Our Lives in Nature … and in Society

There are no trees, birds, or mysterious nighttime choruses of frog calls in this post. There are only thoughts about how crucial it is to preserve the “our lives” portion of this blog’s theme – “our lives in nature.” Our lives are embedded in nature, and they are also embedded in societies and cultures. Whatever threatens our lives also threatens our role in understanding, protecting, and being with nature. When groups of people threaten our health and well-being, our ability to fully function as individuals, and our very existence, we begin to break down. And then our relationships with other people and with nature suffer.

So much is happening right now that is frightening. So much that threatens us and those we love. Against a backdrop of insurrection, there are calls for people to be murdered just because they are gay or politically progressive. Much of our government consists of people who insist that anyone should be easily able to get (and carry) a weapon of war. When anyone can carry a weapon of war, some of them will bring war to our communities. Americans own 20 million AR15-style weapons and when one of those owners murders school children, the power and danger of that weapon of war holds law enforcement at bay. To whom will we turn for protection when those who should protect us are out-gunned?

And now a Supreme Court that many consider to be at the lowest point in its history has decided that states, not women, have control over women’s bodies when it comes to abortion. The most extreme of the justices has announced that the court should go after the rights to use contraceptives, to privacy between sexual partners, and the right of people to marry who they love, regardless of gender. Some rights, like privacy and making our own medical and personal decisions, are not spelled out in the Constitution but previous Supreme Court justices protected them. The idea was that these important rights are implied by other parts of the Constitution, and government cannot interfere in such matters without a compelling reason. People talk about this as “substantive due process,” and the majority of the current Supreme Court is not a fan of substantive due process.

What can be done to protect our lives in society and in nature? What can I do to protect my own ability to be a meaningful part of society and nature, and not succumb to apathy, rage, or despair? Those things harm us personally and can destroy our ability to bring about change. I need to stay engaged with people and issues and feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

The work toward a more just and inclusive society is never really done. Social and economic pressures constantly shift, there are setbacks, and new generations bring new ideas and different perspectives. It is easy to become apathetic, especially for people who are working extra hard just to keep a roof over their heads and take care of their kids. People get tired. We sometimes feel the need to disengage with these problems, let someone else deal with it. The other side, people who want to impose their vision of how society should work, want us to be apathetic. They also want us to question whether we’re being reasonable because that’s one route to apathy. They suggest that we should calm down, but they have no such doubts about their own reasonableness.

When I feel the tug of apathy and the urge to disengage, I’m going to:

  • Be understanding of my need for rest and diversions
  • Recall how hard others have worked for issues that are too important to set aside
  • If necessary, re-evaluate what I do and choose tasks and roles that are a good fit for me
  • Visit the people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Re-engage – soon!

We also must avoid rage. I’m not talking about anger which is a thoroughly appropriate response to what is happening. Anger is almost unavoidable if what is happening truly matters to us. However, if I am consumed by constant anger, my energy may be wasted in attacks on others or a kind of simmering, unthinking rage. We can use the energy of anger, but we need to figure out how to use it effectively. This means I want to:

  • Attack problems, bad ideas, stupid arguments, cruelty, authoritarian political campaigns and the like; attacking the people associated with those things won’t help
  • Remember that rage comes from fear and helplessness, so when anger becomes overwhelming I will examine its sources and try to address them

That first commitment is difficult. I can think of one ex-President and several people in Congress who, in my view, deserve whatever ad hominem attack might come their way. It would feel good, but it wouldn’t really help. When I do it, my sense of identity is fractured between “we win through the ability to hurt others” and “we win through our ideas and through nonviolent resistance.” It’s difficult because giving a boot to the backside sure would feel good.

Another challenge is avoiding despair, that awful hopelessness where nothing seems possible. Despair paralyzes us. It’s akin to that protective response in the autonomic nervous system that shuts us down when nothing more can be done. That can happen when fighting is useless and all that the nervous system can do to get us through it is to make us immobile and numb. And I think that despair is its close cousin, a sort of surrender that sets in when nothing seems to work. 

When we are at the point of despair, it is essential to swim back to the surface, to take care of ourselves for a little and get ready to try something else. Here’s what I hope I can do:

  • Connect with someone who understands – they could sit with me and listen, and I would not be as alone with the problem; the point is to not be isolated
  • Like in the case of apathy, visit people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Examine the situation and look for good news, even if it’s small and seems dwarfed by the size of the problem; remind myself that something is possible
  • Find ways to contribute, to do something because doing something feels like I have at least a little bit of control, a way of making a difference; fight the sense of helplessness
  • Establish a sense of safety – physical safety if need be, as well as psychological safety

That last one, about psychological safety, is a little tricky. If I’m going to take a stand about something, I can expect that some will disagree and disapprove. I have to figure out what is tolerable. Name-calling by strangers might be no big deal but death threats may not be something I can let roll off my back. I need to figure out what adds to my psychological safety and what erodes it past what I can tolerate. Each person’s tolerance for risk is different, and that’s ok. 

If you want to work towards a just and inclusive society, thank you and I wish you great good luck in navigating the challenges I’m thinking about in these pages. We need healthy systems in nature as well as healthy societies. Our lives in one area depend on what happens to us in the other.