As news of the devastation in Japan from earthquake, tsunami, and now nuclear radiation is revealed, it’s hard to know how to really absorb the reality of this event. Yes, there are ceaseless, bloody wars. Yes, there are oil spills and fish die-offs and mountains being scraped off the map, and people around the planet with no homes, no jobs, no water. Yes, we hear these things on the daily news, read them on facebook or blogs. We sign petitions, we send relief money, we rail at the powers- that-be who “don’t get it”.
And now, there is this- the prospect that the water, air, and land of our planet will be poisoned for generations. Not for decades, not for centuries, but for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no way to conceive this, really. Our hearts and minds have no way to truly understand. We don’t know what to do with all this knowing.
When we talk to friends or family about our grief, or anger, or fear, so many of them can’t hear, it seems. Conversations are diverted, we are told that there is nothing to do, so why talk?
The spiritual challenge of this time of is not about what we are to do right now, though of course there are actions, decisions, missions that we need to take as humankind to respond to this reality.
The spiritual question is not “what shall we do?” but “who shall we be?”.
How shall we exercise our hearts to hold the enormity of this destruction, AND the enormity of the miraculous beauty of our world? To bear witness to pain, to fear, to grief, AND to the heroism, strength, and compassion of those acting to ease suffering. And to our own pain, our own strength?
Deep ecologist Joanna Macy has been, for decades, an activist on nuclear issues. She talks about nuclear weapons, power, and waste as the “Poison Fire” of our time, and suggests that it offers an opportunity for a deepening of our spiritual practice, and even a blessing for humankind.
We are presented with the opportunity to grow our faithfulness and love for our world in our willingness to bear witness. We can learn to breathe through our fear in order to perceive the profound interconnectedness we have with all of life. We can learn to see ourselves as vessels of compassion, of the holy, rather than as needy consumers, or powerless victims. The ultimate blessing of this time, she says, is that “it can be a means of living into the promise of the consciousness with which we have been endowed”.
This does not mean that we become fearless, or without anger or grief. Indeed, she warns against what she calls the “premature equanimity” of some spiritual and philosophical ideals. It does mean, however, that through our willingness to be with the suffering (the root meaning of the word “compassion”) and the beauty of our world, we come to know on a deep level the lie of separation we have been taught, and the miracle of the web of connection we are a part of.
Some say we were born into this time, in this place, to be a part of this time of the Great Unraveling, and the Great Turning. We need each other fiercely right now. When we falter, our community can step in when we need rest, can hold us when we need comfort, can work together to create a synergy of good works. Our main task is to reach out beyond our sense of aloneness to a life of connection. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is no being, there is only inter-being. Through that depth of understanding, we are then impassioned and empowered to do our heart’s work for the healing of our world.