The Beauty in Slowing Down
I am remembering the name of the 1960’s musical “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Although I never saw it, that title is resonating right now as I see the world stopping. I wonder if the author of that line would be happier now with this dramatically slower pace
, and might be willing to give the world another try.
For a long time, I have carried a very deep fear that the accelerating pace of consumerism, industrial growth and environmental destruction will end the human race and most of nature (except the cockroaches). I have been scared for myself, my kids, the plants and animals, the ocean and the sky. Yet, I have fully participated with my family’s four cars, a big house, Amazon boxes arriving almost daily, lots of highly polluting airplane travel…thinking somehow that my dedicated efforts to recycle and eat a plant-based diet evened out the destruction.
I have often wondered what it will take so slow down this out-of-control train headed to certain destruction. Another four years of the current government? A nuclear war? Too much trash to bury or destroy? More climate change?
How much is enough – enough to really hurt so that we sit up and listen?
I remember so clearly in 2008 when the movie WALL-E was released. I felt understood; I felt heard. Finally, someone had put my deepest fears into art and created a story about everything of which I was afraid. People loved it…it won an Academy Award… maybe now there would be millions of people ready to transform and stop the WALL-E scenario from coming true. But, in the end, it was just entertainment. Maybe I was the only one who thought this kids’ animated movie represented our deepest fears as humans. Everything continued as normal.
In so many ways we have named our recognition of the problem, through movies, art, countless conversations and global meetings about climate change and extinction of animals, yet nothing changed. It’s as if we knew what needed to be done, but with few exceptions, such as the true minimalists and self-sufficient organic farmers, we were incapable of making the changes that we knew would ultimately save us.
The one thing I hadn’t considered as a means to slow down this lethal weapon (called the human race) was a pandemic. In retrospect, that feels oddly ironic since I am a doctor and others clearly had planned for this scenario. In the last weeks, like many of us, I have watched “Pandemic,” “Outbreak” and “Contagion” on TV. And here we are, three+ months into the greatest world slowdown that has ever happened. Sadly, humans (including myself) have been unable to create our own solutions to our reckless self-destruction; nature had to step in and do it for us.
What this led me to finally realize deep in my bones is that life on earth is not a competition between humankind and the rest of nature, or a race to see how much we can squeeze out of the planet. When we squeeze the planet, we squeeze ourselves because we are part of nature. We are nature. We are one of many, many species attempting to coexist on this tiny blue planet; in forgetting that we are deeply and inherently interconnected with every other life form on this island in space, we have caused enormous but hopefully not irreparable harm.
My father, who was an exceptionally wise spiritual teacher, frequently told me as a child that if you push nature too far, nature will push back. This is part of a deeper, more complex understanding of karma, not in the commonly understood Western way of “what comes around goes around” or that there will be some divine punishment if you do something bad. Rather, the bottom line is simply that actions have consequences. I love the idea that “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by them” (Elbert Hubbard). To me, this means that when I take actions that are not wise, I suffer. That suffering might be that I lose a friend, I feel guilty or even lose my freedom. When I take wise action, I don’t suffer– and even thrive. It’s that simple.
Relative to the pandemic, I don’t have enough magical thinking to suggest that nature conjured up this plan to teach us a lesson, but rather I suggest that this is a natural and predictable consequence of what we have been creating. Mother Earth is a living, breathing organism, and perhaps she is trying to save herself and her lifeforms by forcing us to stop. Stop consuming. Sit still. Reflect. Tell the truth. Look around. Touch the earth.
So many of us, especially our younger digitally addicted generations, have forgotten that the earth even exists. Many of us rarely touch the earth, living high in the sky and walking on concrete, running on treadmills and riding bikes inside. We live in artificially controlled environments with fake plants. We love and nurture expensive pets while eating other equally intelligent animals cleverly disguised as benign food. The truth about our destruction of the planet is hidden from us, lest we might protest and upset the economy. If we were to stop eating animals and slow down consumption, the economy as we know it would implode.
And so it is happening: As fast as our government prints magical money to inflate the already heavily indebted and unsustainable economy, we continue to suffer until we perhaps see this as a gift. There is so much wisdom to read right now. A friend sent me an article by Azyra Cohen Bequer that I will credit for this realization: Nature has put this hungry caterpillar in a cocoon. Just like the caterpillar, this was not our choice, but our karma, our destiny. We ate and ate and ate and ate…polluted…destroyed…until we were put into a time out. The natural order or balance can be pushed only so far before it pushes back. Pope Francis recently repeated an old Spanish saying: “God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives”
Nature pushed back.
When the very hungry caterpillar that we all remember from the famous 1969 childhood book by Eric Carle is put into a cocoon, she rests. She transforms, but not from conscious choice as much as from the unconscious surrender to nature’s will. So here we are in a state of rest, in our cocoon, with a momentous choice in front of us. Unlike the caterpillar, we have consciousness and the ability to choose. But just like the caterpillar, we are ultimately at the mercy of nature, and choosing what aligns with her is in our best interest.
How do we use this time? To what do we pay attention? Do we desperately clamor to restore things to “normal, ” or do we see this as the rarest of rare opportunities to transform into the higher evolution of humans that could compare to a butterfly – life forms doing what nature dictates and transforming in a direction toward harmony and sustainability instead of fighting against her?
So what does becoming a butterfly look like for a human? And what would the world look like if we were to make this choice?
I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question, but deeply listening to my gut feelings tells me this. Look around. The sky is clearer. The roads and freeways are not congested. Oil is not in demand. Neighbors are out walking, albeit six feet apart, and yet talking to one another and helping each other where they can. The oceans are becoming clear. Nature is having a comeback. And while that last sentence suggests that there is an “us against nature” scenario going on, I think that’s the delusion that most of us have been living under. Nature is having a comeback. And we are part of nature. We are having a comeback. Is there a way we could collectively experience it this way? Is our own Mother Earth fighting for our survival, as any loving mother would?
As a traditionally trained doctor and practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I can understand and feel how kooky/woo-woo this seems, but what choice do we have? Where have traditional medicine and pharmaceuticals – and logic – gotten us? Well, here! It has gotten us to exactly this very place where we stand collectively, and we are all responsible. We’re responsible for climate change, for pollution, for destruction of forests and animals, and for all types of violence against nature.
I feel like the police just shone a spotlight on me and caught me stealing. Do you? We have to know that what we’ve been doing isn’t right, isn’t healthy, isn’t sustainable and that Mother Nature is giving us this opportunity to reflect on this or deny it. We don’t need some man in the sky to punish us. As Elbert Hubbard said, we are punished by our sins, not for them.
So what solution am I suggesting? What three- or five- or 10-step program will I design to create a universal recovery from what feels like an end to all we have known before? The answer is simple: I don’t know. No one knows. And humans hate not knowing. We feel secure in our knowing and fill in any gaps in our knowledge with stories. But maybe it’s only from that universal place of not knowing that we can find connection to the deep understanding that everything we thought we knew about how to build an economy and to create wealth and happiness just doesn’t work. And, in that not knowing is space. Space for something else to emerge. If we listen to our hearts, sit still in this unique gift of time when we can actually SIT STILL AND LISTEN… drop out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies, I believe that the answer will emerge.
We have been given the unique and once-in-a-lifetime gift of having been put in a cocoon. How we emerge – whether as a butterfly or a decayed, rotted caterpillar – is completely up to us.