We seem to live in uniquely difficult times.
We face multiple, simultaneous, almost intractable difficulties. The widening inequality of our societies. Economic uncertainty, and the undoing of many of the assumptions upon which we have built our economy. The effect we’re having on our climate. Billions living in slums. The rise of violent religious and political fundamentalism. An uncertain energy future. Rapid population growth.
It’s understandable in such times that we should feel afraid. That in the face of all of this difficulty we should get caught up in protecting ourselves, before anyone else. That we sooth ourselves and numb ourselves with glowing screens, with our busyness. That we distract ourselves from the buzzing, whirling sensations in our bodies and emotions that try to show us that something is wrong. That we amass whatever we can for ourselves as we try to cling on. That we wait until we feel better before we step forward and make the contribution we’re here to make.
But as we do this, as we pretend we’re fine while all the while feeling very afraid, we forget that the world has always been this way. Human life has always been perilous. We have always been faced by crises and by threats to our very existence. We have, most probably, always told ourselves that our own times are particularly troubled ones.
Seeing this opens up two new paths.
The first is that we stop adding to our very real difficulties with our stories about the uniqueness of our troubles. Those stories make us mute, frozen, self-obsessed. When we know that we human beings have, for millennia, found ways of responding creatively and with great resourcefulness to what life brought us, we can begin to trust our own faculties more. We can begin to turn towards one another and the world again, and ask ourselves what’s needed, and what we can do.
The second is that we remember that it’s right in the middle of difficulty, when we are most uncertain, that our most noble and life-giving qualities can emerge. When there’s trouble and we find ourselves turning towards our neighbours, towards people we hardly know, towards community, and towards the society in which we live, we remember that compassion, care for others and being in relationship are powerfully life-giving and meaningful activities.
Which way we turn – towards defensive self-centredness or towards relationship and compassion – is not just a matter of choice but a matter of ongoing practice. In other words, we live lives in which through our actions we cultivate one path or another.
Let’s not wait until we feel safe and settled before we start to cultivate the second path, one that can bring great meaning – and great healing – to ourselves and those around us.