I avert my eyes, and my spirit, from the harsh reality. I tell myself I don’t need to see it. I’m well aware of the damage to fragile ecosystems that will come from an oil spill of this magnitude. I know, too, given the interconnectedness of life, that this devastation will extend far beyond a limited set of contours.
But who am I kidding? It is not that I don’t need to see it. It is that I don’t want to see it.
I’m in the throes once more of a misguided belief that I can protect myself from pain. Defending against sorrow cannot happen, though, unless I close down, harden my heart, resist life. If I do that, I merely add another layer to this catastrophe. The oil spill~~though hemorrhage seems the more appropriate term~~would then claim another victim, and this casualty would come with my full participation.
Despite my efforts, grief remains, just beyond my vision. Slowly, undiminished, it moves closer. It’s as though this visceral sense of destruction is the oil slick and I, a coastal marshland full of tender life I wish to protect, but know I cannot.
Finally, I turn to face it. Images rush toward me...
An oil-drenched brown pelican struggling to stretch its soiled wings...A baby sea turtle coated in black slime...Dark pools of oiled water...A young egret stuck in thick sludge under a mangrove, white feathers blackened...Tar balls washed up on stained sand...A dragonfly perched atop oil-slick marsh grass, inky bits clinging to delicate wings.
Devastation washes over me. Tears run down my cheeks as my heart, finally, breaks open.
In a recent letter, my friend, Claire, reminded me that the word vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnerare, meaning “to wound”. To be alive, fully alive in a world in which terrible things happen, requires our hearts to remain open in the face of pain. We must be vulnerable. Woundable.
There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” An appropriate modification would be, “If you’re not filled with anguish, you’re not paying attention.”
Not everything is pain, of course. Life is a grand mix of all elements. It is equally true that the joys of this world enthrall us when we allow ourselves to deeply experience them. In the face of suffering, however, what is called for is compassion—again, from the Latin, meaning “to feel with”.
Author, religious scholar and mystic, Andrew Harvey, writes that a heart “is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever more wonders.”
There is, indeed, something about a heart’s breaking that brings the possibility for growth. Like a snake shedding skin that has grown too tight, when the boundaries of a heart are shattered, an opportunity is created for that heart to grow beyond its previous borders. To accomplish this, though, we must have the courage to feel.
Val, another friend, shares that the spewing of oil feels to her like a wounded earth bleeding. The metaphor fits. Our precious earth, teeming with life and infused with the divine, bleeds. Bearing solemn witness to this reality is our task.
To do otherwise seems uncaring. Disrespectful. Sacrilegious.
May all of our hearts break and enlarge and break and enlarge, again and again and again. Perhaps then our collective heart will grow large enough that we'll treat our Earth and all its inhabitants more lovingly.
PS. Of course, we need to do more than simply grieve. We need to act.
For an encouraging story about one community's success in breaking their oil addiction~~yes, it is possible~~click on this story that ran recently on PBS's Need to Know.
And for another form of action, a meditative one, I pass on this link, so you can decide if this approach fits for you.