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“There’s no way I can say the words more plainly
There’s no one left to point at anymore
It’s you and me and we must make the choice now
And not destroy the life we’re living for.”
I was going to title this piece, “Our Final Exam,” until I realized it isn’t true. This isn’t our final exam. It’s a big test. That’s for sure. But it’s not the final one. There will be more to come. It’s just the biggest one we’ve ever had, so far. And, if we pay attention to the hard lessons of COVID-19 and learn from our collective crisis, we are more likely to pass the many tests that we (and especially our children and grandchildren), will face in the years and decades to come as our climate continues to destabilize.
From 2009 to 2016, I posted over 2200 essays on my Climate of Change blog at our local paper’s website. I published approximately one 800-word column a day for seven years; nearly two-million words. My message then is the same one I deliver today. Our choices matter. Whether it is COVID-19 or the climate crisis, our collective understanding and behavior will determine our future. We can trust science and value the preservation of life above all else or we can deny science and value short-term economic gain for the privileged few. We are free to choose and each of us is responsible.
As an English professor at Shasta College and a fearless fighter for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice, the late Pamela Spoto was singularly responsible for numerous educational programs and panels held at the college for students and the public over many years. At one of those events focusing on how the media covered (or failed to cover) the science of human-caused climate change, panel members were in general agreement that we were facing a future where societies would eventually collapse if we failed to adequately address the climate crisis. As the event was nearing its end and we were responding to audience questions, someone asked what individuals might do to prepare for what was coming.
Besides the obvious solutions like pulling out of the stock market (which I did in 2006), growing our own food, reducing our carbon footprint and electing enlightened leaders, I heard myself offering a bit of surprising advice, even to me. I said, “Get yourself together spiritually.”
What Gives Me Hope
Long before Pamela Spoto and Doug Bennett died, a small group of us would gather at the home that Pamela shared with her partner, Jim Collins, several times a year for a decade or so to participate in what we called “the Think Tank.” These were potluck dinners in which we shared food, drink and loving fellowship and “passed the elephant,” once we were done eating. A small elephant statue served as a kind of “talking stick” that we passed around the table as we took turns sharing our thoughts about the state of the world and what we might do locally to help one another and our community to survive and thrive in the face of the collapse we all knew was coming.
We knew this day would come, and we discussed it on a regular basis. We often felt deep despair. It was not unusual that it fell on someone to maintain optimism and hope in the midst of the collective grief that we all felt. A few times, that was me, but not always.
We didn’t know it would happen exactly this way. Some did, of course. We were all warned that a pandemic was coming. Our focus was usually on the climate crisis and how systemic deficiencies built into our political structures would eventually lead to the collapse of the economy and would threaten the ability of societies to maintain cohesion and social order. That is still coming, but the pandemic offers us a rare gift; an opportunity to see how vital it is to trust science, truth and one another and work together to create a world that works for all of us, not just the rich and powerful. Our hope can be found within each of us and the unbreakable bonds that we form with one another as we commit our hearts and minds to our common destiny and purpose.
Who Can We Trust?
One of the claims that conservative talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh is famous for is something he called “The Four Corners of Deceit” which he identified as “government, academia, science, and the media.” In other words, we cannot trust what these institutions tell us because they are proven liars.
He said “corruption…exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies!”
One of the most popular conservative thinkers in America wanted his listeners to clearly understand that truth can only be found among those who think like him and that “everything” else is a lie.
He said, “We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.”
David Roberts wrote, “In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.”
When I was writing for my Climate of Change blog, I learned early on that the climate science deniers that regularly trolled my column and disputed everything I wrote were not interested in scientific truth. Like Limbaugh, they were interested in maintaining a rigid perspective that did not require empirical investigation or factual evidence. All that mattered to them was that their side or “tribe” was right and deserved to win or succeed and the other side was wrong and required to fail or lose. As Roberts wrote, “One obvious implication of this view is that only one’s own tribe can be trusted. (Who wants to trust a ‘universe of lies’?)”
Roberts continued, “Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. ‘Good for our side’ and ‘true’ begin to blur into one.”
See What Is Real
The danger, of course, in framing existential threats like the coronavirus pandemic or the climate crisis from a tribal perspective is that we will fail to agree on what is true and real. And if we cannot agree on our shared problems, we will never agree on solutions. Tribalism may win elections, drive up ratings and boost profits for polluters but eventually it will doom civilization as we have known it. Look around. The signs of disintegration are everywhere.
I have long maintained that our biggest challenge in the modern world is that we can no longer agree on what is real. How can we possibly cope with COVID-19 and the numerous challenges we are facing with the climate crisis while we disparage and demean one another and the institutions that we must turn to in a crisis for truth and guidance?
When I advised the audience at Shasta College to get themselves together spiritually in order to cope with what’s coming, I meant something very specific. What I was saying then is what I’m saying now. We are much more than liberals or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans. We are much more than how we define ourselves or differentiate ourselves from one another. We are much more than the clubs or tribes that we belong to or the clubs or tribes we look upon with disdain.
When any human being anywhere on the planet sits in silence for even a few minutes, and takes a break from being someone and instead rests in simply being, they will discover and connect with the same “self” as any other person. My “I am” is the same as your “I am.” Awareness is awareness, whether it happens to reside in you or me or someone else. It is the same consciousness. The words you choose to add after you say or think “I am,” supports the illusion of a separate self but those words do not represent anything real, substantial or true. Adyashanti said, “When you touch into the One within you, you’ve touched into the One within all things. It’s the same infinity.”
If we hope to come out of this virus crisis with the wisdom that is necessary to gird, strengthen and deepen us for the new, harsh and hostile world we’ve created, we need much more than our social, sexual, cultural, political, national or economic identities. These are not who we really and deeply are. They are merely the convenient and necessary masks and costumes that we all need to function in this material world. We are much more than the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. We are much more than our money and our stuff; all the things we’ve collected that we thought would give us security and peace. They will fail us. They are not reliable. They will not last. Something deeper is needed.
It is time to wake up to who we truly are and why we are here.
Most of us identify with our thoughts, but as Eckhart Tolle and other spiritual teachers tell us, we are much more. He writes, “In you, as in each human being, there is a dimension of consciousness far deeper than thought. It is the very essence of who you are. We may call it presence, awareness, the unconditioned consciousness.”
He continues, “Finding that dimension frees you and the world from the suffering you inflict on yourself and others when the mind-made ‘little me’ is all you know and runs your life. Love, joy, creative expansion, and lasting inner peace cannot come into your life except through that unconditioned dimension of consciousness.”
When we see our thoughts as just words that may or may not be true, not as rules, commands or threats, we can defuse from them. When we observe and notice what is happening in and around us from a place of nonjudgmental awareness, we do not identify with the thinking mind. This is what I mean as “seeing what is real.”
At any given moment, we can choose to be present and connect with our sensory experience as we remember to be here now. While we can’t change what is happening in the world and the fact a deadly, invisible virus has already killed over 165,000 people, we are in control of how we attend to this information and what we choose to do about it. When we are willing to accept our thoughts and feelings, regardless of what they are, we can allow and open up to our experience as it is, not as we would have it.
We are all suffering. I cannot imagine anyone who isn’t. The loss of normality and the rapidity of social change is at best disturbing and unsettling, and for many, is truly terrifying; devastating even. And it is natural for the human mind to resist suffering – to resist pain – and to locate the source of suffering as primarily external and beyond our control. This is a lie, but many of us believe it is true.
Love is the Way
When we connect with what is vital in our existence in this world at this time, we identify the values that give meaning and purpose to our lives. And when we identify the goals that arise naturally from our values, we are able to commit ourselves to acting in accordance with our deepest concerns.
There are dark forces in our world seeking to divide us. We all know this. In some cases, these are politicians, but we also find media personalities intent on increasing our fear and anger and encouraging us to strengthen our tribal affiliations while blaming someone or something “on the other side” for what is happening in the world. I implore you to resist the delicious seduction of hating and blaming and instead choose love. Love your family and friends, and all our world communities and seek all the big and little ways that you can to make a positive difference in a world so desperately in need of what you have to offer.
We are not separate. What I most want for myself, I want for you. We are in this together. And we will survive this. I believe we will learn from this. I believe we will come to understand and accept that each human life is precious and that the only just society that will ever make sense is one that values each and every person.
Adyashanti wrote, “Because of an innocent misunderstanding you think that you are a human being in the relative world seeking the experience of oneness, but actually you are the One expressing itself as the experience of being a human being.”
This pandemic is a wake-up call. We can no longer afford to play our games of separation and disconnection when the truth is so clear. We are all intimately connected through our shared membership within the human family. And as humans, we are the one species capable of conscious awareness of our unity with all life. What we do to this planet and what we do to one another, we do to ourselves. Once we see this truth, we cannot deny it. And once we know, we must act and we will. Many of us already are. The transformation of the world is underway. Do not fear. Let love guide you now.