By Lissa Carter, LPC
This morning I woke with the fragment of a dream: a crow had been struck by a car in front of the house. Even as I watched it die, another crow lit on the window and cawed, and I thought “Crow is bigger than the life of one crow.”
I believe the world is calling for this now: the sense of self that is bigger than the individual. There is a call going out to the Human that lives beyond our own human lives as Crow lives beyond crow.
If you’ve noticed in yourself lately a tendency to grow irritable, frustrated, and overwhelmed—a tendency that spills over and ruptures your closest relationships---or, on the other end, a tendency to turn the volume down on life, to isolate and numb yourself to the world—you may be reacting to this call.
But this call is to the part of us that is larger than our discrete selves, so if we choose to answer with internal coping strategies like self-medication, dietary changes, or exercise, we are choosing the wrong medicine.
This is not to say that there is no place for tending the self—on the contrary, taking good care of our organismic selves with mindful habits of sleep, nutrition, and exercise is more vital than ever. But tending the self is not enough when the problem is bigger than the self.
Recently the American Psychiatric Association, following on the heels of the American Medical Association, divested completely from fossil fuels, stating that ‘climate change poses a threat to public health, including mental health’ and recommending engagement in efforts to mitigate adverse mental health effects of climate change.
The changing climate has a profound effect on our mental health: in terms of increased anxiety, trauma, and PTSD, but also in a marked decrease of our organismic sense of safety. Just as animals exhibit behaviors of stress, flight, and fear prior to an ecological crisis, we as animals have a sense of the wrongness of things. It lies below our language, possibly below our awareness—but just as surely as we are part of nature, we experience nature’s crisis as our own.
Bill Plotkin, founder of Animas Institute, describes this ecological self as our “mythopoetic identity”. As I come to terms with the losses we are sustaining, I find that the proper medicine, for me, lies in two arenas. I find meaning and hope in the cultivation of my mythopoetic identity by seeking out the wisdom encoded in myth, story, and reciprocal relationship with other species. Then, I put that wisdom into committed action, actual feet-on-the-ground hands-in-the-dirt witness.
I recently presented at the North Carolina Counseling Association conference regarding the importance of these two arenas to the field of mental health. Too often, the counseling relationship begins and ends with the learning of coping mechanisms, better communication skills, and anxiety- and depression-reducing habits. But this ability to turn within and fine-tune ourselves means nothing if we do not then take these newfound skills and put them in service to our values by taking tangible action in the world.
Interestingly, work in these two arenas—mythopoetic identity and committed action--can actually lead to an increase in discomfort. For this reason, many clients who sought out counseling in order to feel better get worried that they are losing ground when they reach this step and old anxieties and fears re-emerge. I often talk with these clients about intentional discomfort: pilgrims and seekers of vision in the past would subject themselves to physical privations such as cold, loss of sleep, hunger, and long journeys. They knew that there was something in loosening the weave of comfort that allows new voices and visions to get through.
This is also true: life always exacts a price. If we choose to avoid pain, we pay in loss of meaning, because any life that is meaningful involves pain. Think about choosing to love someone---the minute you let someone in, you also let in the possibility of losing them. We can’t choose to avoid suffering. All we can choose is whether our suffering will mean something or not.
Last fall I heard Martin Shaw tell a story that helps me understand this. Here is the story:
When lions age, their teeth begin to fall out and their muscles weaken, but their roar remains loud and powerful. When a pride of lions goes out hunting, the older lions place themselves strategically out of sight near a grazing herd. The young, powerful lions hide on the other side of the herd.
The older lions open their toothless jaws and roar their terrifying roar. The prey, in terror, run in the opposite direction, fleeing for safety from the awful sound. They flee, straight into the jaws of the powerful young lions--and are devoured.
“Run toward the roar,” we are told, “if you want to survive.”
Run toward the roar. Walk into the thing that scares you.
Are you terrified of the cataclysmic loss of species we are facing? Run toward the roar—look up images of these species, say their names aloud. Walk out into the world and see if you can find them and offer a gift of water, or just a moment of quiet grief. Lost landscapes, lost species, live on in us. Remember them. Don’t run away. Nothing is gained by not looking.
Are you horrified by our current political climate? Run toward the roar—call your representative and ask for a face-to-face meeting. Share what you are feeling. Talk about your shame and your grief and your outrage, person-to-person. Not talking about it won’t make it go away.
Are you coming awake to your own privilege or complicity in the atrocities we humans perpetrate? Run toward the roar—talk to someone that does not share your privilege, and ask how you can help. Listen to perspectives that may be terribly uncomfortable to hear. Allow them to increase your understanding of the world.
Michael Meade reminded me, in a recent podcast, that creation is ongoing and continuous, and every bit as complex and flexible as the problems that we face. He reminded me that renewal is simultaneous with collapse. If we refuse to look away, if we continue to walk unflinchingly toward the roar, we are poised to change our relationship to ourselves and to this planet in beautiful and unprecedented ways.
I’d like to leave you with an image from my favorite childhood book, The Neverending Story. There was a moment in that book in which the entire world had come apart; everything and everyone had dissolved into nothingness. The little boy who was the hero of the story looked into that darkness and knew that all was lost. And at that moment, he spoke a name. He spoke name after name, calling back into creation everything he remembered, everything that had been devoured. And the world pieced itself back together.
Tend to yourself, tend to your community, tend to your planet. Rinse and repeat. In the end, it’s all the same thing. We just need to be wiser than what is otherwise happening. That is good enough. And I am here if you want to talk.
There is a full world hidden
Behind the time it takes to go still
Your origin: as you walk
backward and around to whence you came
There’s a sea in the way,
And a transformation,
And the discipline of belonging.
It is a discipline