M A R C H 2 0 2 0
A disturbing litany of disasters confronts us in most woke writings these days, and for good reason: our planet and human civilization are encountering conditions in which the earth’s capacity for nourishing life is endangered at a magnitude unknown in human history. You know the litany: polar bears lost on melting ice floes, songbirds vanishing, soil depleted, poisons in the air and our bodies, countless trillions of plastic fragments floating in all the oceans, forests burning and diseased, extractive industries gouging into mountains, a fierce ambition in human economies to grow past all limits, populations of refugees fleeing from social and climate disruption, and ever-increasing injustice, distrust, polarization, and domination of the many by the few. All of this is stirring in us world worry, a sense of foreboding that is draining the vibrancy of human culture as well as our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. We see a menacing cloud over the future and feel helpless to do anything about it.
World worry is not something we can avoid. Even if we try to shut it out and just devote ourselves to the demands and pleasures of our personal lives, the storm gathering over us and over our children and their children is a portent we can’t ignore for long. While we may realize that world worry is sapping the energy from our lives, at the same time we feel if we don’t worry about what’s coming down, we’ll take no action to forestall it. Releasing our world worry would mean giving in, giving up.
How can we be with this? What is our responsibility in this fateful time? What is asked of us?
And then there’s this troubling question: Can we be awake to the enormous ecological and social disruption that’s happening now and that’s ever increasing — disruption that, I repeat, is on a scale that no generation before us has had to face — can we be awake to it and still live happy, beautiful and fulfilled lives?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and no easy fixes. As the days and years pass, each of us will have to contend with this intractable challenge in a manner suited to our own lives. Here are a few thoughts of my own in response to these questions — culled down to three basic “principles” — offered not as definitive answers, but more as a starting point for your own contemplation and questioning.
Keep an Undefended Heart
In my own life I try to accept my world worry not as a looming horror that makes me want to shut down, but as a “necessary angel” that keeps my heart open. For example, at the moment I’m aware of the 900,000 Syrian refugees escaping the fighting in northwestern Syria; many are without shelter, huddled in the freezing weather. I’ve been to Syria many times and I feel connected to those people. Though I know I can’t really imagine the desperation of a father or a mother trying to keep their children from freezing, or the scale of suffering there (900,000 people!) and everywhere in the world, I know if I close my heart to it, my own life and the greater life I am part of will be diminished. Even though I’m in no position to do anything about their suffering, that very helplessness becomes part of theirs… and somehow within it we share a mutual presence. That might sound like a feeble response that makes no difference, but consider the opposite — if I closed my heart to their suffering, refusing even to be aware that it’s happening, would I not be abandoning those people a second time? My helpless caring matters.
I wonder if the extreme of world worry, when we become overwhelmed by the anxiety of knowing the earth’s life-support systems are collapsing, isn’t in itself a kind of defense, a way to defend our hearts from being present. Being overwhelmed, we curl into anticipatory grief and the certainty that everything’s hopeless.
I think here of the prayer-words of Etty Hillesum a year before she was murdered at Auschwitz: “These are times of terror, my God. Tonight for the first time I stayed awake in the dark, my eyes burning, images of human suffering parading endlessly before me. I am going to promise you one thing, my God, oh, a trifle: I will not let myself weigh down the present day with those fears that the future inspires in me…”
Those are the words of an undefended heart, open to the hurt of the world without letting that hurt crush her heart’s presence. An undefended heart is in this way the requisite condition for survival, maybe not physical survival but survival of the most noble aspect of the human spirit. If, in the end, the earth’s human experiment does fail, at least we will have succumbed with our hearts alive and loving.
Find What Matters
When we experience our world worry not through the lens of fear but through our undefended heart, something very intimate changes in us. Our life comes closer. Worry and despair open into compassion. Our undefended heart reveals to us that we are the world, undivided from it. Then, in the moments of our lives, we do our best to be faithful to what matters. As the novelist Barbara Kingsolver once remarked, “In a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is make things as right as we can.”
Making things “right,” in however small a way, asks that we discover, in each life situation we encounter, what matters. Finding what matters isn’t an intellectual exercise, like making a list. It’s more alive than that, more immediate to our moment-to-moment experience. For example, we might say that “kindness matters,” but the living quality of kindness is something that we must find and open to, again and again, as we live.
Given time, this “finding what matters” becomes a natural, intuitive move. It doesn’t need to be thought about, although sometimes thinking can help us remember what’s at stake. Say you find yourself getting irritable about something — at the moment that you notice your irritability you might ask yourself, “What really matters here?” This question might come verbally like this, or it may be a subtle shift in your heart. Either way, it creates a pause, and in that pause you make things as right as you can.
In my own life I experience this process of “finding what matters” in the day-to-day situations that arise — in how I respond to and care for others, care for my household, care for my health, care for the work I do. In fact, finding what matters is the very yoga I try to follow as I write this essay and look for the next sentence or word. What matters here? In an earlier part of my life when I designed houses for a living, the same questioning guided my design process — what matters here? What is the life that wants to happen here? How can this design be faithful to that?
But finding what matters isn’t only something that’s active in the details of our lives, it can also guide us in their larger trajectory — what work we turn to, how we determine our life's priorities, and what we give our energy to. Here our question about “what matters” resonates deep into the future, not only in our own lives but into the lives of our descendants, into the seventh generation. How will what I devote my life to nourish the life that is to come?
But whether in the details of our lives or in the fundamental directions our lives take, finding and following what matters is the very current that will heal the world. We can be sure of that.
Do the Beautiful
Following what matters is the essence of the Sufi principle of ihsan, which translates as doing the beautiful.* When Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world,” he was saying, among other things, that beauty matters. Here beauty is not simply understood as something that has an aesthetically pleasing appearance. The beautiful act — doing the beautiful — is an act that fits what a situation calls for, an act that arises spontaneously when the heart recognizes what matters. The beautiful act nourishes and calls forth the life that is nascent in a situation.
Doing the beautiful doesn’t come about from thinking or planning. It happens naturally to the degree we have devoted our life to “undefending” our heart and finding what matters. “Let the beauty you love be what you do,” Rumi famously told us, an advice we cannot remember too often. In the context of transforming our world worry — our concern for the perilous condition of the planet and human civilization — into a path of healing, I cannot think of a more succinct instruction.
Here we might find an answer to the question: Can we be awake to the enormous ecological and social disruption that’s happening now and that’s ever increasing, and still live happy, beautiful and fulfilled lives? I believe this is exactly what we must do. I don’t have any illusions about the suffering and loss we are witnessing today, or the magnitude of the threats facing the community of life on earth in the future. But if a world abundant with life is to be seeded by us, it will not grow from anxiety or despair; it will only thrive in the fertile soil of our undefended hearts, finding — and doing — what is beautiful.
*See previous Notes from the Open Path: “Doing the Beautiful,” “Medicine Beauty,” “Beauty Will Save the World,” and the essay “Following Beauty” in Seven Contemplations on Awakening.
Note: A printable PDF of this essay can be found by clicking here.