Wasting Time

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I’d like to comment on one of the responses to my piece about the breakdown followed by the powerful emergence at the retreat in Bali. The commenter said:

"I haven't read the full story but my thought is this. Why are they wasting time moaning about the cutting down of the forests, and use that 4 days reflective time to stop it fucking happening? And use the money that they have spent getting there to buy some of it?
"I quote this, because it is a question I ask myself every time I lead a retreat, or even speak at a two-hour evening event. It is also a question many of the participants are wrestling with. They are not, by and large, New Age spirituality addicts seeking an easy escape from engaging with the problems of the world. Quite the contrary: many of them are seasoned activists in environmental and social justice issues, sometimes (like the rainforest ecologist) with decades of experience. They come to this inquiry for much the same reason I do: dissatisfied with the methods and the failures of their movement, they sense a far greater potency is possible.With few exceptions, anyone who has grown up in the dominant civilization is deeply programmed with the same story of self, theory of change, and habits of perception that are also responsible for ecocide and social injustice. That is why simply trying harder, putting more effort into doing what we have been doing, is unlikely to produce different results. After doing that for a while, we burn out. That is when the deeper inquiry begins; that is when invisible programming comes visible and is available to be changed.

At risk of being presumptuous, I hazard to guess that the comment above comes from a place of frustration and helplessness with which I am much familiar. We want to do something about the unfolding horror, but what? The jaded activist has an easy rebuttal to any suggested course of action.

Sign a petition? A submissive act that reinforces and validates existing power relationships; a useless exercise in self-righteousness that picks a single fashionable issue from among a million, which, even when the petition succeeds, leaves the system unchanged while lulling us into thinking we’re actually “doing” something.

Donate to an NGO? What, and contribute to the infamous NGO-industrial complex that depends for its very survival on the continuation of the problems it supposedly seeks to solve? And which has grown too cozy with its ostensible opponents in the corporate and political sector?

Join a protest march? Do you mean the permitted kind, which feeds the mainstream media discourse about how wonderful our society is for allowing free speech? Or the spontaneous kind, which is usually crushed before it even begins?

Engage in direct action and civil disobedience? Sure, now you’re going to feed the narrative of a few disgruntled extremists – then go to jail and congratulate yourself on being a martyr for the cause (if only anyone were paying attention.)

Start an organization? Yet another one, you mean, competing for funding, members, and mailing lists with a hundred thousand other organizations?

Buy up threatened rainforests? If only it would be more than a drop in the bucket. If only the government there would allow foreigners to own land. If only illegal loggers cared who owns it. If only something as flimsy as property rights couldn’t be swept away by eminent domain should the government, at the behest of “investors,” decide to develop its “natural resources.”

OK, enough of that. My point in quoting the jaded, burnt-out activist is not to disparage any of the above tactics, all of which, I believe, have their utility. My point is that there are usually no easy answers. Accordingly, it is hard to know whether “doing something about it” is actually doing something about it, or if it merely satisfies an emotional need to believe that one is doing something about it.

Sometimes, whether in our personal lives or in our work as change agents, we come to a point of “I don’t know what to do.” At such a time, to continue going through the motions of previous doing is usually counterproductive. Why? Because the “I don’t know” comes from a realization that whatever I’ve been doing isn’t working, or isn’t working well enough. That is the moment to sit back and ask why.

Part of the process of uncovering why is a phase of hopelessness and despair. It seems that the world will never change, that the powers-that-be are just too powerful, that our efforts will never be enough. After all, look how hard we tried. We gave everything, and still it wasn’t enough. So we fall into helplessness, victimhood, and blame. Maybe it is those other people, those myopic self-interested greedy idiots who just don’t care.

But then, the conscientious person begins to wonder, Is my blame and victim story obscuring something in myself I have been unwilling to see? How have I been sabotaging and limiting myself? What beliefs about change are a product of my indoctrination in this culture and not the truth? How have I been perpetrating by my actions the same things I seek to overthrow? Why is my organization a microcosm of the same dysfunctional system that rules the planet? How is the world mirroring back at me my own inner ecocide and inner oppression? What can change in me, that would allow me to be as effective as those inspiring individuals I so admire?

It is questions like these that launch people on a journey of inner and interpersonal development. (They are not abandoning the cause or indulging in New Age narcissism.) That journey can be scary, for most of us harbor an inner cynic who, echoing the words of my commenter, demand that we do something about it – now! Don’t waste time in moaning or self-reflection. There is no time to waste! Do you know how many trees were cut down while you were reading this essay? Perhaps you recognize that inner monologue, as well as the hortative tactics it mirrors, as an example of a failed approach to change-making, as a subtle echo of the domineering relationship to the Other that has brought society and the planet near to ruin.

I hope, my dear reader, that it is clear that I am not saying, “Don’t take action.” If I am saying anything beyond “I don’t know what to do,” it is to warn against reflexively acting from an urgent need to seem to be doing something. And also, to invite us all to trust the impulse to look inward, to do work on oneself, to accept that by healing the inner dimension of oppression and ecocide, we can become more effective at healing the outer as well. And perhaps sometimes, yes, to moan about the destruction, to let in the grief and the anguish, and especially to be witnessed in it in community.

All of this, surely, can proceed alongside continuing action, but often we require an empty space, a retreat, a time of non-doing in order to deprogram ourselves from old habits. We can trust ourselves to know when that moment has come in life, and also to know when that moment has ended, bringing a shift in perception, a new experience of self, and an expanded awareness of what is possible.


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