Is this what it’s like to witness a great shift in a civilization? One day weeping with joy, the next falling into near despair? Cautious hope alternating with edgy skepticism? And underneath these wild emotional rides, the shadowy knowledge that right now everything’s falling apart. Everything.
With our fiercely unmanageable economic crisis, it’s difficult to focus on anything else. But there is worse news on the horizon. As air and water become more polluted daily, a ghost from the future haunts us now. Will the hurricanes get even more fierce and frequent freak floods become ordinary? On a deeper level of mind, still another question poses itself to me again and again, like a monstrous mantra or an insidious advertising slogan from hell. Are we all on our way out after all? Are human beings, too heavy on the Earth, soon to disappear with the polar bears and the forests?
And then there’s the world news, the story of a village, 10, 12 or 300 caught in the crossfire. The story I read recently, for instance, that children were among those killed and injured. What were their ages, what did they look like? When I saw a photo of a funeral, a woman in the center of a crowd of mourners, shrieking with grief, my eyes filled with tears. My god, I said to myself, what are we doing? But wait. Something unexpected has happened. I can hardly believe it; I’m still crying, except in this case these are tears of joy. Is it real? Did we actually elect an African American man to be our president, a man who promises to get us out of this war, to address the causes of global warming? Will I wake up and find it is all a dream? And how is it that a dream can come true in the midst of a nightmare?
As I ponder the question in a moment of calm, I can see that as the ground shifts under our feet, the dream and the nightmare are different sides of a single phenomenon, inspiring joy and sorrow, hope and despair, all at once, just as emptiness is form and form emptiness. The way we’ve been living over at least the last 200 years is failing. Conquering nature with our technological prowess and the world with military might, a fortunate few corralling quick and easy riches overnight with sleight-of-hand market manipulations at the expense of the many. Suddenly the consequences are unavoidable and they provoke despair.
But when I take another look at the falling structures around us, I can see that it is not just a way of doing things but a way of thinking, a network of illusions, that is also failing. If this too fills me with trepidation, it also gives me more than a small measure of hope.
Following the trail of various illusions, I can see that it’s all part of one façade. The idea, for instance, that money can be made with deals and calculations existing mainly on paper, without much to back them up in the concrete world of bodies and food and timber and bolts of cloth is kindred to the notion that with our amazing inventions we can bypass the laws of nature, ignore waste and pollution, or any limits to natural resources, and keep on expanding infinitely. Both of these hallucinations are part of a larger fallacy, a hierarchy that, while placing the abstract above the real, puts humankind above nature, as if human beings alone had spiritual value. In this dystopic vision, the world of spirit floats somewhere above us, not even in the sky but entirely detached from the Earth. The psychological advantage of this map is that it offers an escape from the natural consequences of whatever we do to air, water and soil. But now, along with perishing species and descending markets, we are falling out of our most cherished illusions right back to a failing Earth.
No wonder that just as these fantasies weaken their hold on our shared state of mind, racism would begin to fade. The false divisions among us echo the way we have divided ourselves from the Earth. So some of us are deemed more natural than others—women, for instance, or those with a darker complexion—perceived as closer to nature, more sensual and emotional, and therefore less intelligent and less trustworthy. The formidable subtext of this story is a massive projection, a psychological closet where we can sequester the knowledge that none of us ever escapes the fate of the Earth. We are all mortal; no matter whom we get to take out the garbage, none of us can survive apart from the material world.
No wonder California’s Proposition 8, forbidding gay people to marry, passed at the November ballot box. Marriage is the last stand, the end of a vanishing line of reasoning in which the spirit is conceived as male and nature as female. When marriage is not always between men and women, the illusion of being on the Earth but above nature falls apart.
I am trying to enter the state of fear behind racism and homophobia, to ponder it. Not only to mine it for meaning but to experience compassion for those who are fearful, if only because despite change in so many directions, including the dramatic results of the last election, the shift in our reigning philosophy is far from accomplished. The change has only just begun. And since, ultimately, like the problems we face, the transformation that is required has such large, even tectonic dimensions, this is a fragile process and, thus, a dangerous time. One body is dying and another is being born.
Something is trying to be born in America. These are the words of the theologian and civil rights leader Vincent Harding. Wondering how to help this birth along, he consulted a midwife, Selena Green, who said that during the difficult hours of labor she tells the mother, “You can do this,” and somewhere along the line, she said, she also begins the practice of whispering the same words to the infant still in the womb.
You can do this. Who is it being born now? After the last election, I can feel it in my bones. Yes, I am celebrating what I experienced as a victory at the polls. But beyond that triumph I can sense something else being born too. This is more than a political battle; it is a great creative work that has summoned us. We are facing an auspicious moment. A new vision is arising, and the canvas is ourselves.
The work is not just inward. Perhaps that is one of the illusions we have to relinquish. It is tempting to treat the spiritual world as a refuge from political conflict. But really, that is an illusion. As we heal ourselves, the body politic has to be healed too. Spiritual experience cannot be isolated from the often messy, difficult process by which in a democracy we shape society.
To make the changes we need to create a more compassionate society will require participation on many levels, including a spiritual midwifery. I am convinced that each of us has uniquely relevant skills we can bring to the table. I think now, for instance, about all that I know of the perilous process of creativity from what I have undergone as a writer. With every new work I create, I encounter fear and hopelessness. One day I may be excited by an idea. Then my spirit ebbs as I realize its flaws. Perhaps two or three days later, as I ponder these problems, they become part of the creative process and turn themselves into a complexity and richness I had not anticipated. Over years of working, I’ve alternated week by week, sometimes over five or six or even ten years, between promise and despair.
What sustains me? I ask this now because we will all need sustenance in the next years, inside ourselves and between each other, as we watch our world coming apart and at the same time do what we can to bring forth radical changes in the way we live and think. After fifty years as a writer, I’ve identified what keeps me going. Though both praise and financial support help me, it’s joy that really sustains me.
I take joy from the original vision of whatever I am trying to write, joy in watching a beauty unfold that does not seem entirely mine but that I feel privileged to serve and witness. It’s not all exciting ideas and glad endings. In between I have to work steadily, pay attention to nitty-gritty details: what words to use, where to put commas, which examples are illuminating and which tiresome. When I am working well, I am swept up in the process. But when, as I advise my students, I feel like I’m trying to carry a hundred-pound sack of rocks up a hill, I stop, step back and look for a new way to proceed that will give me more pleasure. This is not laziness but a way of being in tune with deeper reservoirs of knowledge within me.
Intuition, the mysterious knowledge that the late Grace Paley called “what you know that you don’t know you know,” is a child of play and pleasure. So the work I do requires me to be aware of what I want, in body and soul, at any given moment. Over and over again, instead of soldiering on, I’ve stopped, walked about my house, stared out the window at the weather as it approaches off the bay or at the Monterey pines growing in the neighborhood, or gone to get a cup of coffee or a bite of apple. That beauty, those enlivening tastes, open me to the larger scope of my own imagination so that suddenly, when I return to work, I find myself leaping past tired old phrases and repetitious thoughts to something that is new.
Of course, given the terrible disasters we are facing, the leap we must make right now is far more daunting than anything I encounter as a writer. And yet, even in the most severe circumstances, moments of joy, even from being alive, sustain. I am thinking of a scene from The Pianist, an extraordinary film I watched again the other night about the Polish pianist who miraculously survived the Holocaust; when weak with cold, hunger and constant terror, he moves his fingers in the air, recalling the beautiful music that has given him such joy.
Joy is evident throughout another film I saw recently called Milk, based on the real story of Harvey Milk, the business man, community activist and eventual San Francisco City supervisor who did so much to advance the cause of gay rights in America. Joy is the weave that holds together a narrative that includes scenes of prejudice, humiliation, defeat, palpable dangers and violent beatings. Joy and love, as the film portrays, were what clearly held together and inspired a movement that required astonishing courage.
If joy seems especially appropriate in a movement that calls for the right to love and make love, I can testify that this feeling is an essential part of every movement for social change, in which the work of bringing about social change is a form of communion. This form of joy, which is also a form of love, gives us the courage we need. The risks of bringing about social change are great; Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were all killed in the process.
From my own experience I have learned that whenever I do not take the leaps that are asked for, both from within and without, I risk another kind of death: a slow, suffocating death of spirit.
And regarding communion, we can take comfort in something else. As we endure the peril and imbibe the joy of writing ourselves into being, imagining and building the society we will share in the future, all that divides us is slipping away. We can finally see now that we are all in this together.