When I started working with the terminally ill over 20 years ago I had not yet made the connection between the hospice approach to human suffering at the end of life and that of our embattled and dying ecosystem. I first encountered the idea of viewing the earth and all who inhabit it on hospice after reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. I came to see the same patterns of misery, denial, angst, terror, empathy, alienation and actualization that define our own personal response to grief mirrored in our collective condition as a species in a myriad of species facing their end. And I believe this model is the best response to the catastrophe of climate change, mass species extinction and the self-destructive nature of industrial civilization.
Wikipedia defines hospice as “a type of care and philosophy of care that focuses on the palliation of a chronically ill, terminally ill or seriously ill patient’s pain and symptoms, and attending to their emotional and spiritual needs.” It is a philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the current models addressing (or not) the coming catastrophe. Sadly, hospice continues to be an alien concept in much of modern western medicine, the goal being instead to save the patient through aggressive measures, and without pause. Hospice is still largely viewed in a defeatist light. To many, it is seen as “giving up.” Many people still refer to someone who has died of cancer as “losing their battle.” And the myth that a hospice is still simply a place to go die, as in the Medieval age, endures in popular culture. But to most of those who have consciously chosen hospice when they face a limited future, their experience has nothing to do with giving up. Instead, they have decided that they wish to use what time they have left to pursue the best aspects of what it is to be alive in the first place.
To the person who has realized that their time ahead may be short, materialism, popularity, money, and power usually fall by the wayside. In their place, the nurturing of relationships, connection with nature, pursuit of one’s deepest dreams, celebration of imagination, and spiritual fulfillment become more urgent. Forgiveness and mercy provide a road to healing, and the life we are fortunate to have left becomes infinitely more meaningful and precious. Society is a mirror of the individual psyche; and when faced with grave news both will react with the same stages of grief outlined by the pioneering psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Like the feedback loops of climate change, none of this is linear. All of these stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are interchangeable and fluid. And each serves an important purpose for protecting the psyche. But the paralysis we are at now as a society in facing our collective future will only create more misery and suffering as the clock ticks on.
In its unending quest to dominate and profit from nature, Western society has divorced itself from the sacred. It has created a civilization that is dependent upon the liquified remains of a distant past buried deep in the earth’s crust, and on the value of intangible digits that float between banks and corporations. It relies on avarice and communicates with violence. And in the wake of this ultimately self-destructive obsession, the nature of which it springs from and which ultimately sustains its existence, is decimated, reduced to rubble and cast aside. The narcissistic impulse of the consumer driven economy cannot view nature, and the myriad of other life forms that inhabit its realm, as anything but soulless objects for exploitation and profit. Indeed, it is this disconnect that has lead us to the Anthropocene epoch, or age of homo sapiens, the Sixth Mass Extinction, and to the precipice of omnicide we stand at now.
The hospice model provides a framework for grappling with the overwhelming ecocide unfolding before us, and the nightmarish landscape of mindless consumerism. It speaks the language of kindness, mercy and compassion to a world glaringly bereft of all three. It generously applies a healing balm to the wounds inflicted by injustice, cruelty and war. At a time where countless species are being condemned to the halls of extinction each day, and where climate chaos is accelerating, the compassionate realism of hospice, which embraces every dimension of healing, presents humanity with the best hope we have left to cherish and fiercely preserve all that is precious on this life drenched planet. And it reclaims our ancestral heritage; when we once knew what it was like to look up in awe at the night sky and realize we live adrift in an ocean of stars, and appreciate just how marvelous the improbability of life itself really is.
Kenn Orphan 2015