Repent – another world is possible

Repent? Really?

Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites? Who needs a rule book with a hundred or more prescribed prayers for every micro-action of the day, like brushing your teeth and putting on your pants. We’re not nomadic tribes in the desert, we’re city dwellers with jobs. Proscribed rituals in the Talmud today would be diagnosed as OCD and medicated.  This is the 21st century. We are post-modern, enlightened, rational optimizers. We’re not sinful. We’re not even neurotic. We’re just gluten intolerant, or hypoglycemic or underslept or over worked or underpaid or didn’t get in our 10,000 steps. We’re mad, sad, glad or scared – not bad – and will communicate responsibly as soon as possible. We read the paper, give to causes, and go to book groups. We’ve penetrated the mysteries of neurobiology, who needs God telling us what to do?

These are not ordinary times, though. Technological intermediaries affect every aspect of our lives – the food on our table, the gas (or electrons) in our cars, reading, writing, education, training, romance are all enabled by long technology-mediated supply chains that must function seamlessly. Y2K turned out to be a big nothing-burger. Peak Oil got f*cked by fracking. Now, though, we’ve gone too far into the machinery of the living earth, and it’s careering off course, and we know it. Fires, toxins (the frogs and locusts of ancient times), droughts and floods are driving people from their homes. Climate disruptions are not just threatening small island communities in the Pacific. They are coming after all major coastal cities.

These are Biblical times. By that I mean that these are times when a major corrective will be applied to our lives one way or another: we will grow up and face up and do what’s needed to change how we inhabit this planet, or our civilization will be smited… or smote… by floods, fires, disease, grid failures, uprisings like we see now in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, France, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Brazil – only 10-times worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued ever sterner warnings in the past year. Carbon neutral by 2050. Or better, 2040. Or maybe 2030 just to be safe. Youth movements have grown to pressure adults – who hold the reins of power – to do the right thing: Fridays for the Future, Greta-inspired school strikes and marches, Sunrise Movement. How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results as the children who are inheriting our whirlwind pressed their faces against the figurative glass of the institutions in charge.

The wisdom we need is far more radical than the everyday practices that help us stay sane – meditation, journaling, weekly religious services. The system is now hair-triggered for failure on a whole-earth scale: the oceans can’t absorb much more carbon, the ocean creatures can’t tolerate much more acidification, species and tribes are winking out of existence with the raging fires, a methane burp from once-frozen tundra will send temperatures soaring. The enormity of our likely failure to respond collectively and decisively boggles not just the mind but the soul.

Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.

We have sinned against nature. We thought we were tinkering, making things better, but our way of life has overwhelmed the adaptive capacity of our kith and kin – birds, bugs, trees, bushes, mammals, reptiles, fish, soil microorganisms. Zoos are now arks for species that are functionally defunct in the wild. Even the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, designed to preserve hundreds of seeds should a global calamity require a re-start of our food systems, was flooded by a melt event 30 years earlier than predicted. 

Children when they’ve broken something valuable have more grief than we do. I remember happily picking all the tulips in the back yard to give to my mother, who was horrified at the carnage to her flower beds. I can feel now the stinging remorse I felt then as I tried to reattach each tulip to the bulb. Or when I fender bender’d my mother’s car on my first licensed trip out of the driveway. In both cases, the remorse was immediate and bitter – so mortifying I never made the mistake again. Somehow, as adults in societies where so much feels beyond our control, we are strangely mum and un-mortified about the sixth extinction underway right now. Nature will take care of that! She’s got a lot more species up her sleeve :-). Did we really need that beetle anyway? It’s unfortunate, but what can we do? When you stop feeling remorse, when the causal factors seem so far away from your choices that you don’t feel at all, this is when the situation reaches biblical proportions. When the sins are civilization wide and everyone – guilty or innocent – will pay. 

This is a time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly.

To face the golden calf we’ve worshiped, the myth of human ingenuity ever optimizing the tangled mess God made and left us with. To realize that whatever we’ve done as correctives – marches, movements, initiatives, inventions, innovations, prototypes – has been too little, too weak, too shallow a cut into the religion of progress. There’s no one to blame at this late date. The autocrats and kleptocrats and plutocrats and unqualified petulant child-kings are the symptoms of the rot, not the causes. They will accelerate our drive off the cliff, and maybe that too is God’s will.

The diagnosis, too, is of biblical proportion. 

We have strayed from the path Life set before us in the garden. We have lost our way. No quibbling about what you did that wasn’t that bad. That you didn’t do anything, you just followed the rule of the world you were born into. Three quarters of humanity will be die from floods, fires, droughts, starvation, tornadoes, cancers, infections for which there is no cure. This is the flood that wipes the slate clean.

Repent. Just let go and let reality speak to you. It’s only hard before you do it.

While you are still scheming or cajoling or denying or pointing to other times when the end was near but it never came, you figure you won’t have to repent. Imagine repenting and giving everything away to the poor, and the catastrophe is averted. What a chump. Before repenting you figure we’ll get through this. Humans always have. But you feel like someone on the lam. Someone with a price on his head.

To repent is to feel such direct sorrow at what you have caused that you turn your life around. You are not passingly sorry. You are sorry for the rest of your days, and come to cherish this sorrow as it reminds you to care about the lives you touch. You may stumble, but you correct course as soon as you are a half a degree off.

What other word carries the weight of repentance? The Greek word is metanoia, when the mind decisively turns towards truth, integrity. In AA they call it hitting bottom, the moment when you realize your alcoholism runs your life, that you are powerless to change, that you need to call on a higher power. A Buddhist teacher described a moment in meditation practice when you are thoroughly disgusted with your chattering mind, with the petty, sniveling you behind your public you, when the scaffolding of your ego seems as integral to you as your bones. Repentance goes down to the core, to your identity. It’s not changing behavior. It’s changing your identity operating system. You are no longer the person who does that sh*t. You know you used to be. You can own every scrap of your stupidity because you’ve repented, you’ve committed to a different way. 

Here’s how it looks for me, now, as we turn to 2020, a year that seems so much closer to the climate doomsday numbers.

I am stunned by my human arrogance, through and through.
I forgot I was part of the community of life.

I have glimpses of that belonging, but most of the time I’m species-centric. Those times when I belong, I enter time, or, in other words, I enter co-existence with the life around me – and become speechless. I am a creature among creatures who all have a season and who will die sooner or later and feed the community with our rotting carcasses. Insects do their whole life cycle in days or weeks. Trees might live a thousand years. The earth is made up of all that was, old life surrendering to new life and life going on. I am awkward still as a member of the community of life, barging in like a drunk Uncle, and stumbling out, but every time I return I am welcomed back and learn a bit more.

On a recent trip to the Galapagos (yes, i took a plane), a sea lion approached me while I was snorkeling and did a few rolls and flipper flaps like an invitation to play and I just went with it. We circled and rolled and looked at one another underwater for a long time. That was holy. I used to walk to clear my head, unmindful of the life I was moving through. More and more, I tend to look and listen and stop. These are small things that I hope will shift my view from hubris to humble in relation to my kin.

I will never stop thinking – maybe won’t even after I die – so I turn my thoughts to helping as much of nature as possible survive this gash my species has opened in her body. I’m a writer so I write. I have a good garden area in my back yard so this year I want to do better at building fertility and planting for the bees, butterflies, and birds as well as for beauty and bounty. I love my friends and the island community where I live and show that love as many ways as I dare.

What I do hasn’t changed that much, but why I do it has. I am no longer trying to turn back the tide of destruction. But I am making the corners of the world that I touch a little more lively and robust. I’ve become involved in the regenerative agriculture movement and want to help it grow, however I can, as it has practical wisdom on working cooperatively with nature. In the past I would have imagined it was the key to changing the world. I would work in order to get everyone on board. Now there’s little “in order to.” I engage gratefully, happy to belong, to contribute.

Repentance isn’t an end, with a chariot coming down with some nice white robes so you look good as a penitent. It really is just facing the totality of the mess we’ve made here on this beautiful planet and pledging allegiance to the God of redemption, which is, it turns out, the garden God placed us in at the beginning of time.

We are Life’s Prodigal Sons and Daughters.

Returning to the house of our Father and Mother – our larger body of Life – isn’t just showing up at holidays or Sunday calls. It’s full inner accounting with how far we’ve wandered, how much we’ve squandered. It isn’t merely that you, individually, have done something awful or that I have tried and failed, it’s that we’ve gotten so comfortable with individualism itself that we see repentance as simply an individual reckoning and an individual redemption. I think it’s much bigger than that now.

How do “we” individuals become a “we” humanity, the prodigal species, again? “Coming back to life” means fully realizing how swept up we have been in a delusion of separation and have laid waste to what we were given for free.

Can repentance on this level happen? Can humanity be redeemed?

I don’t know. I’m just another sobered soul in this biblical time, heading to the tent revival with a heart full of sorrow and a mind that’s fallen quiet in the face of how lost I am, we are. I would find it both peaceful and hopeful if we could all just fall silent, get on our knees and then our stomachs, and kiss the ground, breath, sigh, grieve and give our hearts back to Life and see if we can become a we again after a good long while.

6 Comments

  1. Amen. Thank you. You have taken 2 concepts (repentance and the notion of the Garden) difficult to translate into practicality and have explained them in coherence and simplicity. Magnificent!
    I hope we can all support Greta and the youth movement. Something new, something never seen before needs to come to meet their/our need. The need to save this Bodhi tree that we call Earth. Something new that can overthrow a seemingly omnipotent system that rewards egos and corporations, rather than Community. I always thought that for the writers of the apocalypse their vision of the future was probably of giant machines destroying forrest and oil rigs venting fire and smoke and sucking the life out of our planet, having nothing in their world to compare this to they decided to called them monsters and demons. Yes I want to repent and wish I could assume responsibility for all of this so that I could change it. Thank you. Forgive the long reply. Poi.

    Neil
  2. It’s quite simple. We understand the earth is a living being. We nurture and support the life around us. Within ourselves and with all that we come into contact with.
    My only regrets are where I have failed to do just this. It is necessary to simply forgive and move on.

    Bronwen
  3. Repentance on a world-scale would be great, because we are implicitly responsible for the egregious sins against nature and one another that corrupt governments perpetually are perpetuating, simply because we did not protest, we have permitted it to happen and to continue. It would be a great first step in the transformation of humanity, but it probably isn’t going to happen, so its just another nice idea, a wishful thought.

    What often is lacking, is real substantive, often out of the box, ideas to make the big necessary changes, like how to get out from under the death grip of corrupt governments taking us to both extinction and totalitarianism. Why is it the revolutions, rebellions, strikes and protests hasn’t changed much or corrected the problem? Why are we still subjected to having to accept the unacceptable every day of our lives, to have to be complicit with all the crimes against humanity by meekly accepting them? The fact that they are spying on us, creating refugees in Venezuela, Syria, and elsewhere and not being held accountable for it, besides destroying whole civilizations, murdering millions, just so some psychopathic corporatocrazy can steal the resources from a defenseless country and make another billion, why is this overlooked and accepted. Is it not a large part of the “system”, of the whole system? Is cybernetics leaving this essential, huge part of the puzzle out? I don’t get it.

    I think now is the time that all corrupt governments need to be confronted, How? by leveraging the world-wide protests to act unilaterally, and at the same time to demand the restructuring of governments from vertical to horizontal, which is virtually uncorruptible. Horizontal governance provides the framework for a more efficient, less costly, more hands-on, more really democratic, decentralized way of organizing society. It is not dogmatic, is flexible, and is common-sensical. Rojava, Syria has been doing it for 8 years with 4.5 million people. I could tell you a lot about it, but it would be the way to govern the world, where everyone would have autonomy with cooperation and collaboration. This is the big first step: confronting criminal, unrepentant, corrupt governments.

    What do you think Benjamin, do you agree, and if not, tell me why please.

    1. why is your idea not a “nice idea not going to happen”? I agree in principle but that level of civil society coordination in overthrowing the corporatocracy seems to be to me beyond our collective capacity. it is also true that people are so wedded to the economy that overthrowing leaders feels like snipping the thin cord that attaches us to life’s basics. quite a predicament

      Vicki
  4. I have also been drawn back to religious philosophy as of late, though not specifically to the idea of repentance. I have been leaning deeply into apocalypse. Today the word means destruction on a vast scale, cataclysm, breakdown, or (in religious circles) the end of the world. This meaning is quite new, having emerged in the mid-19th century due to the association of the word ‘apocalypse’ to the cataclysmic imagery presented in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament of the Bible (aka the Christian Bible).

    The word apocalypse comes to us from the ancient Greeks. It meant ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal’ (‘apo-‘ is a Greek root that meant ‘un-‘, and ‘kaluptein’ is the Greek root that meant ‘to cover’). To the ancient Greeks, apocalyptic times did not necessarily promise destruction or breakdown, but rather portended the revealing of surprising truths in potentially dramatic ways. In this, apocalypse is a synonym of the word revelation. The Book of Revelation, in fact, is sometimes referred to as Apocalypse of John (the narrator in the book is named John), or simply as Apocalypse.

    I titled of my new podcast Embracing Apocalypse. I think it is high time we turn towards, and even embrace, the many truths being revealed by our tumultuous times, rather than turning away from them because they make us uncomfortable or because they challenge core beliefs about how the world works and our place in it.

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