The Human Role in A Perfect Ecosystem

In thinking about how ecosystems function, and about how every part of them seems to fulfill a role, the question came to me: in a perfect ecosystem, what is the role of humans? Or would a perfect ecosystem be devoid of humans?

A few possible answers came. The first was that humans would care for the ecosystem as its stewards. But the truth is this: no ecosystem needs us. They can get along just fine without our care, or even our love. Which some might think suggests the conclusion that Earth is better off without us. But I don’t believe this, for one very simple reason: we exist, and we love. For the Earth to be better off without us, we would have to be evil incarnate, and we’re not. We love. So what is the role of that love in an ecosystem?

I stood under a stand of trees and watched a wary squirrel dart from branch to branch, going about its business, doing what squirrels do. Maybe, as humans, we need to do what humans do. But what is that? And don’t we do a lot of uncaring, destructive things? Yes. But what would we be doing if we had everything we needed? We would all have free time. We would laugh, love, and be creative, and when the time came, we would take what we need from the system of which we are a part. We would take only what we need. Food. Shelter. Water. We would take these things in ways that are uninvasive. We would not have so many children that we ourselves become invasive as a species. We would give back to the ecosystem as much as we took from it.

We would, in essence, be doing not just what humans do, but what all elements of a perfect ecosystem do. Care for ourselves, take only what we need, and spend our free time in joy. We may not recognize when a bug, or a plant, or a bird, or an animal is joyful; their joy is different from ours. But when they have no need to hunt for food or care for each other, they relax. They grow. They sing.

Nature would give us all we needed, if only we would let it. This is not so difficult for us to do.

Posted in Environment, Joy | 6 Comments

Natural Disasters as Jump-Starts for Compassion

The title pretty much says it all here. Hurricane Irene caused massive damage in many places, including Brattleboro, VT. But my understanding is that the people’s response to the disaster there is this: helping each other. Volunteers have been cleaning our ruined barns for their neighbors, and in general just showing up on each others’ doorsteps to help out.

This is why I believe that humanity can ultimately overcome the global disaster of climate change that we have created: when things get bad, we start to realize we need to help each other out if we want to survive.

Might we already be past the tipping point of runaway global warming? Maybe. But we have at least a few decades, maybe a century, before the planet becomes uninhabitable, and if the sorts of severe weather events we’ve seen this year continue, I believe more and more communities will begin to deepen their connections to each other in response. Through this deepening, compassion and care can flourish, laying a stronger foundation of cooperative living instead of the competitive model so many people follow now. It’s not too late to help each other survive by moving into a way of life the respects and heals above all else. We have time to become more compassionate stewards of each other and our environment. If we get to it now, we’ll be prepared if the worst comes later.

Posted in civilization, Compassion, Environment, Healing | 2 Comments

On Loving Enemies

I don’t believe in every word that the Bible has to say, but here are some pertinent (and very often-referenced) ones:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matt 5:39-44 (NIV).

The number of times I have heard or read these words is far less than the number of times I have witnessed them being acted out.I believe this is for many reasons, including that a) the message can be misinterpreted as taking a passive stance toward violence; b) there are other, less compassionate things in the Bible (like Hell) which are much easier to focus on (i.e., through condemning people); and c) it is dismissed as a perfection out of reach of the average human, or even of all humans.

I don’t believe the section takes a passive stance – love is not a passive action, and to combat oppression with love is anything but passive. Love for oneself allows for self-defense, and love for enemies prevents self-defense from turning into a return of one hurt for another. I acknowledge that the message here is difficult, but I think that’s only because, by and large, we haven’t taken the time to cultivate loving as a habit. This point also addresses why I don’t believe this kind of love is impossible for everyday people (and really, what other type of person is there?).

I admit that our culture makes it difficult to love as a habit, and even frowns sometimes on those who return violence with compassion. This is why we need a new culture, one that affirms the worth of every living thing, “evil” or otherwise, and doesn’t seek to perpetuate the cycle of destruction.

The only way to create this culture is to live it.

Posted in civilization, Compassion, Love, Religion, Violence | 2 Comments

Justice is Compassion

I don’t know where the age old concept of justice as “rewarding the right and punishing the wrong” came from, and I don’t know how the “rewarding the good” part seems to have been forgotten about altogether, leaving us with “punish the wrong” as the general mentality of our justice system and as many people’s concept of justice.

I have a different one: Justice is compassion. Humans, as well as all other forms of life, are, by their nature of being living things, worthy of respect and love and compassion. No matter what they’ve done. It doesn’t matter how heinous the crime, how vile the intent, how hurtful the result. All are equally deserving of love. All.

The idea that justice has been served when violence has been returned to its perpetrator (for example, though the death penalty, or even through a dehumanizing prison system), is so pervasive and yet counterintuitive when compared with what so many parents attempt to teach their children: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Parents who hit their children back are considered abusive, but social systems based on similar abuses persist.

Where, exactly, did we get the idea that when someone has caused harm, they are allowed to be harmed back? How does perpetuating the problem do anything at all to solve it? You cannot heal a hurt by causing a second hurt. That’s not how it works.

Only when we leave the cycle of violence behind altogether, in all aspects of life, will we be able to call ourselves “just.” I don’t profess to be perfect at this, and neither do I claim to be free of anger when someone hurts me. But I know that a hurt in response to a hurt solves nothing.

Posted in Compassion, Love, Violence | 3 Comments

What We Yearn For

This post is adapted from a conversation I just had in the comments section of an earlier post, and I thought it warranted further exploration.

Many indigenous tribes have known for millennia that we (humans) are intimately connected with all life, and the planet. I believe that industrial, technological, and economic expansion have caused so great a distraction among most humans that we have either forgotten these connections, or simply never had the chance to develop them in the first place.

As a result, we see a widespread dissatisfaction among the industrialized population of the world. Mid-life crisis? Depression? A sense of emptiness, uneasiness, perturbedness for no discernible reason? You’re yearning for something, and you don’t know what. A sense of purpose perhaps? Or maybe “purpose” is the only way you can find of articulating a yearning to feel connected – physically, emotionally, spiritually, to something larger than yourself. Well, you are. You are connected deeply to all other life, and to the planet itself, without which you would not be here.

We cannot live without other life. It’s not possible. But our industrialized, digitalized, commodified society tells us exactly the opposite: you are an individual, you do not need anyone else, you should work for someone else for a living, and if you’re lucky you can have people working for you. Economics knows only one emotion: fear (and this could be a whole post in itself). Fear drives the market, drives supply and demand, drives the increasing alienation of us from ourselves, our work, each other, non-humans, and our environment.

However, as the internet and other technologies continue to connect people globally, the opportunity increases substantially for us to connect with those of us who have developed these yearned-for bonds with other people, with all life, and with the planet. And so the problems our civilization has caused may unwittingly also give us access to the remedy.

The connections we build with each other digitally may at first be superficial, but they can lead to the development of other connections in real life, if we’re wise enough to often get off the computer (I admit to spending far too much time in the digital realm myself, although I do so partly to inject the digital realm with as much positive content as possible. Still, I believe real-life connections are more important).

And the hopeful thing is that that once a person builds these connections, either accidentally or on purpose, we miss them if they go away. The yearning of humanity is to return to a simpler, healthier, more compassionate, more loving, and more community-based way of life. This doesn’t necessitate the destruction of technology, just the use of it in ways which are non-invasive to our connections to ourselves, each other, and all life.

For many of us, we just need the opportunity to figure out that this way of life is what we’re longing for.

Posted in civilization, Healing, Love, Philosophy | 1 Comment

To Love Well, Also Enjoy Life Deeply

I just wrote that loves seeks to create abundant joy. It helps, in creating joy, to know what we’re trying to create. So in a loving life, we must take time to engage in those activities which create joy in our own lives. We are as worthy of joy as everyone else.

I love making music, both with my voice and any instrument that I can manage. I love turning a good meal into something artful. I love having deep conversations with people. I love writing. I love hugs. If I didn’t make time for any of these things in my own life, I would be pretty unhappy, and as a result, I would likely not be all that great at helping joy come into other people’s lives.

The only tricky part here is of self-discernment: figuring out which activities we really deeply enjoy and which just feel good. I enjoy eating donuts, for example. How deeply do I enjoy it? I can’t say for sure. But I can say with a good deal of certainty that eating a donut or six every morning would create far less joy in my life than making sure I write something that I want to write every day. You already know, intuitively, which things in your life give you deep and lasting joy, and which things, ten years from now, you think will be time wasted.

Do the things you really seriously enjoy. It will make you better at loving yourself and others.

Posted in Joy, Love | 4 Comments

What is Joy?

Some people think that love desires to create happiness, whether in ourselves or others.

I believe this is true, but that to understand it we need a more complex explanation of what those words really mean. What is happiness? Is it pleasure of the senses? Good food, good music, good sex, etc., and what makes these things “good” is determined by the pleasure they give us? I doubt it. All of these things can play a role in making us happy, but really, would philosophers have debated for centuries what happiness really is if it were that simple (Maybe. Philosophers do tend to miss the forest for the trees sometimes)?

Let me propose something different. Happiness is a mental feeling. For example, when you have a really exciting day planned, full of doing all the things you love to do, and you wake up in the morning looking forward to it, the very act of imagining the pleasure the day will give you can be enough to make you feel happy.

But why is that? Why does imagining have such power when we tend to think it pales in comparison to the real thing?

My answer: Certainty. If we are worried that tons of things will go wrong in our day, and prevent us from being able to do those things we love to do, it’s because we are uncertain that it will in fact happen the way we want, and so imagining isn’t enough to create the happiness.

I therefore propose that happiness is, in fact, certainty. But of what? Of fulfillment. Every one of us (I imagine) has specific things we would like to be present in our lives, because we feel, at our very core, that those things are somehow right. In other words, we all feel like we have things we need, whether material, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. Happiness, in this view, is certainty that we do in fact have those things: certainty that we have everything we need. Such certainty erases longings, stresses, worries, angers, and what have you.

So what happens if we have more than we need? Or rather, what happens when we feel that not only do we have what need, but that we have what need in an unending abundance? That I call joy. It is happiness above and beyond itself.

Love, I believe, seeks to create as much joy as possible. Thus, for love to succeed, we are required to know (or feel, deeply) not what others desire, but what they need. To love well, we need to attune ourselves to the deep and sincere longings of others, and seek to alleviate those longings.

Posted in Healing, Joy, Love | 5 Comments