How Then Shall We Live – Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil – Truthout
This is the first installment of a monthly series by Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil, entitled, “How, Then, Shall We Live? Finding Our Way and Peace of Heart Amidst Global Collapse.”
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
This commentary is the first of our series, “How, Then, Shall We Live?: Finding Our Way Amidst Global Collapse.” It is about the moonlight leaking between the roof planks of this ruined house.
It is not written to convince anyone of anything, or to get things back on track. It is not a survival manual. What we have to say is not written on the wavelength of fear.
Dahr has been on the front lines digging out the truth around climate disruption for nine years. Before that, he spent more than a year in Iraq reporting, unembedded, on how the US occupation of that country was impacting the Iraqi people. He has, more recently, had to digest staggering climate information ahead of the wave of the general public, fielding in himself a cavalcade of disbelief, grief, anger, hopelessness and desperation. He thus describes this commentary as “the inevitable conclusion of all my war, political, environmental and climate reportage.”
For 20 years Barbara’s work and writing has guided people through life-changing transitions, with an ear to a deeper sense of purpose and meaning behind chapters of life that are ending. Her understanding of what it takes to change, in fundamental ways, has been a setup for the mega transition necessary for us all as the world we have counted on dissolves.
What we have to share is written on a carrier wave of love for what we cherish. That love, moving outwards into the world through us, is the moonlight. What we write here is for those with the kamikaze courage to take in the facts of intensifying climate chaos, growing economic inequality, crashing biodiversity, growing fascism, a global debt bubble and extinction scenarios that are already coming through the front door. It is for those who are feeling the implications of these in the pit of our stomachs, even before the radical changes needed in our personal and collective lives dawn fully into awareness.
It is for those who, given all that is collapsing, are risking treasured images of the future, and venturing into conversations about adaptation rather than just mitigation. It is for those who are tiptoeing into the unthinkable with a question on their lips: “How then shall we live?” Or maybe more pointedly, “How then shall I live?”
We may (or may not) be a step or two ahead of you, down the path of accepting the likely demise of the biosphere, which exposes the lie of invincibility of Western civilization. We have learned that finding ways to take action, even in the smallest ways, staves off depression and cynicism.
Dahr, for example, in addition to using his work to spread awareness of the crisis, lives in a solar-powered house and works to reduce his carbon footprint annually. We created a garden together, which provides most of our food. Additionally, we are both committed to supporting younger generations through apprenticeships on the land we share, as well as by holding retreats for young leaders interested in personal sustainability and leadership in uncertain times.
Our intent with this series is not to rehash data, but to share the ways we are digesting the global decline and finding solid ground in ourselves and within our day-to-day lives. We hope that our thinking and choices will inspire readers to ponder what is uniquely theirs to do. The depth of our global crisis requires a new understanding of what hope means. At the end of each piece, we will include annotated reference material that informs our own perception in reliable and expansive ways.
Our pathway to acceptance of current reality crosses serial thresholds that involve shifts in mindsets and emotional black holes. We recognize these now as gateways into open-ended, unprecedented healing and generative inquiry. This interior work sits alongside the crucial exterior work of building bomb-proof relationships that sustain us in these times, supportive and practical close community, local resilience, and worthy action.
Each person hits thresholds particular to their culture of origin, family history, exposure to trauma, age, family makeup, religious frameworks, location and more. It is our hope that the terrain of our own deep questioning supports your unique pathway. In each reflection, we will describe some of the practices we have stumbled on that pave the way for an honorable, fulfilling future and even contentment — another beam of the moonlight seeping through the cracks.
We have co-authored this series because it is almost impossible to take in the immensity of this moment on one’s own.
We confront, on a daily basis, things that are over. Sheaths of endings fall away leaving a broken heart, time and time again. Many people in the world are already facing the finality of guarantees of clean water, consistently breathable air, food that is safe and healthy to eat, permanence of a physical home, financial security, the viability of going to college, giraffes, bees, and on and on.
For example, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has estimated that 1.68 million Americans were internally displaced by disasters in 2017, and a study carried out by the University of Georgia predicts sea-level rise alone could displace as many as 13 million Americans by the year 2100.
Closer in, the winds of change are blowing through our relationships, work and homes that make many of these no longer viable. We all know there are already many locations on the planet that have already been rendered unlivable by climate change impacts, toxic spills or industry. Fundamental assumptions about family and child-rearing are shaking.
Maybe it’s simply the trees being blown bare in autumn that lands as sadness in you. Most endings dip us into the well of grief. When we drop into that well, the seemingly distinct sources of grief are mixed in the depths.
There is a second kind of grief that engulfs us in the moments when we really understand what we as humans have done. Questions about how we shall live going forward inherently require honest confrontation with “How have we lived?”
How did we get here, completely divorced from the web of life, in utter violation of the balance and reciprocity that is natural to all forms of life, and ending with many of us behaving violently toward one another? What has been my part in this, in my thinking and in the lifestyles I have taken for granted? The plug has been pulled on growth and progress myths. Abuse of the Earth and of those who have lived in harmony with Her is laid bare. All of our greed and complicity land like a death sentence. This grief and remorse are enormous.
Simple practices can prepare us for the more sweeping endings that lie in wait. We can develop needed resilience by working incrementally and deliberately with the succession of losses that are presently occurring in our lives. We suggest systematically noting and naming the things that are ending in your life. One strategy is to keep a private, uncensored journal, and pour our hearts out as waves of realization and sorrow crash over us.
Pay attention to the personal and micro endings that are eroding our sense of control and promise. Keep asking, “What is ending?” “What is over?” whether it be cherished beliefs, comforts we have taken for granted, images of the future for our children and our grandchildren, or something else. Maybe it is our youth slipping away, or our health, or the loss of some person or animal who is close to us. With courageous and astute naming comes the broken heart. Keep breathing.
A beautiful bowl carefully placed in your home can be designated as a guardian of seasons and cycles that are phasing out. Visit the vessel as often as you need to, holding it dear, feeling life’s support for your tenderness.
With the help of our young friends, Colin and Maura, we built a forest altar in the dark cedar wood near our garden — an old hollowed-out stump opens to receive bits of feathers, stone, lavender, dreams, ashes from burnt sage, names of friends who are troubled and tears that are quietly placed in the hollowed-out core for life’s safe-keeping. We visit the forest altar when the intractability of life’s challenges becomes unbearable.
We have also called together a safe circle of friends who hold matters of the heart, impossible questions and personal quandaries about just action.
The depth of our grief is the measure of our love; its flip side is praise for all we hold sacred, bathed in the moonlight. Every night before dinner, each one at our table says one thing they are thankful for and one way they have served the Earth that day. We never fail to drop into the world of what is most precious to us. Indeed, in the course of loss, what we cherish most becomes most vivid. These are all ways we invite the moonlight to “leak between the roof planks.”
On the backside of grief, with the heart sponged out and open, we are able to think more clearly. There are things to do, now, in this window of time that require clear and fresh thought.
Forthcoming commentaries will include topics such as: how to find solid ground in a wash of chronic uncertainty, how to maintain a healthy relationship with the news (how to metabolize all that we read and learn), activism in the context of collapsing systems (what is the most leveraged work to be done and why), and how to raise and educate children in preparation for the world they are inheriting, among others.
The Long View
The bones of this piece are the product of a conversation between us that started two years ago that has been ongoing day by day as we edit, read and write the news.
We wrote this while on an offline media fast — no screens for five days — in Washington State on the seam of the stormy Pacific Coast and a thick, green rainforest. We had time to read and write in journals, and just stare at the ocean and listen from the inside out. We made space for connection to the roiling seas, moss-laden trees, original thought and the upwelling of the moonlight from within.
We were called to follow signs that directed us to the world’s largest Sitka spruce and the world’s largest Douglas Fir and the world’s largest red cedar. Every encounter was breathtaking and served to put our global conundrum into perspective. We spoke in whispered tones, in the presence of ancestors over 1,000 years old that grew, in turn, out of their ancestral roots.
Strewn on the ground were fallen great ones, slowly composting in the rain. Scientists tell us that the years it takes to decompose equals the standing life of the tree. These trees are hardly dead. In fact they are called “nurse logs,” as their rich soils and fungal growth provide nourishment for many species beyond their own seed. Salal and huckleberry, young cedar trees, firs, hemlock, spruce, large leaf maple, and a myriad of other species thrive, their roots reaching into the richness of the fallen mother tree.
As she decomposes, the other life forms grow tall. Some of these offshoots may themselves live to be 1,000 years old, and then lay down to birth yet another generation. The nursing phase of these giants was at the end of their life instead of at their young prime. Maybe this has something to say to us about the value of true elders during this time (more on this topic forthcoming).
There is much we simply don’t know about the continuity of life. Perhaps the wisdom we need most is already right before our eyes in the awesome wonder of the natural world, and all we need to do is open ourselves to it.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Zinn’s history is a more accurate account of US history than is commonly taught in our schools.
The Big Picture by Richard Heinberg. Heinberg’ sweeping analysis of our current situation, its roots and our resistance to take it in are masterful and easily digested in this article. His own life is filled with the moonlight that leaks in, suggesting ways to live more sustainably.
The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechetel. This Native view of grief helps us welcome the inevitable and necessary plunges into these depths.
Dahr Jamail’s “Climate Disruption Dispatches.” Jamail’s regular updates on the science of climate change are reliable sources of scientific truth.
Teaser Photo Credit: by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption (The New Press, 2019), The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist…