"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Love’

Struggling To Be “Fully Alive”: Reports On Coping With Anguish For A World In Collapse

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Oldspeak: “We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions — for good and evil — our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion…This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics. ” -Robert Jensen

“The message i take away from this post is simply this: we are never alone. When we feel like we’re the crazy ones for feeling profound and deep grief, sadness, anger, frustration, that no one else seems to be experiencing, it’s not true. There are others bearing witness, struggling with their anguish.  To be as Joanna Macy says “fully present to what is happening in the world“. Be mindful, be vigilant in your practice of radical acceptance. Recognize that “All differences in this world are of a degree not a kind, because Oneness is the secret of everything.” Being in the present moment is all we can do. Professor Jensen’s original essay is definitely worth a read. “ -OSJ

By Robert Jensen @ Common Dreams:

“I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said many times over the centuries.”

That may have been the most insightful response to my essay asking people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world in collapse.

That simple statement is a reminder that (1) the social and ecological crises we face have been building for a long time and (2) the best of our traditions have, for a long time, offered wisdom useful in facing those crises. The unjust social systems and unsustainable ecological practices of contemporary society started with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans began dominating each other and the planet in evermore destructive fashion, and intensified dramatically over the 250 years of the industrial revolution. (For a historical perspective, see “The delusional revolution”.)

And for nearly that long, some people have resisted the power of elites and tried to protect the land. (For a contemporary example, see “Where agriculture meets empire.”)

So, we struggle in the moment with complex problems that defy simple solutions — problems that may be beyond our capacity to solve in any meaningful way. But describing the basics needed for a better world is not difficult if we draw on that wisdom. Here’s my condensed version:

We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions — for good and evil — our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion.

This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics, and it was at the heart of nearly all the 300 responses to my essay. This notion of respect wasn’t defined as “being nice” or “not being judgmental.” Respect takes work — to understand the other, make judgments, and engage constructively when there are disagreements or conflicting needs.

Along with those calls for love, there was a lot of anger in the responses, much of it directed at elites — the politicians, business executives, and media propagandists who so often not only promote arrogant and greedy behavior over humility and solidarity, but also rationalize and prop up the political/economic/social systems in which the destructive behavior is fostered.

And many wrote that the while the anger we may feel toward elites is justified, we have to start with self-critique and examine our own place in these systems. For example, the anger toward BP officials over the “hole in the world” at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico co-exists with the recognition that we all live somewhere in the system that demands that oil:

“I speak of the oil spill going on and I acknowledge how implicated I am in it. My lifestyle — despite efforts to eat wild foods, look at waste streams as resources, and live frugally — depends heavily on oil. It’s like there are these [oil] stains on my hands, all over my hands, my body and the ground around me.”

In such a world, it is easy for those of us who live in affluent societies to be drained by an awareness of all this:

“My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in world suffering. I think that’s part of my emotional reaction to crisis. I don’t think I am fully alive. I’m not depressed, just weirdly diminished.”

Why would someone feel diminished today? For almost all of the people who responded, the heart of their struggle was in the realization that the human species, locked into industrial societies dependent on high-energy/high-technology systems to produce food and fuel, is on a path leading to the edge of a cliff. No one offered predictions for an end time, but:

“[W]hat I see as the reality of our situation — ecologically, politically, economically, and culturally — is that we are in the last days of our species, and I just don’t know what to do with that. The emotions are much too powerful, the grief, the sense of doom — how does one deal with the real possibility of the extinction of not just millions of species, but of one’s own species?”

Feeling isolated but resolved to act

Where does that reality leave us emotionally? My essay inquired specifically about the feelings that accompany the intellectual understanding that we live in a world in collapse. That question led not only to descriptions of those emotions, but strategies for dealing with them. No single comment could sum up so many different people’s responses, but this one comes close:

“So I feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel amused at the absurdity of it all. I feel depressed. I feel enraged. I feel guilty and I feel trapped. Basically the only reason why I’m still alive is because there are enough amazing people and things in my life to keep me going, to keep me fighting for what matters. I’m not even sure how to fight yet, but I know that I want to.”

One common response was gratitude for having a place to communicate these thoughts without worrying about being ridiculed. Many wrote about how isolated they felt, even from friends and family who don’t want to talk about these matters and either deny there are reasons to be concerned or ignore the evidence:

“I’m a drug addict with over 20 years clean, and I know all about using up my future and farting out lame excuses. I promised myself an honest life to stay clean, and the double-edged sword is that I started seeing just how much our culture swims in denial.”

Pressing these importance questions about systemic failure and collapse leads to resistance from others, who then assert that the real problem is anyone who wants to talk about collapse:

“I have been writing for a year and a half on a lot of things as it pertains to humanity’s lack of awareness and the potential to reconnect before we destroy the earth and each other.  People get angry at me for it and call me ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ and ‘sinful’ telling me to instead move to the ‘light,’ ‘positive’ and ‘love.’  Whatever.”

Some see a general “desensitization to the destruction of our planet [that] is nothing short of heart breaking” and worry about what the loss of the capacity for empathy means:

“It is considered feminine and naive to care about trees or animals. … In addition, it is also considered weak and feminine to empathize or display a proper emotion. We are becoming a nihilistic culture which is creating citizens who are numb to their emotions. This is doing us all a disservice. We are missing out on our bodily wisdom and becoming less and less in tune with our earth.”

Though people have different views on the role of high-technology responses to ecological collapse, everyone who wrote recognized that more gadgets aren’t going to save us:

“I have thought for a long time that the human species, notwithstanding its endless self-flattery, really is not very intelligent. One of the signs of its stupidity is, in fact, the very way that it equates intelligence with technological prowess.”

One of the most compelling comments on advanced technology came from a doctoral student in engineering at a prestigious university:

“I have come to this firm conclusion that any more technological development is purely unnecessary and technological progress is hyper-glorified by the developed countries just as a tool to continue their agenda of robbing the resources of our planet from the third world (and perhaps soon from neighboring astronomical bodies, too). And what is glorified as the rational, intellectual research that folks like me are doing over here is just a means towards facilitating this robbing activity; this implicit imperialism; this invisible killing of our planet earth.”

People also recognize the inadequacy of technological solutions to the end of cheap, plentiful energy. While endorsing more research on alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas, those who wrote to me were wary of claims that alternatives can magically replace the concentrated energy of fossil fuels and allow us to motor on in our affluence:

“[T]he only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI (energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the *energetically* costly conversion process of re-engineering energy production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport. That didn’t happen. And having lived through the period, it would have been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world. But just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to happen now.  This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems.”

In addition to these critiques of life in the affluent world, many wrote of the grotesque disparities in wealth in the world today. As we struggle with fears of the future, billions of people cope with severe limitations in the present:

“[W]e in the U.S. are essentially living behind a military barricade. I heard a quote recently that ‘collapse means having the same lifestyle as the people who grow your coffee.’ I really, really liked that.”

And in many of the critiques of the affluent First World, there was an understanding that the heart of the problem is the United States:

“Americans today are living with a profound and apparently irreconcilable disparity between what we say we are, and what we actually are. Between the promise of democracy and the reality of a crumbling empire. The result of this schism, I believe, is the national equivalent of a disassociated personality. And it’s not just our shared history of betrayal and abuse that has caused it. It’s the myth of freedom as well. In the mythology of freedom, democracy was supposed to empower us all to make a change for the better.”

Although some wrote with certainty about their conclusions, more people expressed confusion and weariness over the effort needed to understand such a complex world:

“I spend a lot of time in my own head going back and forth over theories, philosophies, etc. Pretty much going through a process once a month of discarding everything I thought I knew and re-learning it. While this may be a good thing in the future, it does not feel good now. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am alone and lost and that I can’t find any truth in anything because I have so many different voices telling me what is right and wrong. Yet, I can never stop going back and looking at what’s happening to this real, physical, lovely and loving planet and feel outrage, sorrow, and confusion and why this culture is so insane.”

Even with all this talk of their own struggles, the people who wrote were not asking others to feel sorry for them. Instead, the focus was outward, on how this affects others. That was clear in the comments not only of parents and grandparents, but also of people who chose not to have children — what is the fate of future generations?

“Being the parent of a young child right now is a mixed blessing: He’s my reason for waking up every morning and doing whatever it takes to keep up some semblance of normalcy, but it also frightens and worries me deeply when I think about his future.”

In the face of challenges that feel overwhelming — in the face of problems that may have no solutions — what should we do? Very few of the people who wrote suggested we should give up; most are committed to action:

“I guess the best thing we can do … point out problems, suggest solutions, work for radical system changes and not just reforms that too often are more cosmetic than substantial, and above all: keep the faith … and we need to project to others that we have the faith, or get the hell out of the work and retire or just wait for Armageddon.”

Many responses focused on the need not only to act collectively but also to reduce our consumption individually:

“I read a statement in the book Hard Times by Studs Terkel that I really liked: ‘Security is knowing what I can do without.’ Every day, I find something new that I can do without. My fiancé and I now grow much of the food we eat, we purchase necessities only, we shop at the Goodwill.”

and learn skills that have atrophied all too quickly in an affluent, high-energy culture:

“I’m not an old hippie that wants to return to sex, drugs and rock and roll on the commune. … I believe in hierarchy, rules and skills, but we must start something new, difficult and dangerous. We must also learn to not trust power and create small, subsistence communities. Instead of trying to mend the empire we should be teaching ourselves skills of our rural grandparents.”

Tipping points and panic

But still the question haunts us: What if the unsustainable systems in which we live are beyond the point of no return? There certainly are rational reasons to assume that we are past a tipping point.

For example, the March 2005 report of the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, based on the work of 1,300 researchers from 95 countries who spent four years examining 24 ecosystems worldwide, offered this “stark warning”:

“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. … Nearly two thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline worldwide. In effect, the benefits reaped from our engineering of the planet have been achieved by running down natural capital assets.” http://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.429.aspx.pdf

This kind of knowledge can be so overwhelming that people feel it’s not safe to open up emotionally:

“I would like to mourn but have not been able to let my guard down.  I could understand 9/11, but now I am witnessing the destruction of the planet and I don’t understand the magnitude of what that means. I feel on edge. I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

How to live in that world and remain fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally? This comment sums up the task and a path:

“Recently several of our visionary thinkers have moved from the illusion that ‘we have 10 years to turn this around.’ They now say clearly that ‘we cannot stop this momentum.’ It takes courage and faith to speak so plainly. What can we do in the face of this truth? We can sit face to face and find the ways, often beyond words, to explore the reality that we are all refugees, swimming into a future that looks so different from the present. We can find pockets of community where we can whisper our deepest fears about the world. We can remain committed to describing the present with exceptional truth. We can cultivate a practice that enables us to witness suffering with hearts and minds open and with our faces turned toward one another.”

It would be easy to close on that note, blunt but positive. But for many, that kind of approach is difficult. I sent my essay to a political activist who is one of the most well-informed people I know in matters concerning politics and ecology. His response:

“I guess my emotional reaction is actually to suppress the emotional reaction. … [P]anic, which would probably be the emotional reaction, is something to be deferred until the situation is relatively safe. So I try to think about what is to be done and can be done, and promise myself that if we do get past these crises, I will enjoy the moment to panic about how dangerous a situation we were in.”

My response:

“I understand what you say, but it seems to me that an appreciation of the nature of the crises is necessary for sensible strategy, and I don’t know how to engage that intellectually without having emotional reactions. … My fear is that if we don’t discuss it, those of us struggling with these emotions will fade away from collective action. So, instead of this kind of discussion necessarily leading to political paralysis, I think it can prevent paralysis in some people.”

My friend didn’t contest my analysis: “I don’t advocate for my emotional response, but it is what it is.”

Though he didn’t argue with me, I didn’t feel as if I had won an argument. Emotions are what they are, and we don’t “win” by telling people what they should feel. It’s enough of a struggle to understand what I feel and why I feel it; I don’t think I’m qualified to dictate to others what they should feel. In dealing with multiple crises on all fronts — economic, political, cultural, and ecological failures that pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it — it’s folly for any one of us to imagine we figured out the right approach, or that there is a single right approach, or that there is any right approach at all.

The only thing I’m sure of is that, to quote singer/songwriter John Gorka, “the old future’s gone.” The future of endless bounty for all, which some once imagined would be the product of the application of human reason to problems of the world, is not the future we face. How can we open a conversation about what’s coming when so much is unknown and so many resist? Rather than pontificate, I will end with the reflections of an elder:

“I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I’ve lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn’t grow in quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won’t understand why. They don’t see the trouble in the land as I and my friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as they have been. Who will tell them? They can’t hear me. They, and many others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can’t imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world, and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the ‘collective’ is still in denial. Thank you for listening.”


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity;  The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.  An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is available here.

He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online here.

Mad Hominem: Why Hatred Of The Human Species Is Not Helpful

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2014 at 12:52 am

Oldspeak: “What then is the appropriate response to our abuse and neglect of the earth community? I believe that it should be one of remorse and accountability, but also of grieving our behavior and making restitution to the best of our ability in present time. When we do this, we end the wall of separation between ourselves and all other beings. And here’s the gut-wrenching part: We are deeply humbled and perhaps ashamed that on some level, we are as guilty as the rhino poacher or the seal-murderer….If our days on earth are as drastically numbered as they appear to be, if we have entered a hospice condition, then how do we wish to live? What does it do to us to despise other humans? What does it do to us to open our hearts to them?…. When we vilify other humans, we obviously separate ourselves from them, and we, among other things, perpetuate the Cartesian dualism of “myself and the other.” In so doing, we increase the likelihood of becoming violent dominators. We never have to like poachers and polluters, we may never break bread with a Monsanto chemist or hold hands and dance around the world with Jamie Dimon, but hospice is not the time for hating other humans. Hospice is a time for recognizing the tragedy of the human condition and the horrors of human behavior, as well as committing to the most serious and thorough review of our own lives as humanly possible. Hospice is a time for compassion—for ourselves and all beings on earth. Collective salvation may never come, but if any salvation is to come, it will only come, as Charles Eisenstein says, “…when we face up to the ugliness of our own past and feel the mirror image of the pain of every slave lashed, every many lynched, every child humiliated. One way or another, we must weep for all of this.” And yes, we must weep for the more-than-human world victimized by our madness.” -Carolyn Baker

“We live in a contrived reality that is built on and fueled by separation. Separation from the ecology, other humans… We’re encouraged to view the world through a prism of dualism and focus on the faults of the “other”. We’re taught to make ourselves feel good or bad based on our relentless comparisons with others. Our ego-based contrived “reality” enables a whole spectrum of madness we inflict on ourselves and by extension the ecology. This madness is destroying us and all life. We must accept this actual reality and choose replace our hatred, violence, competition, greed and selfishness with unconditional love, compassion and free giving. We must allow ourselves to feel the completely valid and authentic feelings of depression, of sadness, of remorse, of our part in the destruction of our ecology. it’s time to accept that we are one with all things, the “good”, the “bad” and the “ugly”, realize that those words are just that, words, and are wholly based on our perception and subjective experience. Recognize “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” Continued focus on separation, will only serve to speed up our death march to extinction. Take the time you have left in this realm to be more human. To be humbly and fearlessly with your present experience. To expand your awareness of the wondrous beauty, divinity and love that surrounds and is within. Realize that the universe is looking at itself through you.  You’ll be happy you did. ” -OSJ

By Carolyn Baker @ Speaking Truth To Power:

Eventually we will abandon our bunker mentality and understand that the only security comes through giving, opening, and being at the center of a flux of relationships, not taking more and more for self; security comes not from independence but from interdependence.

~Charles Eisenstein, Ascent of Humanity~

In the first episode of my current five-part webinar, my guest Andrew Harvey and I were emphasizing the importance of adopting an attitude of service and giving in this era of collapse and possible near-term extinction when at one point I received a question from a student which asked something like, “You mean, love humans? The scum that is destroying the planet?” (My paraphrase) At the time I gave a short response to the question, but it set me thinking about the necessity of a longer and more detailed response, and for that, I am profoundly grateful to the student. This article is my attempt to articulate why an attitude of service and giving in relation to humans is as urgent as serving and supporting other species and why contempt for humanity is not helpful, but perhaps even ironically, anthropocentric.

Ah yes, that dreaded word anthropocentric which is essentially an assumption that the human species is the center of the universe and holds more significance than other species or living beings in the cosmos. Once we fully understand what humans have done to this planet, once we grasp the ghastly, breath-taking, mind-boggling pillage, plunder, and ecocide that homo sapiens have perpetrated on the earth, we are hard-pressed not to despise them. I know this one well. I admit it. I’m extremely selective in the company I keep with humans, but I have many fewer barriers in the company of animals. When I can afford to make financial contributions, I am far more likely to give to organizations that protect or rescue animals than I am to give to causes that benefit humans.

Self-Flagellation Profiteth Nothing

Yet I have come to understand that while I honor my comfort with and magnanimity toward other species, it is important that I do not revile humans. In the first place, to vilify other humans is to vilify myself. When I do this, I am doing something that probably no other species is capable of doing. A hyena may be angry with another hyena for being territorial or stealing its food, but it is not likely to hate another hyena for being a hyena or even for being un-hyena-like. As friendly as a lion may become with a lamb, each knows instinctually what it is and that it will never be another species. When I despise other humans, and therefore myself, I unintentionally remove myself from the circle of terrestrial beings and unconsciously deem myself unworthy of walking and breathing on the earth. Rather than cultivating appropriate humility in the presence of other living beings with whom I share the planet, I declare myself not an equal, but less than other species. Vilifying myself and quasi-deifying another species serves neither the other being nor myself. In fact, it demeans my own animal nature, and regardless of how much I sing the praises of the animal kingdom, to deem myself less than the animal is to deny my kinship with it.

Moreover, when any human recognizes his or her part in harming another being, human or otherwise, they have two options. One may choose to vilify oneself or one may choose to take conscious, intentional responsibility for one’s error. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is also where things get really uncomfortable. Taking responsibility for our transgressions against the earth community means that first, we acknowledge that we are part of a species that is murdering the planet. Perhaps we are not at the moment poaching rhinos or bashing out the brains of seals on behalf of the fur industry, but no matter how pristine our lifestyle may be at the moment, we have in the past polluted, littered, contributed to overpopulation by bringing children into the world, consumed far too much energy, wasted too much food, and not have come close to replacing what we have taken from Gaia.

What then is the appropriate response to our abuse and neglect of the earth community? I believe that it should be one of remorse and accountability, but also of grieving our behavior and making restitution to the best of our ability in present time. When we do this, we end the wall of separation between ourselves and all other beings. And here’s the gut-wrenching part: We are deeply humbled and perhaps ashamed that on some level, we are as guilty as the rhino poacher or the seal-murderer.

In fact, if we are impeccably honest with ourselves, we will be forced to acknowledge that there is a Dick Cheney and a pair of Koch brothers within us. This is called the human shadow, and it’s the curse/blessing of being human. The shadow is the part of us that we say is “not me.” The human ego says, “Oh I would never be a trophy hunter or work for the fracking industry.” Yet the unconscious mind knows otherwise. It knows that despite the cacophony of our arguments to the contrary, any one of us could be the poacher, the fracker, the drone operator, or the NSA snoop. When we are forced to face this reality, we are also humbled by the territory of the human condition in which we abide. As long as we project the image of “human scum” on our fellow homo sapiens, we get to feel better about ourselves because we don’t have to confront the shadow.  A moment ago I said that the shadow is a curse/blessing. The curse is very clear, but what is the blessing?

For me, the blessing is that when I confront the shadow, I am humbled into both grief and gratitude. I mourn deeply for my transgressions against the earth community, and I also grieve for the omnicidal acts of other humans (and my own in the past) which, if I am honest with myself, is the emotion that I am warding off when I vilify them. What is more, when I can own my part in the omnicide, I have the capacity to arrive at more gratitude for the earth community than my hatred of other humans could have ever wrought. I committed my transgressions against the earth community out of ignorance and misdirection by my culture and family and was never taught how precious, how exquisite, how breath-taking, how unequivocally amazing Gaia is. When I confront my shadow and mourn for the ways I have harmed the earth community (which is an act of self-forgiveness), I can savor it more incisively and more passionately, and this is what I want to experience more than anything as extinction intensifies.

This is not about letting oneself off the hook for anything. As Charles Eisenstein writes, “Does this mean that I can excuse myself from all the hurt I’ve caused in my life thinking, ‘Well, my wound drove me to it, and I needed to do that to recover’? No. The healing comes only through the realization ‘My God, what have I done?’ It is the remorse that is healing.”

How Do You Want To Live During Your Stay In Hospice?

If our days on earth are as drastically numbered as they appear to be, if we have entered a hospice condition, then how do we wish to live? What does it do to us to despise other humans? What does it do to us to open our hearts to them?

When we vilify other humans, we obviously separate ourselves from them, and we, among other things, perpetuate the Cartesian dualism of “myself and the other.” In so doing, we increase the likelihood of becoming violent dominators. We never have to like poachers and polluters, we may never break bread with a Monsanto chemist or hold hands and dance around the world with Jamie Dimon, but hospice is not the time for hating other humans. Hospice is a time for recognizing the tragedy of the human condition and the horrors of human behavior, as well as committing to the most serious and thorough review of our own lives as humanly possible. Hospice is a time for compassion—for ourselves and all beings on earth. Collective salvation may never come, but if any salvation is to come, it will only come, as Charles Eisenstein says, “…when we face up to the ugliness of our own past and feel the mirror image of the pain of every slave lashed, every many lynched, every child humiliated. One way or another, we must weep for all of this.” And yes, we must weep for the more-than-human world victimized by our madness.

In fact, unless we weep repeatedly, we can never know kindness toward anything as Naomi Shihab Nye proclaims in her classic, poignant poem, “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

In some sense it is much easier to be kind to other species because they are the innocent ones. They have not left the planet in shambles. It is much more challenging to be kind to humans—the perpetrators, the plunderers we may despise but which some part of us has the capacity to become.

The human species is far more connected than it is divided. I speak not in platitudes but rather in terms of the hard science of quantum physics, and I heartily recommend Paul Levy’s recent article “Quantum Physics: The Physics Of Dreaming, Part 1.” John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and colleague of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr stated that, “Nothing is more important about quantum physics than this: it has destroyed the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there’.” In fact, there is no “you” and “me.” Yes, you have a body separate from mine, and you live in another place on the planet, but we are interdependently connected.

Hospice can be nothing more than a waiting area on the way to extinction, or it can provide a deeper level of connection with all living beings than we have ever experienced, but in order for that to happen, our focus must be service and contribution. The question of the day and every day should be: How can I serve? What can I offer all other species and my own that will make their transition easier? Where can I offer kindness and compassion? This perspective requires an open heart, and while opening the heart always risks being rejected or misperceived, it also guarantees that at some point, one’s own heart will be met by another, and just one moment of profound connection with another heart, whether human or animal, could make life worth living and death worth dying.

So as my student asked: Are we to love and care for humans who have destroyed the planet? I answer with an unequivocal yes. If we accomplish nothing else in hospice, may it be that we fall back in love with the earth community, and yes, that earth community includes humans. “Our relationships—with other people and all life,” writes Eisenstein, “define who we are, and by impoverishing these relationships, we diminish ourselves. We are our relationships.”



Do Men Love Differently Than Women?

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Oldspeak:“It’s becoming more and more apparent that most of our behavior is evolutionarily and biologically driven, in spite of all our modern culture and technology. Fascinating!”

From Stephen Stosney @ Psychotherapy Networker:

Most of the couples I work with are referred by clinicians who find the man to be “too resistant” for therapy to continue. Typically, when the guys come in, they’re either defensively resentful, angry, or just emotionally shut down. Often they start right off by proclaiming that they’re frustrated as hell with therapy. As we talk, it becomes clear that, initially, they practiced the communication techniques they were taught and took to heart the insights they learned about relationships and family of origin. Yet, for reasons they can’t explain, they couldn’t bring themselves to make the long-term effort to use their new skills or apply their consulting-room insights on a routine basis at home. Of course, this failure to follow through makes their wives even more disappointed in them: “It was one thing when I thought he couldn’t do it; now I know he just won’t!” noted one angry spouse.

But beyond the frustration and resentment of the men I see is their utter bewilderment. Despite their time in therapy, they still don’t have a clue about what their wives and therapists want from them. Partly this has to do with having different expectations from their partners—men just don’t buy relationship-improvement books or read women’s magazines or watch Oprah. They find words like, connection, attunement, and validation mystifying, used less to enlighten than to point out their deficiencies.

Most of my male clients feel that their previous therapy experience was about forcing them to fit a template of what the Therapy World believes love and relationships should look like. While the therapeutic language of “intimacy” is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women. Nevertheless, when men don’t buy into our relationship template, we often wind up labeling them as resistant, manipulative, narcissistic, or, maybe worst of all, “patriarchal.” The message these “failed” clients get is that the way they express their love just isn’t good enough.

The reason men can talk about feelings and relationship patterns in consultation rooms, but are unlikely to keep doing it at home is simple: emotional talk tends to produce more physiological arousal in men—they experience it more stressfully. Unlike women, they don’t get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, secure, and confident when talking about emotions and the complexities of relationships; testosterone, which men produce more of during stress, seems to reduce the effect of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances it. It takes more work with less reward for men to shift into and maintain the active-listening and self-revealing emotional talk they learn in therapy, so they’re unlikely to do it on a routine basis.

Some readers may be squirming right now at the very suggestion that there may be gender differences in the way people love. So let me emphasize that gender differences can never account for all of the nuances and complexities of individual behavior or render irrelevant the impact of personality variables, such as introversion, sociability, and neuroticism. It’s important to remember that research findings are always about group averages and thus provide room for lots of individual exceptions.

My colleague Pat Love and I begin our presentations standing side-by-side while making the empirically valid statement that men are generally taller than women. (Pat is 5 ft. 11 in. or so, while I’m just over 5 ft. 6 in.) If you randomly select 25 men and women, the average height of the men will likely exceed the average height of the women, yet probably there’ll be tall women and short men in the sample as well. There most assuredly are men who love to talk about feelings and women who hate it. For some couples, no doubt, emotional conversation is like a good, mutually enjoyable backrub—both parties love it equally. However, those couples are unlikely to seek therapy.

Broadly speaking, the men who do come into therapy want to feel understood and appreciated as much as their wives, but therapy typically involves asking partners to go beyond generalized expressions of appreciation to acknowledge that each partner’s point of view is reasonable or understandable in certain circumstances. The focus of most of today’s couples therapies is “validation”—conveying an understanding that you experience your partner’s mental and emotional states and that you value their experience. But the fact is that men often don’t want their thoughts and deeper feelings experienced or valued by their partners, even if their therapists think they should want these things. Unless we develop a better understanding of the real, intrinsic rewards men can experience as a result of being in therapy, they’ll just go through the motions or pursue their hidden agendas, like “Learning what I have to say to get laid.”

For men to engage in the hard work of change, the rewards have to be automatic and visceral, independent of the artificial environment of the therapist’s office and vague therapeutic concepts. They have to feel compelling reasons to change and, most important, to incorporate new behavior into their daily routine. I believe that the primary motivation keeping men invested in loving relationships is different from what keeps women invested, that it has a strong biological underpinning present in all social animals, and that it’s been culturally reinforced throughout the development of the human species.

The glue that keeps men (and males in social animal groups) bonded is the instinct to protect. If you listen long enough to men talking about what it means to love, you’ll notice that loving is inextricably linked, for many men, to some form of protection. If men can’t feel successful at protecting, they can’t fully love.

Protection and Connection

The main role of males in social groups throughout the animal world is to protect the group from outside threats. For the most part, males participate in packs and herds only if the group has predators or strong competition for food. Herds and packs without predators or competitors, like elephants and hippos, are matriarchal, with males either absent or playing peripheral or merely sperm-donor roles.

Male physiology is well-evolved for group protection, with greater muscle mass, more efficient blood flow to the muscles and organs, bigger fangs and claws, quicker reflexes, longer strides, more electrical activity in the central nervous system (to stimulate organs and muscle groups), and a thicker amygdala—the organ that activates the flight or fight response. That’s right, the first emergency response in male social animals is flight, with the option to fight coming into play only when flight isn’t possible. The principal protective role of males in social groups is to lead the pack to safety. (The primacy of flight over fight may be why the initial response of most men to conflict with their wives is to withdraw or shut down.) Significantly, males who are deficient in protecting—the ones poorer at escaping or, if necessary, fighting—have little access to the females of the species.

In species in which the females are the primary hunters, like African lions, males protect the pride from competition for food from other lions and hyenas. This sets them apart from lions in other parts of the world because they’re socially integrated with the pride. Some zoologists believe that this is because the smaller females, while excellent hunters, couldn’t protect their kills from hyena packs.

When most animal packs are under attack and can’t flee, the males form a defensive perimeter, while the females for the most part gather the young and hide them within an inner circle of protection. This scenario plays out in a great many human households, when the woman, who generally has keener hearing, detects a middle-of-the-night sound somewhere in the house. The man typically goes down to investigate, perhaps carrying a baseball bat, while she checks on the children.

Even when male animals are dominant in packs and herds, the glue of the social structure is maintained by females, who attend to one another in ways that are analogous to “validation”— sniffing, licking, and grooming other female members of the pride. This behavior calms and gratifies all the females involved, much the same way that a good emotional talk with girlfriends seems to calm and gratify women. If one of the females is missing from the pack, the others seem to worry. When she returns, the other females greet her with sniffing, licking, and grooming. The males remain connected to the group by virtue of proximity to the females, but don’t interact with them much. In contrast, it appears that frequent interaction among the females—along with fear of isolation—keeps them connected.

Anthropologists agree that humans were communal from our earliest time on earth, moving into pair-bonding relatively late in our history. There’s no reason to suspect that early human social structures were greatly different from those of other primates, where the larger, stronger males protected the tribe and the more social females “validated” each other. Both specialized activities—protection and validation—increased survival rates by enhancing group cohesion and cooperation.

Through much of history, the idea that men and women should consistently engage in intimate conversation and validate each other’s emotional worlds would have been laughable. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, previous generations widely assumed that men and women had different natures and couldn’t truly understand each other. The idea of intergender emotional talk independent of the need to protect didn’t emerge until the dissolution of the extended family, which began in the middle of the 20th century. Previous to that, the nuclear family—an intimate couple and children living as an isolated unit—was a rarity. Other family members were in the same house, next door, or across the street. Women got their emotional validation from other women, although they certainly wanted admiration from their men and vice versa. Today, research shows that the healthiest, happiest women have a strong network of girlfriends. In earlier times, men tended to associate mostly with other men—a cultural construct that’s still prevalent in many parts of the world, frequently reinforced by religious beliefs.

Male Protection and Self-Value

The survival importance of the instinct to protect makes it a potent factor in men’s self-value. Men with families automatically suffer low self-value when they fail to protect loved ones, no matter how successful they might be in other areas of life. Just imagine the emotional fate of a world-class CEO who distractedly lets go of his child’s hand, and sees the child run over in traffic. In contrast, a man’s self-value will likely remain intact, even if he fails at work, as long as he feels he can protect his loved ones. As a boy, I remember the manager of our Little League baseball team, a man in his mid-forties, who was beloved by his two sons and idolized by the rest of the kids, even though our parents considered him a flunkie for working as a grocery store bagger. Getting fired from a job is more tolerable for men who are more invested in the protection of their families than in their egos. They tend to search immediately for another job as a means of putting food on the table, while those who view failure at work primarily as an ego assault may face weeks of self-reproach and depression before they get up the energy to job-hunt. Under stress at work, women tend to want closer family connections, while men under stress are likely to withdraw if not isolate from their families to keep from feeling overwhelmed by their failure to protect. Men who abandon their families don’t respond to them as individuals with needs as much as symbols of their failure to protect.

Failure to protect drains meaning and purpose from the lives of family men. As a result, they often turn to some form of adrenaline arousal for motivation or stimulation—chronic resentment, anger, drugs, affairs, or compulsive behavior. When those prove insufficient, they succumb to a dispirited numbness or depression. I’ve never seen a depressed, resentful, angry, abusive, addicted, unfaithful, or compulsive man who didn’t see himself as a failure at protecting his family.

Violence and Failure to Protect

Male social mammals who succumb to fear and fail to protect the pack are either killed or driven away by its dominant males. Those who survive banishment often become rogue predators on the pack, raping females and killing juveniles who stray too far from the group. Among humans, violent criminals usually lack what sociologists term a stake in the community: marriage, paternal investment in children, a job, and positive neighborhood connections. Serial killers and terrorists almost never have intimate relationships or a close connection to their children. Historically, invading armies wanted soldiers before they married or had children; when they did have spouse and children, they were kept isolated from them. By contrast, defensive armies conscripted married men because they’d be willing to die to protect their families from invading hordes.

The increase in family violence since the 1960s parallels the diminishment of fatherhood in America. Fatherless homes have grown 400 percent by some estimates, greatly increasing the risk to women and children. A woman and her children are much more likely to be abused by a boyfriend who isn’t the father of the children and to suffer serious violence and death at the hands of a rejected father, compared to a woman and children who live with the children’s father. Men marginalized as protectors of their families are likelier to struggle for power and control over their wives or girlfriends. They compensate for loss of the capacity to protect with dominance and/or violence.

My early experience with court-ordered domestic-violence offenders taught me that when fathers are more involved in the lives of their children, they’re less likely to hurt women. Before developing our intervention for domestic violence, we studied a group of young men (with a mean age of 22), all of whom had at least two children from previous relationships and who were court-ordered for abuse of their current partners. (At that time, there was only one agency in the area offering batterer intervention, and it had a long waiting list.) As is too often the case with young violent men, none of our guys had a relationship with his children.

We gave them a course called Compassionate Parenting, which raised their awareness of the emotional worlds of their children, particularly their need for fathers who care about them and are willing to look out for them. These young men got more involved in the lives of their kids and, without any direct intervention for domestic violence, reduced recidivism of partner abuse to about 28 percent. The normal recidivism rate for unmarried men of this age group was more than 60 percent, after domestic-violence intervention.

Fur and Bone

In modern culture, male protection is defined almost entirely in financial terms. Protector is practically synonymous with provider, and a man’s worth is measured by how much fur and bone he can bring home to the cave. But the world has changed profoundly. Now few women have a choice between work and full-time motherhood, and more often than not, men aren’t the chief source of financial support in their families. The psychological toll on men conditioned by nature and society to equate being the provider and protector with personal value can be devastating. The predominant cultural message continues to cast men as the dollar signs of families, only now it upholds a standard of breadwinning that fewer men than ever can achieve.

The harm of making the dollar the measure of the man is twofold. First, it undervalues the emotional support that men can—and many do—give their families. In fact, our therapeutic message to men can appear to be paradoxical because we ask them to give more emotional support to their partners at the same time that the culture undervalues it. Second, overvaluing financial support creates a sense of entitlement in many successful providers. They think all they have to do is make more money to earn the “services”—emotional, sexual, homemaking—of their wives. The fact that wives and therapists expect more from them than being a successful breadwinner seems inherently unfair.

Male Protection in Therapy

As a practical matter, it’s useful in therapy to educate couples about the role of protectiveness in the male psyche as a way of normalizing the difficulties they have in forming a more perfect union. Couples typically find it particularly interesting that males remain connected to social animal groups by proximity to the females, even though they don’t interact much, while the females enhance group cohesion by frequently interacting with one another. If the couple has had a boy and girl toddler, they can see this difference in social orientation for themselves early on. Assuming that the children are both securely attached, the boy will tend to play in proximity to the caregiver, always checking to see that he or she is there, but seeking far fewer direct interactions—talking, asking questions, making eye contact, touching, hugging—than the girl. As long as he knows his caregiver is present, his primary interaction is with the environment.

Similarly, a man can feel close to his wife if he’s in one room—on the computer, in front of the TV, or going about his routine—and she’s in another. He’ll likely protest, sulk, or sink into loneliness if she goes out, which she may well do since he isn’t talking to her anyway. To her, and to uninformed therapists, it seems that he wants her home so he can ignore her. But he isn’t ignoring her; her presence gives stability to his routine.

This little example of why proximity to his wife is crucial to him works wonders in opening a man’s eyes to that fact that his wife gives meaning and purpose to his life. In fact, we tend to think about meaning or purpose only when we’re losing it, which is why men tend to fall in love with their wives as they’re walking out the door, with their bags packed. Evidence for the drastic loss of meaning and purpose that men suffer when they lose their wives is seen in the effects of divorce and widowerhood on men: poorer job performance, impaired problem-solving, lowered creativity, high distractibility, “heavy foot” on the gas while driving, anxiety, worry, depression, resentment, anger, aggression, alcoholism, poor nutrition, isolation, shortened lifespan, and suicide. The divorced or widowed man isn’t merely lonely—he’s alone with the crushing shame of his failure to protect his family.

I’m able to use education about the effects of divorce on men clinically, because most guys know someone at work who’s lost his family and become a shadow of his former self. As a quick way of accessing men’s fundamental sense of the meaning and purpose of their lives, I ask each man to write down what he thinks is the most important thing about him as a person. “How do you want those you love to remember you,” I ask. “Near the end of your life, what will you most regret not doing enough of?”

Because meaning and purpose are elusive psychological concepts—a way of describing why we do something rather than what we do—men will rarely hit the mark at first. They say they want to be remembered as a “good provider,” “hard worker,” “loyal man,” choosing mostly protective terms. I then ask them to imagine that they have grown children and how they’d most like their children to feel about them when they’re gone. “Dad was a good provider, hard worker, loyal, etc. I’m not sure he cared about us, but he was a good provider, worked, and was loyal” or “Dad was human; he made mistakes. But I always knew that he cared about us and wanted what was best for us.” On a deep level, all the men I’ve worked with have wanted to be remembered with some version of the second statement—as both protective and compassionate. Helping men learn to express care and compassion directly to the people they love is the key to bridging the divide between their protective instinct and their reluctance to show their emotions.

To Love Big, Think Small

Most of my work with couples centers on helping men come up with ways to approach expressions of emotional support and compassion as a form of protection. We start with enhancing a man’s daily awareness of how his desire to protect his family gives meaning and purpose to his life. He signs an agreement in therapy to remind himself every day that the primary reason he does most of what he does is to protect his family.

My experience in working with men has taught me not to be misled by the interest they might show in therapeutic topics during sessions. They’re often curious about patterns of behavior and communication, as well as family-of-origin issues. They’re also capable of impressive catharsis during sessions. Typically, however, their curiosity and catharsis won’t translate into sustainable behavior change, as 20-plus years of doing regular follow-ups with couples indicate. For all its repetitive tedium, behavior rehearsal is more effective with men in the long run than insight and catharsis.

That’s probably because men are creatures of habit, who generally don’t like surprises or departures from routine. They tend to be less tolerant of interruptions in their relatively rigid daily regimens—eating the same thing for breakfast every day, brushing their teeth at the same time and in the same direction, putting their keys in the same place at the same interval after they arrive home. Because routine is paramount for most men, behavior change based on insight and catharsis eventually sinks beneath the grind of daily habits. But if their routine incorporates small behaviors that enhance their relationships (by increasing their sense of protectiveness), change is likelier to endure.

Early in therapy, I ask men to come up with some brief, symbolic rituals that will build an awareness of the meaning and purpose of their role as protector into their daily routine. A few of my favorites include lighting a morning candle, posting “I love you” notes, putting a flower petal on his wife’s breakfast plate, sending affectionate text messages, and writing one line of their favorite song every day. To increase the chances of compliance, the rule for the small rituals is that they’re spread throughout the day and take less than two minutes total to enact. The goal is to build a mentality of caring over time.

Although men in treatment almost invariably buy into compassion as a deeper form of protection, there’s one aspect of this important bonding emotion that’s hard for both men and women to grasp: true compassion is giving what the other person needs, not necessarily what you want to give. The kind of protection men want to give often comes off more like control than the help and support their partners desire. It’s easy for any of us to confuse control with support when we feel protective of loved ones. If you doubt that, just ask your children. What seems controlling to them, you feel you do out of concern and protectiveness. I use several techniques with couples to convert control into support.

First I explain that control is: implying that she isn’t smart or creative enough to decide things on her own, or that her perspectives and opinions aren’t valid, relevant, or important. It’s telling her what to do and then criticizing or withdrawing affection if she doesn’t do it. By contrast, protective support is: respecting her competence, intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness. It’s giving her encouragement to find the best course of action and then standing by her if what she decides to do doesn’t work. The therapeutic practice I use is role-playing advocacy—he’s her lawyer presenting her case (i.e., perspective) in a disagreement. This forces him to focus on the strengths of her position, rather than trying to undermine it. We practice this until the ability to see both perspectives simultaneously becomes automatic to him. The nice thing about this exercise is its built-in reciprocity effect; women tend to begin see both perspectives simultaneously, too, when their husbands start doing it.

A major challenge to lasting change in marriage lies in the fact that couples’ day-to-day interactions operate largely on automatic pilot. Emotional response is triggered predominantly by unconscious cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and level of mental distractedness. Negativity in any of these inadvertently sets off the automatic defense system that’s developed between the parties. Once triggered, the unaware couple can easily spiral into dysfunctional patterns of relating. They tend to get lost in the details of whatever they’re blaming on each other, with no realization of what’s actually happened to them—namely, an inadvertent triggering of the automatic defense system.

To offset the escalating effects of the automatic defense system, I try to get men to use their negative emotions as cues to protect. If he feels guilty, ashamed, resentful, or angry, she’s most likely feeling anxious or afraid, even if those vulnerable emotions are hidden beneath harsh resentment or anger. I ask the guy to remember times when he first felt negative emotions in any given interaction with his wife. He recalls the feeling and briefly “physicalizes” it, noting what it feels like in his neck, jaw, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and hands. He associates these physical sensations with a moment’s mindfulness of the things he most values about himself as a person, which is to be protective and compassionate to his family. He then shifts focus to the anxiety or fear underlying his wife’s resentment/ anger. He makes some gesture of reassurance—a demonstration of protectiveness to ease her anxiety—usually making eye contact, touching her hand, rubbing her shoulder, or just asking if he can help. The gesture has to convey that he cares about how she feels and that he very much wishes her well. This level of compassion has to be established before they address the content of their dispute. Once emotional reactivity is regulated by compassion, any dispute becomes easier to resolve. We practice the exercise in treatment until it seems automatic to the couple.

This is sounding much more mundane and plodding than it is in execution. It’s actually exhilarating to help a man use his protective instinct to strengthen his vulnerability. It’s exciting to watch him move from perceiving his wife’s requests (and complaints) as indictments of his ability to protect to experiencing them as cues to activate his desire to protect. He can then see, hear, and support—that is, protect—the most important adult in his life. When he’s able to do that, she feels validated. They both feel “connected,” for want of a better term, even though they’re in different emotional states and doing different things for different rewards. Rather than forcing themselves to act like the same instruments playing the same notes in a duet, couples who begin to interact in this way become like two different instruments playing different notes to create something together that neither can do individually—relational harmony.