Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hallowing the Descent

"One might say with the Buddhists, that this is an important form of "mindfulness" and try and cultivate the inner posture in which such consciousness can be relatively sustained. Consulting the dictionary I find that for the word "hallowing" the following definitions are offered: 'make holy or set apart for holy use, consecrate; to respect greatly; venerate." It was a new and most encouraging idea to me - that one's diminishments could be "made holy," "consecrated," "respected greatly," even "venerated."

I saw that the first step for me in learning to "hallow" the progressive diminishments in store for me was deep-going acceptance. But the acceptance would have to be positive, not a negative one, if it were to be a real hallowing. I must learn to do something creative with it."


Quaker writer John Yungblut writes this in "On Hallowing One's Diminishments," using the ways of thinking he found to deal with his Parkinson's disease to provide a new way "into" times of personal and collective hardship. I'm indebted to my friend MEA for sending me Yungblut's pamphlet, and introducing this idea of the hallowing of loss to me, which has been in my thoughts a great deal lately.

There is no question in my mind, or in the minds of many thinkers, that we cannot go on from here the way we have been. That is, whether global warming, peak oil, world water supplies or financial crisis becomes the tipping point, things cannot continue the way they are. At the moment, most people do not know this yet - they believe fervently that if they just carry a cloth bag and vote for higher CAFE standards, the world will more or less go on for them as it has. They believe this, in large part, because they want to believe it. But that has to change.

My own takes is that if to convince people that their lives have to change dramatically, it will require a mix of different approaches - we will have to show the consequences of not doing so, show the rewards of doing it, provide social and cultural support, tell people that making changes is patriotic, cool, sexy and fun, also warn people about pain and suffering, and tell them that they are sacrificing for a cause - that is, we're going to need all the tools in our boxes. And one that I hadn't considered is Yungblut's fascinating notion of "Hallowing the Diminishment." It is a tool, I think that for some people - those who are religiously or spiritually inclined, may be quite powerful, and thus, it deserves a wider audience. It would be deeply false for us to argue that such a change will come with no hardships - so how do we help people accept these hardships, and move on? Here, I find Yungblut most useful.

What does it mean to consecrate or venerate your own losses? Yungblut does not lay them out this way, but there seems to be three strategies involved here. The first is the notion of treating your losses and suffering as companions to whom you are obligated to feel a friendly spirit towards. He notes that if your diminishments are not tormentors, it is easier to have a sense of humor about them, to seperate yourself from your sufferings.

The second point Yungblut raises is that each diminishment comes with gifts - the physical limitations that come with aging also bring with them "the reconversion from earning a living to cultural activity" - that is, there is time to talk to others, to think, to devote to the outside world as we retire and age. The definition of success changes - instead of focusing on work and outer definitions, success becomes children grown well to adulthood, the love of family, warmheartedness, kindness. Yungblut reminds us to look for the gifts in our losses.

Finally, Yungblut notes that we can view our losses as leading us gently towards our adaptation to the ultimate diminishment - death. That is, we can come to recognize that sometimes, the point is not whether we can alter events, but how we face them. We can find meaning, even when we cannot change things, in our ability to shape the meaning of things - to do right, even when the right thing is not enough, to face even very hard times with courage and honor, even though it won't make the hard times go away to do so.

What would this mean going into peak oil and climate change? How might we begin to "hallow" our descent. The first thought would be to recognize our companions entering into the future - name them, "peak energy" "Climate change" and "Depletion" and call them what they are - our future, and our companions for the long haul. Because once we acknowledge them, we might be able to get to know them, to get over our deepest fears that if we look too closely at the future we will not be able to bear it, and recognize and go on from there. Perhaps if we saw them as our companions in the future, we might be able to get over our own sense of personal punishment - the belief, for example, that our suffering is particular, and deeply important. That is, we might be able to recognize that turning the heat down to 55 is not an unjust cruelty, but simply what is asked of us, our share of the burden. Perhaps we might even develop a sense of humor about it.

The idea of venerating these companions does not mean we accept that they are good - peak oil, climate change and depletion are undoubtably evils for the world. But they are less fearsome when we understand them fully, and less fearsome still when we recognize that this is the world as *WE* have made it - this is the consequences, not of some unjust suffering inflicted upon us, but on the world we chose. There is a generation of people coming who did not choose this, and our children and grandchildren will have the right to be angry that they have to suffer. But we who are adults now must meet our descent as our choice, and our responsibility to ameliorate as best we can.

Finding the benefits will not be hard. There are enormous benefits, as well as losses, in the diminishing of industrial society. We can gain time with one another, stronger families, cultural wealth, more nutritious food, more exercise, peace and beauty, less stress, and a future for our children and our planet. These things are of great value, and we need to start recognizing their value immediately. There is a great deal of talk in the culture about "what really matters" - at the same time that we all have less and less of what we claim really matters. Pointing out that most of the virtues of a less industrialized, lower energy society are the things that we say we want most is going to be essential.

We must, however, do this in the context of recognizing real losses - that is, what I like about Yungblut's analysis is that it does not attempt to erase those losses. There are things that will get better for some of us, and things we will lose. We shouldn't lie about this, and pretend that all will be happy, easy and cool. The truth is that this will hurt us - and finding beauty and peace and better things in the midst of self-sacrifice is our only hope. Our choices are whether to lie, or not to lie - and I tend to think that the true message is far more powerful than the false one.

Finally, Yungblut's analysis reminds us that we cannot change everything. We must do all we can to prepare, to make things better, to ameliorate the suffering of others. And there's an excellent chance that what we do will be insufficient. But just as it matters how we enter death and leave life - whether on our feet or our knees, with courage or with cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, it matters how we act now *EVEN IF WE CANNOT CHANGE THE OUTCOME.* I am not claiming we shouldn't complain - and neither is Yungblut. I am not saying we should be perfect, without anger or fear or cowardice - we cannot. But we should understand that what we accomplish is one thing, and what we attempt is another. Our reach must exceed our grasp here - anything else would be a diminishment of ourselves and the meaning of our lives. We must try and do the impossible.

I doubt there is a single person out there reading this who does not fervently wish that we had addressed peak oil and climate change 30 years ago and that we really could go on the way we have been. But we're past that - the change in our world is as inevitable as death. We now only have the choice of facing the change - and how we face it. But the difference between embracing our future and changing our thinking to place the long term, the future of future generations at the center of ourselves, or running in fear and denial, is a difference beyond speaking.

Yungblut and I do not share our vision of what death is, and I'm sure there are many people reading this from other faiths and no faith at all. But the notion that we can make even our hardships into moments of creativity, honor, consecration, I think has value regardless of your faith. The truth is, we have power in two realms - the first is what we do. The second is in the meaning we apply to what we do - the way we face the world, the stories we tell ourselves. We must claim power in both realms - that is we must not only act to avert tragedy, but we must ensure that we have, to the extent we are able, made everything we can out of the meaning of our choices.

A long, long time ago, I wrote an undergraduate dissertation arguing that for the poet John Milton, this is the limitation of God - that is, in "Paradise Lost" God is omnipotent - except in the realm of meaning. God can make things happen - but God cannot choose their meaning. I think, for those of us who believe in some God or Gods, this is what human beings are for - the creation of meaning. And for those who believe in no God at all (and trust me, I'm not ranking these choices), we are the only people who can make things mean anything at all. If we want the legacy of our diminishment to be something other than that we, in greed and selfishness, did not understand and made our choices from no meaning at all, we must find a way to hallow, or at least apply meaning, to our descent.

Indeed, the Torah commentator Rashi suggests that the human capacity for meaning creation is tremendously powerful, perhaps more powerful than the ability to act, for he says in his gloss on the story of creation,

There was no vegetation on the earth when creation was completed on the sixth day, before man was created. Even though God had commanded “Let the earth sprout vegetation” on the third day, it had not emerged, but remained just at the rim of the soil, until the sixth day. Why? Because God had not sent rain. Why not? Because “there was no man to til the soil and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.”

That is, the rain came because we knew we needed it, we saw the emptiness of the world, and we made it necessary. It may be that we need to make peace with our companions, find our blessings and understand that how we face the future may matter as much as what the future is, in order to bring about the rain that will make the future bloom.

Sharon

38 comments:

homebrewlibrarian said...

I'm reminded of one of Aaron Newton's post (can't remember which one but it was in the last two months) where he talks about coming to an understanding about the coming, drastic changes for the future. Instead of fearing that he would not be ready for these changes (whatever they might be), he decided that the changes had already begun. He referred to his fear compelled life as sprinting but when he embraced the changes, he defined his actions in terms of a marathon. He was able to take a much longer view of life which allowed him to settle down. The benefit was that the stress load on everyone around him, as well as on himself, decreased significantly. A good example of hallowing his diminishment and one I'm very close to accepting for myself.

Kerri

Ani said...

I hate to say it but I don't see the majority of the world "getting it" this way. Americans who get it at all are for the most part intent on "buying green" as if this will solve the problem, or finding a way to "grow" the economy while responding to climate change and peak oil. I don't know that I can speak for those outside the U.S.- others here can do that better. So while there are definitely some of us that are willing to confront our "companions" and recognize how our lives will change, most are not anywhere near that point. I'm not sure if waiting/hoping for a spiritual upheaval and dawning of awareness of the masses here is very realistic unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Ani wrote:

So while there are definitely some of us that are willing to confront our "companions" and recognize how our lives will change, most are not anywhere near that point.

I agree. I figure we'll know if we've reached that point because world population will actually begin to decrease instead of continuing to rapidly increase. (No, I'm not holding my breath.) Until that time, most anything else we do is nothing more than putting a bandaid on the real issues. We should still do it, of course, but while we're working hard to reduce our own footprints we shouldn't kid ourselves that a small self-sacrificing fraction of the human population will ever mitigate the ongoing follies of the majority.

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Anonymous said...

I do see what you are saying - but I have just translated 55F into Celsius. Am now wondering if you made a typing error - as that translates into only 13C. Even the legal minimum workplace temperature in Britain is 16C. I am wondering whether I might be forced to reduce my house temperature to 20C - and hoping to goodness not (as below 22C all I can do is sit in a little cold miserable huddle pretty incapable of doing anything). I might just about survive as normal with 20C (and bundled up in too many layers of clothes) - but it is just not possible to have a lower temperature than that. If anyone tried to make me do that - my first question would be "how many children do you have?". 30 years ago I realised I was doing the planet a favour by deciding not to have any children - so if someone has had 3 or more children subsequent to about 35-40 years ago (ie the point at which we all knew about overpopulation) then I would refuse to do a thing they said. I wouldnt condemn them for child 3 onwards - but, in fairness, I wouldnt see why their child 3 onwards should use my share of whatever fuel is going. I am vegetarian/dont have evem "replace me" level children/dont have a car - so I do feel entitled to have an opinion on climate change.

LimeSarah said...

Anonymous right above me -- there are lots of things you can do to keep your house and you warm without turning up the thermostat -- keeping the thermostat at 55 doesn't necessarily mean that your house is at 55.

It seems kind of harsh to pick on population as your sticking point, given that that is one of the most non-reversible decisions someone can make. You can sell a car, turn down the thermostat, move to a smaller house, start a chicken farm, or change your diet. But it's generally considered fairly evil to kill your children because you believe that overpopulation is a major problem. What if someone was forced to have children? Or genuinely didn't realize the extent of the overpopulation problem? Everyone has made decisions that cause them to use "more than their share" of resources...I'm not sure why this renders their opinions on resource management automatically void.

jlpicard2 said...

I keep my house about 66F (19C) during the day, and 62F (16.7C) at night. I prefer to wear sweatpants and sweatshirts during the winter at home. I wear a sockhat or a fall fleece coat if I am too cold. My parent's house, on the other hand, is so warm I need to specially dress in short sleeve shirts to avoid overheating.

jewishfarmer said...

LOL, wow, my example of 55 seems to have really gotten some energies going. This was meant as an example, not an absolute prescription, as signified by the word "maybe" in front of my comment.

I like the idea that we all knew about over population because 40 years ago, people were discussing it. Given that I was born 35 years ago, and it hasn't been a meaningful topic of social discussion since around then, I think I can fairly state that I didn't know about the implications of overpopulation until after I had my third child. All I can do is reduce our energy usage - my family is working on a 90% reduction, so my four kids combined use about as much energy as 1/2 of one average American kid - that is, their consumption of most (not all resources - they eat normally although we grow much of the food)resources is equivalent to the consumption of 1 radically conserving American child. That does not eliminate the issue of exponential growth and their children, but it does make it unlikely that my kids are using your share of anything - perhaps some of the share of very poor children in the Global South, but not yours.

People are entitled to do whatever they want, or to take me seriously or not on whatever grounds they want. I've discussed my family size enough times that I'm not going to bother doing it here. But all of us start from where we are - most of us have a past of ecological imperfection, and you go on from where you are. None of us can erase our prior plane flights or driving habits, nor can we erase our children, even if we wanted to pass ecological purity tests ;-).

There are real differences in physiology - all I can say is that I live quite comfortably in a cold climate (colder than any place in Britain) and keep my house between 12 and 13 C quite comfortably. We dress warmly, keep moving, wear long underwear and acclimate. The house is often warmer than that, because we take advantage of solar heat, and do everything we can to retain what heat we gain. But other people can and should make what choices they want.

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Ani, I don't claim a majority of anyone will be reaached by any single strategy - that was the whole point of saying we need multiple strategies. But there are a lot of religious people in the rich world - more in America than Europe, but there are a lot there too. IMHO, we need strategies that intersect faith and environmentalism particularly because we need to engage religious people in this project.

Sharon

Rosa said...

We dropped our thermostat to 55 degrees fahrenheit (from 60 night, 64 day last year). Did that for a month. It was too cold for me - the cold sucked heat out of my feet through my wool socks, and my son hugged himself and shivered every time we changed his clothes.

So we bumped it up to 57 (about 14 degrees C) and it's fine. I think it feels fine because of the month we spent with it set at 55. I generally wear longjohns under slacks and a t-shirt, sometimes with a sweater and hat (it depends how active I am). An unexpected benefit is that I am much more willing to go outside - I only have to add a jacket and boots and gloves instead of a huge amount of gearing up. And of course coming in from outside (it's a balmy 15 degrees this morning - most mornings when I leave for work it's been single digits, and every winter we have a few weeks below zero) makes the house seem warmer.

We have dropped our natural gas useage by more than half. That puts us at about a quarter of what we were using 5 years ago - two years ago we replaced our 50 year old boiler with a new one and halved our gas useage. We have a large and drafty house - I think I might be able to cut our useage in half again with added insulation, window covers or new windows, draft dodgers, etc. Our long term plan is a smaller, newer house. I'm trying to convince my boyfriend that we should get new windows even though we don't plan on living here much longer, as an investment that will reduce energy useage no matter wo lives here.

A negative effect is that by 3 or 4 every morning every mammal in the house is in our bed. I think if there were more people in the house (we have one child and three cats) the smaller critters would be more distributed and not all laying on me. And some of our friends don't like to visit, which is saddening. My parents said they would only visit if we turned the heat up, which we did for 5 days for them - I'm convinced Monbiot is right and the hard rock people's downshifting hits is "love miles", the costs of traveling, buying gifts for, and keeping up the social graces with, your loved ones. But I have hope that the combination of cost and ideological shift will change those costs (despite depressing evidence from this Christmas.)

Ani said...

Sharon-

I have no quarrel with involving religious folks with climate change, peak oil, environmental destruction, the whole kabob really. I just question the likelyhood of most people in the U.S., religious or not, confronting the issues in this way. It does seem to me that most, not all, but most of the so-called religious population of the U.S. is engrossed in issues such as abortion and gay marriage- not the sort of issues that you are writing of nor what we truly need them to be involved in. So while I can't rule anything out-who knows, maybe the tooth fairy is real- I'm not going to hold my breath and wait for the majority of Americans to do what needs to be done......would that they would....... Am I being cynical? Perhaps. But if I keep on being a realist, I won't base my planning on what may amount to pie-in-the-sky hopes of a mass awakening...... I don't blame you for wanting this- I just don't see it right now.....

jewishfarmer said...

Ani, remember, it isn't an all or nothing thing as you postulate. Conservative religious communities are already beginning to have these discussions, and need a language to have them in. Liberal religious communities have been doing this for a while. And every one that does prepare makes its community and region a little stronger.

I think you've got a false dichotomy going here - either we give it up entirely and do nothing or we wait for the tooth fairy to magically awaken everyone with a religion. Those simply aren't the only choices.

Sharon

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Grandma Misi said...

Hi Sharon... I just wanted to say that this "Hallowing the
Descent" post encouraged and inspired me in so many ways. Differently from some of the other posters - it affected me in only a very personal, inside-myself, way.

I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems appearing to loom in the days ahead... and the lack of understanding of not just "folks" but my family specifically and the people I know and care about the most. I feel frustrated by my lack of resources (both financially and physically) to make BIG preparations and changes...

This post really, REALLY helped me to see things more positively. To not only accept my challenges but to hallow them and appreciate any and all progress I make and to accept the path I'm on with who I am today, what I can do today, what I see today and where I plan to go - TODAY.

I cannot possibly explain all that I mean and feel... I wish I could be as erudite and splendid a writer as you. I'm one of your biggest fans, can you tell???

Thank you for the wonderful post from the bottom of my heart.
Misi, Pacific Northwest

P.S. is the book done and when will it be published/come out?????

nulinegvgv said...

Sharon you pen yet another excellent post.

On the more technical topic of addressing home temperature settings I highly recommend the Nebraskan philosophy of my friend J.D. Paulsen. "If it's cold put on a sweater. If it's hot take off your shoes."

Moving around certainly helps and sleeping next to animals, down comforters and wool, lots of wool, are all more appropriate ways to warm up in my humble opinion.

But overlooked is the idea of transition. Changing the setting on your thermostat, this very evening, from 72 degrees to 55 degrees is likely to result in spousal rebellion in addition to unexpectedly freezing trips to the loo.

As autumn becomes winter, it helps to open windows and slowly adjust to the cooling temperatures. The same is true in the summer. Utilize spring and fall temps. Ease into temperature change.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Beautiful.

riverbird said...

Like aaron speaking of spousal rebellion, we have to Practice living differently now, not because our small effort changes the climate situation, but so that we are good at it and used to it when the time come to really need it. we are also an example for others to see what is truly possible.

these last years, we have been doing an experiment around our house to see just what is possible. we leave 'furnace' (woodstove in our case) absolutely off from april to october, and by mid-fall, we still have most windows and doors wide open for the ambient temps. we live in western oregon, so it's more temperate here. our house rule is that a fire doesn't get built until the thermostat hits 50.

we have acclimated quite well and our energy use is 1/30 of the average oregonian. and yes, all our four-leggeds share the beds - we are all quite happy and our savings have become such that we are living for nearly free, relatively - not to mention our liesure time is through the roof broken by periods of "chop wood, carry water" which are terrific activities if you're feeling chilly. we've never felt so rich for so little!

our whole approach to energy descent is wrapped up in sharon's post here, Hallowing. we have phrased it as having a choice - you either will choose your descent or it will choose you, and this latter 'choice' really isn't one, it's more like having something forced on you. which path would you rather pursue, cruising down a nice long, occasionally steep country road at your liesure or being chased down the same road by a million fully loaded semi trucks right on your tail, each pushing down on the next?

tasterspoon said...

Maybe it's best to leave the offspring thread up there where it died, but I'm actually inclined to think that I'd rather see *more* kids reared per Sharon's sensitivity and consciousness and optimism and willingness to work towards change than *fewer*. Which is not to obligate her kids to go into politics or do anything other than what they want, but I'm inclined to think we need more citizens alert to the issues that are discussed throughout this blog. I bet they're great kids.

Anonymous said...

Re my earlier comment about number of children people have - then my maths indicates I was definitely aware about overpopulation at 27 (as I remember being outraged I had to pay for a sterilisation operation - despite being in Britain with its NHS - when I felt, au contraire a "reward" would have been more appropriate). I am now 54 (so that would have been 1980). So - maybe Britain was in advance of U.S.A. in knowledge about overpopulation if an ordinary person in the street like myself was well aware back in 1980. Guess I have got so used to finding a lot of ideas from U.S.A. are here in Britain later, that it never struck me that the knowledge about overpopulation percolating down to "street" level might have taken literally decades longer to become known about in U.S.A.

jewishfarmer said...

In the 1970s and into the early
1980s, population was part of the public discourse in the US - at which point that conversation pretty much ceased and it was Morning in America, in much the same way that in the 1970s, we were aware of energy descent, and then we stopped being aware.

Since I was 8 in 1980, and I don't take a lot of moral responsibility for failing to be aware of the population discussion at that point - and there literally has not been one until the last few years on any mainstream radar in the US.

Sharon

riverbird said...

I agree with tasterspoon, better to have more kids raised by folks like Sharon, and fewer in mainstream subrrbia.

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2015/09/29