I just finished a series of blog posts about James Allen’s essay, “Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse”. I spent so much effort doing that because I found the essay to be the most coherent discussion I’ve yet found to describe the environmental catastrophe we are moving into and what we can do to prepare, and help others prepare for the increasing chaos we are moving into.
The problems before us are emergent phenomena with a life of their own, and the causes requiring treatment are obscure. They are what systems scientists call wicked problems: problems that harbour so many complex non-linear interdependencies that they not only seem impossible to understand and solve, but tend to resist our attempts to do so. For such wicked problems, our conventional toolkits — advocacy, activism, conscientious consumerism, and ballot casting — are grossly inadequate and their primary utility may be the self-soothing effect it has on the well-meaning souls who use them.
If we are to find a new kind of good life amid the catastrophes these myths have spawned, then we need to radically rethink the stories we tell ourselves. We need to dig deep into old stories and reveal their wisdom, as well as lovingly nurture the emergence of new stories into being. This will not be easy. The myths of this age are deeply rooted in our culture.Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, Medium, May 24, 2019
Most of us lack the stories that help imagine a future where we thrive in the midst of unstoppable ecological catastrophe. James Allen
It is not clear to me what the work will require of me precisely, but what does seem clear is that there are few threads of work worth following.
The first thread is the cultivation of deep humility. Deep listening is needed. To listen deeply — to become profoundly aware of all aspects of your environment and your place in that system — is fundamentally a spiritual practice that reveals to us the essential interconnectedness of everything. It changes us as a consequence. Perhaps this is what is needed in order to shatter [see Shattering Silence below] our sense of separateness from nature. Yet this change won’t occur through devouring propositional knowledge or via rhetorical persuasion. It is knowledge only gained through participation in the practice of deep listening itself.
We don’t know today what things will enable us to solve the problems of tomorrow. Our biggest problems are emergent and non-linear and most won’t be solved with linear thinking. Only emergent collective intelligence can produce non-linear solutions. This requires us to first cultivate our own ability to be present, perceive the world accurately, orient ourselves toward it, and find ways to give creatively. It also requires that we find new ways to assemble with people with diverse perspectives who are capable of coming into coherent relationships with each other for long enough to produce something worthwhile.Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, Medium, May 24, 2019
Deep listening is how Quakers (and mystics of all faiths) worship, gathering together to listen for what the Spirit might say to us. Deep listening is our spiritual practice. I believe this is a time to invite others to share in this spiritual practice with us. Perhaps framing these invitations as a way to learn how to move through environmental catastrophe will interest those who don’t usually think in terms of deep listening and worship.
From what I’m beginning to learn about indigenous spirituality, every moment is prayerful listening. My opportunity to experience this with Native Americans was during the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March. That March was intended to, and did, “find new ways to assemble with people with diverse perspectives”.
I’ll close with the story of how I came to be part of the Kheprw Institute (KI), a small black youth mentoring community in inner city Indianapolis. I think this is an example of “stories that help imagine a future where we thrive in the midst of unstoppable ecological catastrophe” as James Allen writes. It also demonstrates deep listening, and “new ways to assemble with people with diverse perspectives”. It also explains how I came to see myself as a “spiritual warrior.” (This is uncomfortable for me because Quakers strongly discourage calling attention to ourselves. But we can only authentically describe our own experiences, so I hope you’ll take this story in that manner.)
I had long been struggling with the knowledge that simply through the circumstances of the family I was born into, my life was significantly better in many ways than that of a great many others in America and the world. This was a spiritual problem for me.
God (finally) provided me with a way to begin to learn about that. Nearly three years ago (2013) the environmental group 350.org organized a national day for environmental education/actions. Only one event was listed in Indiana that day, and it was at the KI Eco Center, which was how I found out about KI. The day of the event, I arrived at the run down building that had once been a convenience store. But it was full of kids excited to show us the work they were doing, including their aquaponics system, and the rain barrels they created and sold.
I was intrigued, and wanted to see if I could become involved with this group. The store mentioned above is not where they were usually to be found. But I did find their web page that included an email address. On that web page I found a description of one of their projects, which was teaching the kids coding. Since I was a computer programmer, I thought this would be a great way for me to connect to KI, to have something to offer.
So I sent an email message, but didn’t receive a response. I thought about forgetting about this idea, but the Spirit wouldn’t let me. So I sent another email message, and did get a response that time. (I’ve found persistence is needed in many situations.)
So we arranged a meeting. On a dark, rainy night I rode my bicycle to the KI building. The adult leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Paulette and Alvin, and about a dozen young people from the Eco Center were here. I had thought we were going to discuss working on some computer software projects together.
But Imhotep began asking me a series of questions about myself. I don’t talk a lot about myself, but Imhotep, I’ve come to learn, is very good at drawing stories out of people. So I spoke a bit of having grown up on farms in Iowa and my work at Riley Hospital for Children. Everyone was very quiet and attentive (deep listening). Imhotep asked me to tell more about myself. I should have anticipated this, but I soon realized I was basically being interviewed so they could determine if I was someone they felt comfortable working with, or not.
When I mentioned that I was a Quaker, Paulette enthusiastically spoke about Quakers and the underground railroad, which was welcome. But when she stopped speaking, everyone looked at me…
I had thought about this many times over the years. I greatly admired the work of Friends who helped with the underground railroad, as I likewise admired those who worked to help address any injustice or need. These situations should be a challenge to us. Where is the need today, and what am I called to do about it?
There is also a danger here. Sometimes Friends point to this work of other Friends to illustrate the work of Quakers. Noah Baker Merrill wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Prophets, Midwives and Thieves” discussing this very thing, warning us not to claim the work of others as our own.
So I could immediately respond that while I was really glad my ancestors had done that, and it was the right thing to do, I didn’t do it. Which led me to talk more about how Quakers didn’t see religion as something only involving listening to a sermon once a week.
That left me at the point where I felt I needed to provide some example from my own life. Since KI is built on concern for the environment, I spoke of how I had reluctantly purchased a used car for $50 when I moved to Indianapolis, mainly for trips home to Iowa. Car rental was not common in the early 1970’s. When my car was totaled several years after that, I decided to see if I could live in the city without a car, and have since then, 40 years ago. I was hoping that would show how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel God is telling them, into how they actually live their lives.
At that point Imhotep, with a smile on his face, said something like “Forty years? You are a warrior.” I had never been called a warrior before. It seemed a humorous term to use for a pacifist, but I liked it.
When Imhotep asked me to tell them more, I said something like, “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, and that includes you, and you…” The very first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “Ok, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?” And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic YES, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it consciously and publicly. At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”. I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit. (Since then I have recognized this as unintended bias on my part. Why would I even ask that question in the first place?)
Then everyone looked at me…
Somewhat embarrassed at that point, what popped out of my mouth without much thought was “well…yes, I am really old!”, at which everyone laughed, and then our meeting concluded.
The best part of the evening was that then several of the kids came up to me to shake my hand. That seemed to satisfy the questions for the evening, and they have welcomed me into their community ever since.