Confronting our Mortality and Gaining Inner Strength
By Harel B

A beautiful poem appeared in the issue of UU World which arrived just days before the 2004 electoral devastation of Nov 2. "Dancing through Life" is about Ric Masten, a unitarian universalist minister who has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer; how he is living and helping other survivors live fully -- and about his poetry [1]. It includes the following poem, which (among many other levels such as that of someone with a terminal illness greeting people around him) also describes very well the deep inner pain inside many of us, after the election, as we feel alone and watch others around us go about their daily lives, seemingly "business as usual" after such a grim event. The poem "Who's Waving" reads:

Who's Waving

I ain't waving babe, I'm drowning
going down in a cold lonely sea
I ain't waving babe, I'm drowning
so babe quit waving at me

I ain't waving babe, I'm crying
I'm crying, oh why can't you see?
I ain't fooling babe, I ain't fooling
so babe quit fooling with me

this ain't singing babe, it's screaming
I'm screaming that I'm gonna drown
and you're smiling babe, and you're waving
just like you don't hear a sound

I ain't waving babe, I'm drowning
going down right here in front of you
and you're waving babe, you keep waving
hey babe, are you drowning too?


[Reprinted with permission from Let It Be a Dance: Words and One-Liners, copyright 2004 by Ric Masten (Carmel Publishing)]

Ric Masten's twists, turns, and surprises are part of his signature. Perhaps we are not so alone; there are surely others around us who, deep inside, feel the same (or similar) to how we feel, but of necessity, of course, must go about their daily business. Still, the poem reminds us of the isolating, atomizing walls of separation that need to be taken down for us to hear/see each other's drowning, and to help one another stay afloat.

Another beautiful poem is below, although this essay is not about poetry; it's about the need for confronting the darkest realities in order to arrive at day-break "on the other side". Do you dare stay into the darkest abyss, to get to that other side? If someone can confront the most difficult of personal realities -- our own mortality -- and write beautiful poetry, is that not strength enough for us to confront some of the most painful truths about this world -- not in order to sulk but in order to make the most of our responses, which will be weaker if we avoid staring down the abyss?

Masten's poem "Poor Devil," recalls old western movies in which a sentry would be discovered dead, an arrow in his back, and someone says "Poor devil, he never knew what hit him" There had been a time when Masten had liked the idea of death taking him by surprise. But since he received his terminal diagnosis, he has thought differently:

"Poor devil"

never used an opening
to tell loved ones he loved them
never seized the opportunity
to give praise for the sunrise
or drink in a sunset
moment after moment
passing him by
while he marched through his life
staring straight ahead
believing in tomorrow
"Poor devil"

how much fuller
richer and pleasing life becomes
when you are lucky enough
to see the arrow coming

Masten feels lucky. He says his life "really began" when his oncologist promised him a "graceful end": He saw the arrow coming.

Could we, too, find some strength if not comfort, in knowing the arrows heading towards human society on this little blue planet floating in space? Dare we confront the possibility -- no, the probability -- that things will get much worse before they get better? Most people's first reaction is that they don't want to hear worse news; they want to be consoled -- this is natural -- I too want to be consoled. But can we listen, fairly, without going into denial, to the strong evidence that, horrible as four more years of Bush are likely to be, that there are problems graver still, concerning the survival of humanity, or at least, of our present civilization?

Is a small voice inside telling you, "Perhaps not"? Is it too much to take? Isn't confronting 4 more year of Bush already all (if not more than all) that one can take? How, you ask, could we possibly listen with an open mind to "here's why it's worse" without shutting down? But thinking about the courage of people with terminal disease suggests a way out. We suddenly remember the seemingly paradoxical, yet well known fact that if we have face five difficult (but non-fatal) diseases we are more likely to give into panic or despair, while on the other hand --after initial panic, denial, and anger-- many people who are told they have a terminal disease do, in fact, reach a point of _Calm_ and move on with their life in a more thoughtful, and balanced, even enlightened way.

Can we do the same in the political realm? That is the invitation enclosed here. That is what this little essay is about. It's not about post-election over-reaction; these observations in fact predate the election and are by a growing number of us (and excluding the complete doom and gloom "we'll be back to sticks and stones" crowd)...

An arrow, or collection of arrows is indeed headed towards homo sapiens, towards the world, not us individually, or to use a metaphor used by a growing number of scientists, we are headed towards a cliff; under Kerry it would be slower motion, versus faster-towards-the-cliff under Bush, but the direction is the same.

I hate to quote Hollywood, but there is a line that reminds us we should not despair or panic, even with the thought that it may be too late to stop before going over the cliff --as is increasingly likely based on the science, and our economic model which knows only "growth" towards the cliff; that line is the famous, "save as many as you can."

So let us take a few moments and peer over that cliff. Citing again the deep calm of someone like poet Ric Masten facing all that he faces, I can assure you that after a surprisingly short bout of the deepest sadness and almost despair, peering over the cliff, seeing the _likely_ catastrophes ahead, has led me, too, to a place of calm. Honestly, while I find it difficult when I'm surrounded by a group of Republican colleagues excitedly sharing their "perspectives" on Bush, the election, and this world, it's not _nearly_ that difficult to think about what to do about a series of ecological catastrophes (and alongside them the fascistic state which the system, desperately trying to avoid its final demise, necessitates) that will happen and grow over the coming years and decades: the answer is the same as when a hurricane approaches: you don't sit around depressed, you prepare for it!

Before turning to what "preparing" might mean, then, let us look into the abyss and admit to ourselves: it's worse than four more years of wars, lies, bloodshed, and a cycle of (retail) anti-U.S. terrorism and (wholesale) state terrorism by Washington feeding upon one another and growing; it's worse than four more years of reverse Robin Hood, an even more reactionary supreme court, additional steps towards domestic fascism, and (still all in one breath) the partial if not full destruction of Social Security and/or Medicare, and more toxics in our air, soil, and water. So there's a partial LIST for you. So it's even worse than this LIST? Feel "full" enough? Don't want to hear how it's "worse"? If you don't feel ready and able to handle it, stop reading, or save the rest of this email for another time, but before you do, are you sure you have any less strength than Ric Masten? Are you so sure you don't have inside you a surprising well of additional strength which, paradoxically, arrives despite, and even because of, the most grim of diagnoses?

And ask yourself also, have you ever wondered WHY (despite positive social progress in equality for example) things have been "getting worse and worse" since at least 1980 (including under welfare destroying Clinton)? Why is that?

The reasons are manifold. At least in part, the answer is the money system has tightened its grip on people, "simply because it can" But there is more to the story. This may sound like line intended only to comfort, but least part of the answer really is that the amoral profits-based system killing this planet is itself running scared. To use broad brush-strokes, it is reaching a point there it's hard for it to squeeze much more out of people, and a point where it's hard for it to squeeze much more out of the planet, than it already is.

On the one hand, this reflects the sad realities of how much the third world has already taken, how much loss of social programs we've already taken, and the long list of growing ecological disasters. On the other hand, for an economic model and system which is based on "perpetual growth forever and ever" even continued growth but at a "slowing down" pace, much less approaching the limits of how much more it can "squeeze out" of people and the planet -- is a threat to this sick system's very survival. So yes, it is getting desperate. The right wing is full of BS when it speaks that it's "all for the best" to cut wages and ignore the environment for the sake of corporate profits, but there is a real grain of truth to the idea that the mega-corporations which now run most of this planet and which have a large degree of control over all the world's governments, do indeed "need" constant give-backs to merely survive.

IBM recently got a swift kick the rear from "the market" in our sick system despite nearly 2 Billion (with a "B") dollars of profit (not revenues, but profit). What was the problem? This gargantuan number merely _equaled_ rather than surpassed last year's profit. Such is our cancerous pseudo-capitalist, economic system of corporate rule: growth forever and ever, and thus, no level of profits, no matter how huge, is ever enough: it must always grow higher and higher; thus no amount of "profits over people" through lower wages, no amount of "profits over the environment" in terms of destruction, ever leads to satiation: this cancerous system will keep pushing for more give-backs, more destruction of democracy, people, and planet, until either it is gone, or the planet is gone ("whichever," we might add with a touch of irony, "comes first")

The silver lining comes from realizing that it is the fact that Mother Nature herself is starting to more strongly impose limits to growth -- be it through climate disasters, oil and gas peak, soil erosion, the coming world-wide water crises, and more (not to mention that it's hard to grow much when you're Microsoft and already control 90% of the market -- and the sick economic model says you _must_ grow). But now the mass extinction of species and the real danger of climate disasters stare us in the face: but let your fear be tempered by knowing that these threats to human survival also stare the pseudo-capitalist system of Corporate Feudalism in the face, too, threatening it, too. Our job is to make sure that this system dies first; otherwise it will be both this system _and_ human civilization (even if not the human species outright) which will not survive.

As one bacteria researcher said, "the survival of homo sapiens is not pre-ordained" (The first chapter of the recent book Hegemony or Survival cites similar commentary [2]) But now it's not just super-bugs it's also WWIII and equally if not more dangerous, the environment.

Little known to the American on the street, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that cuts of 50-70% are needed in greenhouse emissions to avoid growing disasters. Not Kyoto's 5%, let alone its "Emissions trading" watered down equivalent of 3% cuts. Not 5% but 50% or closer to 90% in the hyper-consuming countries. That's not Earth First, that's what the science says. I want to say "this will absolutely _not_ happen; look at how much resistance there has been to a 5% cut" But I won't say that. What can be said with virtual certainty is that such cuts will _not_ happen under our present economic model. So if we value survival, working to change it might be a good idea. However, since time is so short, literally years to a few decades, one needs to take the most efficient path.

What might that path look like? That is the subject for another essay, but suffice it to say that this means skipping "step I" the "let's tear down the present system" step and going straight to step II, the "let's start building that future, clean, democratic, economic system" -- all of it: food, housing, energy, health insurance, health care, non-Wall Street retirement, democratic worker-run workplaces, intentional communities for many, and local community control and governance for all.

[Conclusion in part II]