In my career as a teacher, the term “lifelong learner” was a perennial favorite. Ideally, all of us foster our curiosity, preserve cognitive flexibility, and strengthen our ability to integrate new learning. We help widen each other’s circles of understanding by recommending books, talks, and meaningful experiences. We model growth for each other when we acknowledge a change in our thinking, especially one that impacts our daily lives.
Through its UU principles, our congregation promotes a culture of “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth” and enables “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In service to these principles and the ideal of lifelong learning, the Climate Action Team has adopted a revised mission to engage, educate, and advocate. This blog represents one of our efforts to widen circles and expand thinking.
Knowledge arises both in the mind and in the body. Sometimes we experience tension between our felt sense and the mental concepts on which we’ve been conditioned to rely. New information can shove us out of our comfort zones or make us painfully aware of our naivété. Three years ago, I replaced my furnace with a high efficiency natural gas unit. At the time, I didn’t know enough to make a different buying decision and followed the advice of the HVAC company. I regret my choice now and salute those who are making more educated, eco-friendly choices.
Jostled out of our complacency, we often reorient ourselves by returning to familiar narratives or by clinging to outdated paradigms. We return to a “business as usual” mindset that 93 year-old environmentalist Joanna Macy describes in Coming Back to Life as “the story of the Industrial Growth Society and the European-based colonial empires from which it emerged. It is the dominant enforcing mechanism of a predatory capitalist, imperialist economic system (in other words, the corporate financial military industrial complex) that perpetuates patriarchy and white supremacy for the profit and power of a few.”
Do you feel uncomfortable with Macy’s description? Do you notice a defensiveness or a desire to distance yourself from a system that sounds so harmful? Can you see yourself as both a victim and beneficiary of business as usual? Don’t worry, you’re in good company. In general, my demographic has been advantaged by almost every gear of business as usual. I want to believe that everyone shares my degree of comfort and security, but I can no longer fool myself. Macy’s language is charged. It implicates me in ways that don’t feel good. This signals a necessary growth edge, and I’ve responded by widening my circle to learn from those whose experience and perspectives don’t mirror my own. It also compels me to look critically at what I actually value and how my choices align with those values. And I try to ignore the non-stop enticements of our consumer culture.
“We seek through growth to meet other needs, needs that, because they are fundamentally qualitative, growth can never meet,” writes Charles Eisenstein in Climate: A New Story. “Basic human desires for connection, community, beauty, sacredness, and intimacy are met with faux substitutes that temporarily numb but ultimately heighten the longing. The trauma of our deprivation drives our collective addictions. Ecological healing therefore requires our society to look beneath its consumptive symptoms and reorient toward qualitative development. To do so requires significant reprogramming, since our guiding narratives, from economic to scientific, embody quantitative thinking.”
How are your lifelong learner muscles feeling after reading his call to reprogram? This is a time when our cognitive fitness, somatic awareness, and conscience are engaged in strenuous daily workouts because “the external changes we face are far more profound than merely switching industrial society to a zero-carbon fuel stock,” Eisentstein writes. “Every aspect of society, the economy, and the political system must come into alignment with a new story.”
“The ecological crisis is calling us to a deeper kind of revolution,” he adds. “Its strategy involves restoring what the modern worldview and its institutions have rendered nearly extinct: our felt understanding of the living intelligence and interconnectedness of all things.” Eisenstein is sounding downright UU here, isn’t he? Like some of you, I’ve led with my head as I’ve circled the sun. The language of “felt understanding” is unfamiliar but growing on me. Time spent hiking on trails and gardening in my yard are becoming just as nourishing as my steady nonfiction diet.
Not succumbing to the numbing of a pervasive business-as-usual lifestyle is grueling, though, since we’re bombarded with messages that violate what we are learning about ourselves and the planet. Faced with swimming against the mainstream, we become painfully aware of our reliance on comfort, convenience, and choice. When the workout becomes too exhausting, we look for an escape.
In her 2019 TED talk, Renée Lertzman expands on Daniel Siegel’s concept of the “window of tolerance.” She describes it in an interview with Earthfire Institute as “that zone where we’re able to tolerate a certain amount of stress and anxiety and activation. When we’re overwhelmed, when we’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, we tend to go into either a collapse response, or on the other end of the spectrum, we can go into a hyper, manic hardness. … And obviously, a lot of us are moving between these all the time. It’s very dynamic.” Can you relate?
Lertzman then details the challenge of the double bind, “the experience when we feel like we’re caught in a bind where literally, you can’t make a right decision. So it’s like damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” I bet many of us have felt that conflict as we learn more about the ecological destruction caused by the comfortable and convenient lifestyles we choose by socialized default.
She continues: “People feel like, ‘Okay, I can’t make a right decision. If I stop flying, then what about my meat consumption? Or if I stop doing this? And what about this?’ The double blind can feel like, ‘I really care about the planet, but I feel like if I were to do anything about it, it would jeopardize a lot about my life, and I don’t know if I can handle that right now. … These are incredibly uncomfortable feelings to have, and we will avoid them and push them away at just about any cost.”
How, then, can we regulate this discomfort and stay committed to our lifelong learning and evolution? Lertzman calls for attunement, a way we can stay in our window of tolerance. This includes “attuning with oneself – the practice of just really being in touch with yourself, having the ability to check in with yourself and actually have compassion and kindness towards our own experience, our own suffering, our own pain, our own apathy, our own numbness, our own whatever it is we might be feeling,” she says. “By attuning with ourselves, we’re regulating our own nervous system.” That leads to attunement with others and, ultimately, with the Earth.
Lertzman believes that communities, like UUCA, “need to create these conditions that allow people to feel safe enough to say, ‘You know what? Here we are in this moment in history. We’re human beings. We are figuring out what it means to be human. How to live on this planet. We’re not that old, in the big picture. And we’ve really gone astray – especially over the past few hundred years.’ Let’s support each other while we look at that.”
Even though the work of learning, integrating, and applying new knowledge is individual in many ways, we serve as each other’s classmates, cheerleaders, and role models. We are disentangling ourselves from the business-as-usual mindset, exercising self-compassion in the face of the double binds, regulating our frazzled nervous systems through attunement, and gaining strength from our solidarity to save and savor the Earth. We’re all learning.