A stronger metaphor for the loss of innocence in our lives can hardly be found. When we were children, life was a source of joy and wonder. We felt safe, loved, and knew only good things could happen to us. For some children this paradise is disturbed too early in life, resulting in emotional scars, sometimes even too small to perceive. My childhood paradise was disturbed far too early, at the age of two. In my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork, I describe the long road I took back to emotional health and balance.
Other children grow up in healthy, safe environments. And, even then, around a child’s seventh year, it becomes aware of the presence of grief, loss, and mortality in the world. The first bite of the fruit of knowledge has been taken. When we continue to grow in a nurturing, learning environment, we become gradually aware that the world is full of pain and suffering. At the same time, we develop the resilience we need to accept this truth and continue to care about the world around us.
Various world religions have built stories around this truth. Western religions talk about it in terms of sin and redemption. Oriental religions, especially Buddhism, accept the fact that the world is filled with pain and teach mental and emotional detachment that must lead to release from the cycle of suffering. (See my earlier blog post on Love and Detachment).
The truth of the matter is that we are often incapable of accepting both the light and the dark side of life. In 1973, a cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, published the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Denial of Death. He shows how our refusal to accept the truth of our own mortality leads to the creation of false assurances of immortality. And this, in turn, leads to conflicts between belief systems, oppression, and mental illness.
In 2012, a live webcam was publicly opened to study an Osprey nest on Hog Island, Maine USA. The island is owned by the Audubon Society, and various camps and workshops on Ornithology take place there. The live cam and the attached forum became a wonderful learning environment for those interested in the life of Ospreys. The first three breeding seasons were highly successful, and an enthusiastic community grew. Some members of the community attended sessions at Hog Island Audubon Camp, and personal friendships blossomed.
However, a live webcam is not a Disney movie, and the first tragedy struck in 2015 when both hatched chicks were taken by Bald Eagles. In 2016, one of the three chicks was taken by an eagle. This summer, two of the three chicks were taken by a Great Horned Owl. The Osprey female was able to fight off the owl to protect her third chick in a great display of experiential learning and adaptation.
But watching Nature in all its guises, including events of random violence, has taken its toll on the forum community. Today the forum is an acrimonious place where both seasoned and new viewers call for human intervention, and belief systems clash. A fellow participant sighed, “I guess 2014 was our Age of Innocence.”
We defend ourselves against the reality of pain and suffering in the world by creating illusions of paradise and denying reality. Which brings me to the one big illusion, even larger than our refusal to accept our individual mortality.
Human domination of the earth’s resources has led to plunder and the collapse of the earth’s eco-systems. The tempo in which this is happening increases rapidly and many scientists agree that we have passed the point of no return. We are destroying life as we know it and too many of us are in denial of this truth.
For those of us who are painfully aware of the fact, the knowledge – and our inability to change it – drives us to despair. This is a fact that even the most emotionally resilient of us find too terrible to face. How can we continue to see this and not turn our backs upon the world?
We need to continue to care, to continue to witness the unbearable beauty of the world, and to listen carefully to what Nature teaches us: about both beauty and suffering.
I leave you with two bits of recommended reading:
The first is an interview with Joanna Macy: How to Prepare Internally for Whatever Comes Next.
The second is a narrative by journalist Brian Calvert: So What if we’re Doomed?