Want to ride the reality seesaw with me? It’s the one that lifts us up with sensory experiences of beauty and sweetness, with gratitude for connection and sufficiency, and with delight in novelty and adventure. It’s also the one that drops us into anger about racial and economic injustice, into frustration over the slide to undemocratic politics, and into anxiety about the planet’s future. I like the feeling of going up. I dread the descent. Even so, the ride continues, up and down, sure as the sun’s daily journey.
Rather than becoming overly attached to my preference for constant uplift, I try to be present to what is – to observe my thoughts as they move up and down, to note the emotions that arise, and to trust that my feelings will morph, disappear, and reappear, just like the clouds. Reality is this and that, an up and down, with lots of distracted in-betweens.
I just returned from a quick trip to North Georgia’s mountains, a dependable seesaw rise amid the lurching drops caused by certain political signs and hateful flags. Just south of Blairsville, I visited Helton Creek Falls. Since it was mid-week, my friend and I had the place to ourselves. We decided to swim in the refreshing, clear water. My senses were ecstatic. Floating near the spray of the cascade, I felt a calm, care-free connection to Gaia. How fortunate I am – all of us are – I thought, just to be alive in this vivid world.
Traveling through the foothills back to Atlanta today, I passed a sawmill, where hundreds of once-sturdy trees lie stacked and limbless, awaiting their turn at the blade. Maybe because I just finished reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning The Overstory, the sight was a bit heart-wrenching. As the quiet road became a four-lane highway and grew again into a crowded interstate, I noticed my seesaw descent continue as exhaust pipes on big rigs belched diesel emissions. Evidence of harmful extraction was everywhere – aluminum highway signs, rubber tires, petroleum-based asphalt. Cement alone contains calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron, limestone, shells, and chalk. Like it or not, this is reality, as real as the bright-rimmed shadows of water rippling in the shallows of Helton Creek Falls. Again, the seesaw…
After I returned from my off-grid adventure, I sat down to catch up on email and was greeted by a variety of pleas for action (and donations) from environmental groups. The militant rhetoric of “battle” and “fight” doesn’t stir me like it once did, but I respect and support the legitimate urgency that fuels many front-line groups. Somehow, I just wasn’t feeling that urgency yesterday when the mountain waters chilled and thrilled me. The seesaw: sometimes a gentle lift, sometimes a butt-busting drop to the ground.
Accepting what is and remaining motivated to act on behalf of the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible (nod to Charles Eisenstein), I’m hungry for practical guidance to help me keep my seat on the seesaw. I seek the wise counsel of thinkers like Naomi Klein, who has concluded that “only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.”
Klein continues in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate: “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. This is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions, but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer avoid.”
How do I hold these diverse realities in my heart? How do I initiate dialogue with family and friends about the imperative to alter our worldviews? How can our Climate Action Team more effectively engage the congregation to make daily choices with a heartfelt focus on Earth care? How might the environmental organizations I value connect with people who are currently battling for basic wellbeing, not contemplating the fate of the planet?
Striving to “be real” with all that is and still be an agent for positive change is definitely challenging. Joanna Macy explains that “because fears for our collective future are usually considered too uncomfortable to talk about, they tend to remain an unspoken presence in the back of our minds.”
“We often hear comments such as ‘Don’t go there, it is too depressing’ and ‘Don’t dwell on the negative,’” she writes with co-author Chris Johnstone in their newly-revised Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In with Unexpected Resilience & Creative Power. “The problem with this approach is that it closes down our conversations and our thinking. How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about or discuss? This blocked communication generates a peril even more deadly, for the greatest danger of our times is the deadening of our response.”
When the seesaw ride becomes too much, I’ll admit to embracing distraction and deadening my response through mindless consumption. Even if the industrial growth economy prefers me this way, I can usually shake myself out of it – for a bit. “This is a time to reach out and find new allies as well as to discard forms of thinking and behavior that have led us astray,” Macy and Johnstone write. “In a process known as adversity activated development, our very act of facing the mess we’re in can help us discover a more enlivening sense of what our lives are about, what we’re here to do, and what we’re truly capable of.”
With this encouragement and the inspiration of myriad activists, organizers, and writers; with a grounding in Unitarian Universalist principles and Buddhist teachings; with allies in global organizations and friends on the Climate Action Team; and with an occasional plunge under a waterfall, I think I’m capable of staying on this seesaw with you.