Old Marley was as dead as a door nail… This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
First published Christmas 2008, if memory serves.
I did something the other day that I haven’t done for a long time. Something I used to do often. Something unexpected: I went to a mall. It was a small mall. An old mall. A sad little mall that has not kept up with the times. But it was a mall nonetheless. And I went into it. I was not shopping for Christmas presents. (Being neither Christian nor Consumerist, nor, for that matter, Humanist, I don’t really do Christmas.) Nor was I sneaking a Cinnabon™. (This mall doesn’t have a single purveyor of Extreme Carbohydrates…)
What I was doing was looking for a bathroom.
You may, at this point, be expecting some sort of a rant. Based solely on a statistical analysis of my past behavior, that expectation would be reasonable. I have, in deed and in fact, done my share of ranting. So for me to start raving at this point about consumerism, or the holidays, or the global industrial death-machine responsible for everything I saw around me, for me to start fuming about how the destruction of the life of this planet was reflected in every sparkling ornament on the twenty foot Xmas tree at the mall’s center, would be the most normal and natural thing for me to do. I have now become, after all, a very minor public figure on the eco-ranting scene. It’s my job, right? It’s what I do.
But as I walked around the mall, I noticed a most curious thing: I did not feel angry. I was not filled with righteous indignation and steely resolve. I felt neither assaulted nor insulted. My inner conversation was not laced with snide comments and scathing judgments. My blood was not boiling. I was neither irate, mad, annoyed, cross, vexed, irritated, indignant, irked, furious, enraged, infuriated, in a temper, incensed, raging, fuming, seething, beside oneself, choleric, outraged, livid, apoplectic, hot under the collar, up in arms, in high dudgeon, foaming at the mouth, doing a slow burn, steamed up, in a lather, fit to be tied, seeing red, sore, bent out of shape, ticked off, teed off, nor PO’d. I was, in fact, feeling pretty much the last thing one would expect of me in this situation: I was feeling both humbled and… drum roll please… a bit of hope.
Go figure. That’s what happens when I really gotta pee. I go a bit crazy.
Humbled? Whatever for? Aren’t these the people, and the beliefs and behaviors, and the corporations, which are happily engaged in consuming the planet? Well… yeah. But as I looked around at those desperate shops, their tinsel-splattered storefronts smiling maniacally with invitation, as I watched my fellow mallers bumping around in search of, as I listened to the holiday music struggling frantically to convince me – on a day in mid-December that topped out at 78 degrees Frighteninglyhigh, in a drought-stricken corner of the world so dry now that FEMA is starting to erect mobile home cities for the fish, at a time when it looks like the only gift we’re going to get from our Uncle Sam in Bali is a train load of coal in our stockings, as I listened still to that holiday music trying frantically to convince me that it IS beginning to look a lot like Christmas, goddamnit, what became crystal clear was that, not that many years ago, I was one of those people, shopping those shops and singing those songs. Not that many years ago, I, me, Tim Bennett, was just the sort of person I might now harshly judge as clueless or befuddled, or even willfully ignorant. Not that many years ago I was cruising the malls, buying gifts for my kids, living the American Dream, a Chick-Fil-A™ in one hand and an Orange Julius™ in the other, shopping til dropping before donning my nightcap and settling my brain for a long winter’s denial.
I’m cringing. Can you feel me cringing?
Not at who I was. Not at who those mallers still are. I’m cringing at the realization of how easy it has been and still is for me to judge people for being where I was not that long ago. When it comes to myself, I’ve got lots of compassion. I was born into an insane culture. I was shaped and pressured and forced and guided and wounded and altered and thwarted and numbed and hoodwinked and lied to and ripped off. When it comes to everybody else… well, it’s guilty until proven innocent, with me as both judge and jury. With the legendary intensity of a reformed smoker, I’ve stomped through the world, handing out condemnations and sentences like so many business cards: Tim Bennett… Reformed Civilized Person… Call me for all your Anger and Judgment needs! I mean… it’s the end of the world as we know it, people! Wake the fuck up!
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.
I remember, back in college, saying to my now-ex as we sat in the student lounge, “On the whole, I don’t much like human beings.” Those words have stuck with me since. Not just a sentence, but also a sentence, with little chance of parole. While now and again I might find an individual who passes muster, the bewildered herd I met along “the crowded paths of life” was a disappointing and disgusting lot, and I saw little to do but keep my distance. Call me a walk-in, a changeling, or just an arrogant asshole, I was not one of them. I was not from around here. ”I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.”
And there I stood in the mall… and I saw… I saw!… I was one of them, and always had been. Forty nine years previous, on a drunk or a dare, I’d tripped and fallen – or jumped – into the gravity well called Earth and was now stumbling about, stunned and disoriented, a spark of life and energy encased in a bipedal meat-bag, surrounded by hundreds- thousands- millions- billions of fellow sparks-in-meat-bags, all wondering what the hell is going on and who’s in charge and hey has anybody seen the instruction manual?
I’m from around here after all.
Which brings me to hope.
People who know me well know that I have a bit of a speech impediment: whenever I try to say the word “hope” it comes out sounding slightly off, like a Brit doing an American accent, but not doing it very well. It’s not that I have anything against hope, at least as a noun. I’m as much a fan of possibility as the next guy, and my sense of the universe is that there is always possibility, even in the darkest days. But I’m highly attuned to the dangers and downsides of hope, and so often defend against hope when I see it being abused or misused, and avoid the word when I can, attempting to steer clear of that misuse.
Yes, there is always possibility. But there are also laws of physics and chemistry and biology, and there are limits to science and technology. And there is also cultural inertia and psychosocial wounding. And there are also huge forces at work in the world, with plans and intentions of their own. And so we must balance possibility with inevitability, vision with current reality, and surrender to the unknown, and come to see that many of our hopes are false, and that some of those possibilities we – our sparks, not our meat-bags – do not even want.
And as for hoping as a verb…. well, let’s just say that I am learning to keep my own power for myself, and that that feels really, really good. Read Derrick Jensen’s essay Beyond Hope and you’ll understand what I mean. The language of hoping can rob us of our power.
In the mall, what I saw was a possibility. Think of it. Not that many years ago I was a maller and now I’m working full-time for the planet and jonesing for “the end of Empire” and the collapse of the system that is killing everything. And I’m not alone. My friend Carla has leapt from the decks of the Titanic and into that same Ark of Fools in about the same time frame. I have other friends who’ve made similar leaps. And on our screening tours, we met folks who, by their own report, made the journey from confusion and bewilderment to clarity, acceptance, and action in a couple of years! Old Marley howled and clanked, their clocks struck midnight, and the spirits did it all in one night! Think of it.
Think of it.
How many such folk walk amongst us unseen? How many are primed and ready, just waiting for Marley’s Ghost to rattle their chains and set them on a quick path from cluelessness to awareness? And what becomes possible, if more of these Scrooges get whacked upside the head with reality? I said a while back that there is great power in not knowing. If I’m going to say such things out loud, then I’m going to have to take them seriously myself, and do such work as is necessary to allow me to hold “not knowing” in my being. And so the answer to these questions is simple: I do not know. Read Peter Russell’s wonderful pieced called A Singularity in Time. We do not know.
Nothing takes the judgment out of me quite so quickly as a good dose of humility.
I have been angry. I have been judgmental and cruel and dismissive. And that has not always served me. While anger can work to focus my energy on that which is outside of me, on that which needs to be faced and confronted and contained or stopped, it’s a tool so easily misused, and so sharp-edged and fierce, that I do well to leave it in the toolbox until I’m sure I can use it without hurting some innocent bystander. Or myself.
There are situations, manipulations, rationalizations, obfuscations and corporations that may all deserve and require that form of focused energy, so it would serve the Earth, for me to master my anger. But it does little good if I spend my anger on those who do not deserve it. At some point I have to learn to make the necessary distinctions between the many degrees of perpetration and victimization. I have to train my eye to see the fine gradations of willfulness, the many grays of blame and complicity that lie on the continuum between the blinding white fire of evil and the cool and soothing black of innocence.
As I do this it becomes very clear: this is delicate work. In the face of such distinctions, where the gradations are so fine, and the shades so subtle, the only way to mastery is to step into bold humility and decisive unknowing. There is simply too much that my meat-bag will never get to know. That’s how it works here at the bottom of the gravity well.
Given that, I may do well most days to hold my judgments and anger with compassionate firmness until clarity comes, if it ever does. While there may be obvious evils that both deserve and need my anger, while there are, in fact, people who need to be stopped and world leaders who need to be run out on a rail and corporations which need to be contained and deconstructed, while there is, as far as I can see, an entire planet-spanning culture that needs to be dismantled and recycled into something life-affirming and sane, most of the other meat-bags around me are just as confused and disoriented as I am. My anger toward them has been the easy way out, little more than “horizontal hostility” toward my fellow stumblers, because it’s so damned scary to contemplate expressing my anger directly to those who may actually deserve it, those with the power to express right back at me.
Are there those who deserve my judgment and anger? Is the CEO of a destructive corporation a bad guy, or just another confused meat-bag trapped in the same culture that trapped me? Or both? Or neither? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to feel my way through that for some time and have yet to find an answer that fully suits me. And I can’t quite decide whether it matters or not. On the one hand, my animal body is clear: whether they are evil or confused, I get, to the best of my abilities, to protect my self and my loved ones from the forces of destruction that threaten us all. The mother bear protects her cubs. That speaks to me with an eloquence and simplicity that feels grounded in the deep rightness of the living world. But then I stop and remember: I’m trying to move beyond the paradigm of domination and control. It may matter, how I regard those forces, even while protecting myself from them. It may matter. I don’t know. For now, I will trust my body. And the mother bear. Protection is not domination and control. My body knows that. My head is too easy to fool.
What’s clear right now is that my anger, at the level of my real life, has served more to stand in my way than to help, and that mastery in the realm of anger is one of my growing edges. My fellow sparks-in-meat-bags need simply for me to hear them and understand them and treat them with compassion as they knock their heads up against the walls of the gravity well, as they meet their own Marleys and are forced to confront the delusions and consequences of their own lives, as they stand on those titanic decks and contemplate the jump before them. As a friend of his emailed Daniel Pinchbeck, which he reports in his wonderful book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl:
I greatly admire your willingness to bear witness to your experiences and beliefs in such a radical and generous way. I will also say that I think the role of truth-bearer requires the purest of intentions. “Do it with love,” is good advice.
Do it with love. Love as a verb, as Juan Santos says. Love as an action in the real world. I can do that. And so I will tell you the hope I saw in that mall. The possibility.
It’s possible for a human being to make huge shifts in his or her worldview in a short amount of time. It’s possible that there are more people on the verge of making such shifts than we can now see or imagine. It’s possible that enough human beings will awaken to the world situation, and to their true nature, that they will be able to bring consciousness and intention to the work of this time, to that process which is already underway, which is to bring an end to a culture, a worldview, a paradigm, now expressing itself as the global industrial machine, which has never been and can never be sustainable on this planet, to bring an end to this culture, to dismantle it and contain it and hold it gently while it breathes its last. It’s possible that this can be done before the mass extinction we are living in plays out to its bitter end. It’s possible that some of us will be able to survive through this process, and thrive our way into a new life on a very different, but still living, planet. It’s possible that we will learn what we have long needed to learn, those of us raised in captivity in this system of disconnection and domination. It’s possible that we will find healing. It’s possible that we will remember ourselves. And it’s possible that we will once again take our places as worthy members of the community of life, and that we will find new ways of being that, echoing Juan Santos, align with our original instructions from the Creator.
The curtains may not be completely torn down, rings and all. Life may prevail. It’s possible. And so I will hold it as such. A possibility. A hope. Held not despite my fellow human beings, but BECAUSE I AM ONE.
Our chances feel slim to none, but it remains possible nonetheless. As Joanna Macy imagines our descendents saying, looking back on this time, “Our ancestors back then, bless them, they had no way of knowing if the Great Turning could succeed. No way of telling if a life-sustaining culture could emerge from the death throes of the industrial growth society. It probably looked hopeless at times. Their efforts must have often seemed isolated, paltry, and darkened by confusion. Yet they went ahead, they kept on doing what they could–and, because they persisted, the Great Turning happened.”
I’ve lived my whole life feeling like I’m not from here. Perhaps you have as well. And there may be some truth to that, at some level of reality. But I find that it just doesn’t matter any more. Whether I’m from here or not, I’m here now. Here is where my work is to be done: here in the gravity well we call Earth, with these other poor, crazy souls stumbling about around me. I have lost too much time to my judgments, trying vainly to protect myself, “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance,” even reveling in that. Perhaps it’s time to give that up?
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.
And so, says a not-so-tiny Tim, to my fellow bipedal-meat-bags, to our brothers in four legs and six legs and more, to our sisters in wing and fin and leaf and mycelium, to our compatriots in stone and wind and water and fire, to our allies and teachers, our ancestors and descendants, our guides and our shadows, our drop-ins our changelings and our arrogant assholes, to all of you I say this, as poor and crippled as I am:
God bless us, every one.
Tim Bennett is a writer, filmmaker and meat bag currently looking for the instruction manual in the Southeast US. You can read his blog and get in touch with him, maybe, at his website www.whatawaytogomovie.com.