Monday, June 14, 2010

Bearing Solemn Witness

I’ve been avoiding it for weeks. I walk out of the room during the news, don’t read the paper, keep the radio off while driving. Most telling of all, I distance myself when my husband tries to share his reactions.

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.

Loanne Marie

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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder why we need to have a broken heart to have our lives enlarged. The pain is almost too much to bear at times. One certainly does not invite such pain into their lives. No more that the wildlife, coastal regions and the people invited destruction of such magnitude into their lives.

Loanne Marie said...

My response to your comment is twofold. First, I agree that it is a sad thing that we might need something like this catastrophe to enlarge us. Unfortunately, it seems the human way~~we are able turn a blind eye to things we KNOW to be true (like that a dependence on finite resources is insane when sun and wind are right there, offering themselves) until something like this, hopefully, wakes us to reality.

My second answer is I don't think we 'need' to have our hearts broken for them to enlarge. Hearts also enlarge through exposure to love and beauty and other wondrous things. But I think we need to hone a helpful approach to the pain that's part of life on this Earth of ours. We may not 'need' it to enlarge, but we're wise to use it for this purpose when it comes our way.

I share your heartache and heartbreak at this situation. Such devastation! Thank you so much for writing.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to know the pain to appreciate the joy & nothing can take that moment away from you, you can rewind back as many times as you like and savor the moment.

Loanne Marie said...

Well said! Pain and joy seem entwined in this world, and both seem to offer us something. And yet, there is a place that is larger than them both, that holds each. More and more, that is the space that calls me. Reminds me of a lovely poem by Rumi, entitled There is a Field. Google it, and "I'll meet you there"!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for not choosing to harden your heart. We can’t find a solution until we see the problem clearly and fearlessly. Hopefully it is a symptom of planetary growing pains.

Loanne Marie said...

Isn't hardening our heart~~whether by becoming bitter or just numb~~one of the common ways we humans cope with things that feel "almost too much to bear at times", as the first person above put it? I think this is a challenge for most of us and agree wholeheartedly that shutting down is exactly what is NOT called for here. Understandable, but not helpful.

I've been thinking about how closing our hearts in reaction to pain comes from that evolutionarily~honed tendency to refrain from touching the hot stove the second time. Something hurts, we avoid it. Now, however, it seems that if evolution is to continue, we need to FACE that which hurts and move forward into it "clearly and fearlessly", as you put it. Otherwise, we don't find solutions and keep doing the same dumb~~and dangerous~~things, again and again. To learn from errors, we must see them with our whole beings.

Thanks for writing~~and for the encouragement!

Carol said...

Here's a local reaction to the oil gusher. The beach shots in this video look like our front yard now. The music represents locals trying to come to terms with our ruination in a typically southern way.
Thank you for caring.

Loanne Marie said...

Thank you so much, Carol!!! Our hearts go out to all of you.

And for other readers, the hyper link doesn't work, but just cut and paste it into your web browser and you'll get the youtube clip just fine.

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Leia Marie