are other reasons we find it difficult to hear or learn about the fate of the world - misinformation shared by mass media, hijacked attention, social violence (economic hardships, racism, demagogues which direct our frustrations against other groups to blame), job and time pressures.

All these fears, beliefs and denials - conscious or unconscious - says Macy - are where we abdicate of our power to respond. And we pay a high price for that.

Repressing our fears impedes cognitive functioning, sucks our energy and dulls our perceptions. Numbing emotions is not a selective thing - when you won’t feel fear you won't feel much else either. Also - it makes us less intelligent - cognitive thinking is weakened because we cut ourselves off from information that contradicts our preferred assessment.

Refusing to feel our emotions impedes our eros - and without eros, our lives become more desiccated and robotic and we pay less respect to the aesthetic dimension of life. This is seen in frantic pursuit of pleasure and short term gratification which reflects “not a healthy lust for life but the absence of and yearning for a truly erotic connection to life”.

Repressing our emotions dulls our empathetic response to others. Eros nourishes our rootedness in the web of life, fostering empathy. Without empathy our natural capacity to sense and identify with the joy and suffering of others is crippled. Instead we tend to project our repressed fears and anger onto other people.

Breaking free - an act of courage and love

So how do we break free and help others break free? Says Macy:

We don’t break free from denial and repression by gritting our teeth and trying to be nobler braver citizens.

We need not scold or manipulate people into what we think they should be feeling.

We don’t retrieve our passion for life by blaming ourselves.

It is an act of courage and love we make together when we dare to see the world as it is.

In honouring our pain and daring to experience it we learn the true meaning of compassion: to suffer with - and we are able go forth consciously into the actions that call each of us in keeping with our situation and talents to work for social change.

We as individuals and as communities can't afford to retreat back to the old ways of thinking - or not thinking - about the world, our future and our responsibilities. The turning point has come. As Oxfam CEO Lyn Morgain said in a recent statement along with 270 scientists who signed an open letter to Australia's leaders - calling on them to abandon partisan politics and take action on climate change:

"If we led by example and immediately strengthened our own emissions reduction commitments, and if we linked our own crisis with those escalating around the world, we could be a great catalyst for stronger international action," she said.

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