“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” –
A few years ago I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died and he had always dreamed of seeing the region; so we were happy we could do this one last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glimmering mountains of cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to a receding glacier. It was breathtaking, yet throughout the journey a specter of sorrow accompanied me.
In the West we are conditioned to chase those specters away. Grief itself is often viewed as something unnatural, as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by silencing ourselves, ignoring it or medicating it to numbness. We often hear well-meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”
But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief that cannot ignore our collective predicament as a species and that often accompanies a sense of panic and powerlessness. And I have begun to relate even more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an unheard anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of an omnicidal status quo. And so many of us feel that sense of terrorized paralyzation at the madness of rising militarism, fascism and brutality and an unfolding ecocidal nightmare. But so often we feel confined to an interior space that our culture has consigned us to.
Today we are bombarded with distraction. Our brains are flooded with carefully programmed and meticulously marketed algorithms that condition us to respond to screens rather than each other and the living planet. The dominant economic order robs us of our feelings, thoughts and even our grief and transforms them into capital and commodities for sale. Indeed, it is incapable of doing anything else. But many ancient traditions grappled with grief in a public way that was not exploitative.
Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Many indigenous cultures have elaborate rituals to mark the death of loved ones and the passage of bereavement. In the small fishing and farming community where my mother grew up every able bodied person was expected to follow the casket up to the cemetery in a solemn procession. And these public expressions of private grief provided a bridge of solidarity and community.
Now many of these traditions have been rejected or forgotten. They are vestiges buried by modernity; and in their absence a deep sense of alienation has grown. Facing our grief can be transformative. It can foster empathy and has the power to galvanize people to action. It cannot alter the past. It does not have the power to halt climate feedback loops or predict and prevent tipping points. And it cannot stop a looming biospheric and societal chaos that is all but locked into the system. But it can strengthen the pysche, offer us an insight into resilience, and give us the tools we need to resist the inhumanity that accompanies collapse. It can also help us appreciate and protect what remains.
I remember pouring over wildlife books when I was a boy, always dreaming of exploring their exotic locations in person one day. The natural world was at once terrifying and abundantly rich with mystery and wonder. Of course in those days I never thought I might witness its end. I never considered that the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world would succumb to a bleached death. I never thought that the Arctic Ocean would be ice free, or that it would rain in Greenland in winter, or that gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice would simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica. I never imagined the Amazon Rainforest would suffer from catastrophic fires every year, or that 40% of wildlife would be sponged away from the living earth, or that plastic in the seas would be so ubiquitous that a bag would be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. Now, decades later, I have witnessed all of that and more. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, so with all of this it becomes impossible at some point for any rational human being of conscience not to grieve.
But on that trip years ago I had the opportunity to meet grief face to face. I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat hard in my chest as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth. I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me. But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. For a brief moment I wouldn’t view him as an adversary, but as a companion. So I embraced him like a long lost friend and he smiled at me and said, “What took you so long?”
Kenn Orphan 2019
Beautiful piece that puts into words many of my feelings, my unnamed fears, and my grief and sense of dread. Still, it provided me with a sense of feeling less alone. I will look into the sources of your 3 quotes at the beginning for further reading. If you know any sources of reading that can provide comfort as yours did, please pass them on. Thanks. Good work.
During Roman times society developed yet another means for allaying death anxiety through the vicarious deaths of others, the gladiators in the circus. Spectators gained power over death because they were ordering the deaths of the combatants. Spectators participated in the death mystique without actually having to risk death themselves. Vicarious experiencing of death has persisted across the ages in many cultural rituals. In the American west of California, bear and bull fights were staged in which a grizzly bear fought a bull to the death. These events, held on Sunday after church services, usually resulted in the death of the bull. The bull had only one chance to win, which was to charge across the small fenced arena and gore the grizzly with his horns. If he failed to score, the bear would leap on the bull’s back and bite his neck. Crowds cheered. Children were exposed to the spectacle. These vicarious enactments were often preceded by cockfights or dog fights which although illegal persist in rural areas to this day. Public hanging and beheading and draw-and-quartering consecrate death in the realm of law, courts, and the power of the state to take life. Citizens watching these events brought death under control. The lesson learned was to obey the law and avoid death. The deeper meaning was immortality: The Roman circus, the bull and bear fights, and public executions all confer power over death, thus allaying society’s death anxiety.
The contemporary era provides us with new forms for vicariously experiencing death: TV, films, and video games. Deaths on TV comprise a major means by which we humans moderate our death anxiety. Death is ubiquitous on TV. The average American child will witness 16,000 murders on TV by the time he or she graduates from high school. Witnessing a shooting, stabbing, throat-cutting, immolation, choking, or beating to death constitutes a vicarious experiencing of death that diminishes the terror associated with our own death. Viewers know the death is artificial. Viewers participate in the mystique of the death, and they have power over death because it can be staged. When death happened before contemporary times, it was not artificial. It was actual.
American society in particular has developed another means for defending against death awareness: accumulating weapons as individuals and as a society. The numbers of weapons designed for killing that are owned by Americans reflects American society’s deep fear of death. Smith & Wesson is one of the pre-eminent American arms manufacturers. The company assessed the domestic market for auto-loading long rifles—no one likes to admit these are assault rifles because mass murderers like Adam Lanza who killed 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook in 2012 have given the weapon a bad name—at $489 million dollars. Researchers estimate there are 310 million firearms in the U.S. including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. Estimating the number of assault rifles has proved more difficult. Analysis suggests that Americans possess 3.25 million foreign and domestic assault rifles. Manufacturers don’t like calling these assault rifles because they are supposedly sold to kill someone attempting to kill the home owner, although they are more often used in mass murders. The manufacturers would like Americans to think of their product as a protective rifle or shield rifle. The facts belie this claim. Burglary is the main cause of someone entering a home. Data show that 61% of burglars are unarmed. Burglars are more likely to be known to the victim. In the period between 2003 and 2007 there were no deaths due to home invasions. Yet citizens accumulate handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The enormous number of weapons of all kinds—one weapon at least for every citizen in the nation—reveals American’s mortality anxiety, the belief that at any moment armed intruders could break down their doors and kill the citizens and their families. Underneath this belief lies an unconscious anguish about death and dying. No thought, no fact can change the unconscious fear of death. It must be raised to conscious awareness and then and only then can it be resolved.
The paradox of keeping weapons to protect against home invaders is that the weapons are far more likely to be used to harm the home owner or someone living in the home or a visitor. On average 13 people age 10 to 24 die from firearms every day in America. None of these young people was invading a home. Children shoot each other accidentally when playing with a loaded firearm while parents are out of the house. Firearms are much more likely to be used in suicides or murder of a family member. Romantic partners use handguns to kill their former partners. Between 2003 and 2014 10,018 women were murdered in 18 states. Fifty-four percent were gun deaths and 55% of the murders were committed by a former or current partner. Children take unsecured handguns to school and shoot other students whether accidentally or on purpose.
As a globe-spanning civilization, humans collectively invest their wealth and the fruits of their labor in accumulating vast amounts of military weapons. America’s fear of annihilation is so great that it spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. A deep dread of death motivates the nation to invest in weapons. The nation spends its wealth on imagined dangers rather than on very real dangers like crumbing infrastructure, inadequate health care, education and schools, or mitigating the effects of global climate change. The money spent on weapons enables society to commit its most deadly defense against death anxiety: externalizing fear of death through murdering others.
Externalization is a psychological defense against anxiety. A person who fears death externalizes that fear by getting someone else to feel it. The fear of death is projected onto the outside world. For Americans, the externalizing defense is excessive and has led to the development of a cultural neurosis. Americans murder each other, and America murders human beings in other countries. In that way, America induces others to feel the death anxiety that we hold deep in our unconscious. Awareness of death is traumatic if unresolved, and the trauma begins in childhood when knowledge of death first occurs. Psychologists have long known that we humans reenact the traumas we’ve experienced in childhood, often in disguised form. Humans reenact the trauma of awareness of death in the disguised form of murder, of killing. In the act of murder or killing, the killer induces the victim to feel the dread of death, and then the murderer does not have to feel that awful anguish. Murder appears to convey power over death. Murder externalizes the murderer’s death anxiety.
The state is often the agency of killing in the case of execution, in the case of warfare and in the case of police killings. Between 2014 and September, 2018 America executed 121 citizens. Texas executed 45, Georgia 19, Missouri 18, and Florida 15. For comparison during all of 2017 1,940 humans were executed world-wide with China the pre-eminent executioner, killing 1,000 human beings. American executions are ritualized. At trial a jury finds the defendant guilty and then recommends a sentence. The judge imposes the sentence of death. There follows an appeal, another decision, and if the prisoner does not prevail they are placed on death row, a special group of cells that separates the condemned from the rest of the population. Currently the nation has been discussing how the prisoner will be executed, whether by lethal injection, electrocution, gas, hanging, or firing squad. The discussion has focused on minimizing the dying person’s suffering. As the day of the execution approaches the news will report the prisoner’s last meal, the visit by a priest or minister, the prisoner’s last words. Witnesses are seated in a viewing area separated by glass from the death chamber. The prisoner walks the last few yards from a holding cell to the death chamber escorted by armed guards. The sentence is carried out, and a physician certifies that the prisoner is dead. Witnesses often describe the prisoner’s last moments for the press. Usually only first degree murder qualifies for the death penalty. The condemned person has imposed death on another, and a murder like that raises the death anxiety of the populace. First degree murder is premeditated murder which means the killer planned the crime, but the victim was probably unaware the crime was forthcoming. Citizens unconsciously identify with the victim and worry their own death could be random, unforeseen, and imminent. The capture of the murderer, the trial, the sentence, and the ritual of the state-sanctioned execution of the criminal give citizens a sense of power over death. The entire sequence creates meaning for citizens who believe that justice will prevail and murder will be avenged by the State. State-sanctioned execution externalizes citizens’ death anxiety. Citizens imagine what the prisoner must be thinking and feeling knowing that he or she is about to die. Most of us do not know that we are about to die. Even terminally ill patients know they are “going to die,” but they do not know that in five minutes their awareness will cease. State-sanctioned executions are a means for easing society’s death anxiety.
Nations engage in warfare that externalizes death anxiety through killing other human beings. Externalizing death is unconsciously motivated, so citizens are unaware of the unconscious schemas that prompt their behavior, but the causal relationship exists whether aware of the connection or not. Psychologists have learned to decode the contents of the unconscious by examining the current behavior and inferring the contents of the unconscious. The sheer volume of murdering that occurs in the world attests to the murderous power of the unconscious. The conscious mind will always create an explanation for the unconsciously motivated behavior, because the conscious mind cannot accept the reality of the behavior. The following paragraph lists some examples of humans murdering other humans. Chapter Three will explore these in more detail.
Human beings murder each other. Whites murder blacks, blacks murder blacks, and whites murder whites. White police murder blacks. American men murder their wives and sometimes their children. In Mexico gangs or cartels like the Sinaloa Cartel or the Tijuana Cartel murder each other and citizens. In Africa Hutus murder Tutsis, and the Lord’s Resistance Army murders villagers and the unprotected. In Myanmar, Muslim Rohingya are murdered by Buddhist Rakhines. At one time Catholics murdered Protestants. Irish murder each other. Israelis murder Palestinians. Nazis murdered Jews. In the Middle East ISIS murders Muslims who do not support ISIS. Women are raped and murdered in India and sometimes Indian parents murder their daughters for having sex outside of marriage or for marrying a male the parents don’t approve of. In China Tibetans are murdered. In America and in many places in the world Lesbians and gays are murdered ostensibly because of their sexual preference.
In each of these cases the existence of the Other—whether black, white, Jewish, Muslim, Sinaloan, Palestinian, Hutu, gay—is a threat to the identity of the murderer. The threat to the murderer’s identity feels like death. The victim’s existence reminds the murderer that he is impermanent, that his identity could die, and so the murderer externalizes his fear of death through the act of murder. Killing someone perceived as Other, gives meaning to the murderer’s life. In the case of “honor killings” in India, the murdering parents or the brother who has murdered his sister’s lover believe they are part of a system that is larger than the self, a system of honor.
In addition to murdering each other, humans murder the environment. Humans experience death anxiety that the environment could kill us. Typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, floods, and earthquakes are some of the ways that the environment kills humans, and humans fear death could come without warning from one of these causes at any moment. Human beings are unaware that their behavior towards the environment is murderous. Unconsciously motivated murderous behavior towards the environment is paradoxical because we need a healthy environment to live, and yet we murder the oceans with plastics and chemicals and radioactive waste and agricultural run-off of herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers. “Dead zones” where oxygen has been depleted and no animals can live and plants die off result from murdering the oceans. Humans murder our supply of clean water by injecting toxic waste from fracking into wells. We murder the air we breathe with toxic smoke from factories and toxic exhaust from automobiles, trucks, buses, and airplanes. We murder the land with garbage in landfills, with radioactivity as at Chernobyl and Fukushima and Three-mile Island, with herbicides and pesticides. We also murder the wild animals who live in the environment. Coyotes, wolves, bears, elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, ducks, geese. The environment and the animals who live there are wild and free. They are part of a natural system of birth, life, and death, and that natural system threatens humans because we cannot join with the system without accepting our mortality. Humans are unable to find meaning for our lives by joining with the environment and the animals who live there, and so we discharge our anguish through the mercilessly angry act of murder.
Before moving on to Chapter Three, a brief summary of the book’s teaching so far is in order. Chapter One described awareness and its importance to understanding what is happening to the earth, and to the need for Requiem. Chapter Two developed essential thoughts about awareness of death. Take a moment and reflect on what thoughts, images, memories, and emotions came up for you as you read this chapter. Did you feel uncomfortable with such an extended discussion of death? Was the idea uncomfortable that we humans externalize our death anxiety in many ways including murder? If you were uncomfortable you are experiencing what it feels like to pull an unconscious schema up out of the depths of your mind and to bring it to awareness. In Chapter Three we will investigate the attitudes and behaviors that have arisen from our unconscious fear of death.
Thank you for expressing so beautifully what I feel upon waking each morning…the overwhelming grief of Mother Gaia.
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Kenn, even if the human race becomes extinct I feel that nature will continue on just as it did after the annihilation of the dinosaurs. It is a pleasant exercise to imagine what that new world will be and how it will look sans human beings. Then, of course, when our sun devolves that may be the end of the story.
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Scientists believe that the sixth extinction will destroy all life down to the level of the sponges (Porifera). The conditions under which evolution occurs (survival of the fittest, competition) determined the evolution of an apex predator like humans who prey on the environment and on each other to survive. My hope is that the next round of evolution results in a much more self aware organism that recognizes the dangers of overpopulation, greed, unregulated competition. Indigenous people here in North America attained a stable society based on mutuality. Yes, they had occasional conflicts but they did not murder each other gratuitously. They did not attempt to eradicate a competitor.
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Grief…. it finally set in right after 9/11 for me. I now saw my country in a new and disturbing light. Now some 18 (almost) years later is even worse and I deal with grief daily, my doctor’s only advice…. a ‘script of Prozac. At wits end.
Jay Kay. Grief is appropriate, but it can also overwhelm. My spiritual practice of shamanism is all that keeps me from succumbing. The goal is to move through the stages of grief to the acceptance stage (stage five). What helps me is to affirm my gratitude which I do every day several times with small ceremonies. Gratitude helps me stay in the present moment.
In addition to Kenn’s writing, I’ve found all the comments above poignantly moving and heartening, the grief now a thread – a lifeline? – to link us through our souls through some unknown eternity of time and space. I am humbled and shedding the tears that have suddenly arrived – my heart is broken, but I must continue to speak and listen and feel from that heart, and to love with that heart against all odds. You all are bridges over troubled waters (apologies and kudos to Paul and Art).
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When I was 13 yrs of age my sociology teacher showed the class a film called, ‘Say Goodbye’. It was about the last members of highly endangered species. I remember that there were only ie.12 members left of some species. It hit me hard at that age. I couldn’t rise above the feeling that our species was the cause, and that part of the problem was our prolific overpopulation and destruction of all other species’ habitat. The comment re: apex predator rings true because our species has only the bare beginnings of self- awareness which does not appear that it will be enough to avoid the cataclysm that we are most assuredly in the midst of.
Had we ‘woke up’ when I was that age of 13 we may have had a chance to become a self-aware species but instead we have distracted ourselves with the spoils of war and its porn and we have not attended to the pressing dilemma that has been upon us since I was born onto this planet during the US war on N. Korea. Instead of developing the wisdom heart that our species was capable of, the war and domination of all else imposed itself right to the End.
The best that can be hoped for is the awakening of the collective self to the dilemma so that in future universes we carry this collective wisdom into those universes and never forget what happened here on this planet and why we did not wake up when all the signs were there of our impending doom: nuclear weapons, climate destruction, war, attempted destruction of the female gender over hundreds of years to the present, and on and on to the End. Why won’t we wake up from this underlying nightmare and correct our course back to sustainaiblity? Why? If we can answer that question perhaps we could wake up in time.
Most today are indulging a thousand ways to avoid the grief you speak of. In doing so they lose any chance to alter our fatal course. Their mad dance on the precipice of our world will soon be done. For myself, I would rather die in full knowledge of our folly than in cowardly avoidance and denial.
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Mike, my book references the Indigenous ritual of Ghost Dance, which was done near the end of the 19th century when they knew their culture and world was dead. My book speaks of Requiem for a Dying World. I celebrate in the sweat lodge, celebrate the beautiful world that is disappearing and all the beautiful beings who have inhabited it. I strive to inhabit the Acceptance Stage of the grief process. Soon enough we will all be gone. Our work as self-aware beings–those of us who are indeed self-aware–is to hold the awareness of what was, and what is. Sometimes the grief overwhelms me. But, the jaguars, the Monarchs, the pristine wilderness needs me to hold it in awareness, because that is what we humans can do if we are aware.
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“But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief…a sense of panic and powerlessness.” Wow, I’m not alone! You nailed my feeling of pervasive sorrow–a moving essay, thank you.
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Kenn, you may be interested in my newly published book, “Requiem for a Dying World,” in which I discuss a ritual of grief for the world we are destroying. I discuss the psychological flaw that has caused us to destroy our culture and our world–Death Anxiety. I discuss the similarity between the Ghost Dance of the Indigenous people, a requiem ceremony for the death of their culture that is very similar to what we humans need now. My book is available at Amazon.com I am a Marriage and Family Therapist and a shaman. You can see my work at JohnOmaha.com
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Kenn, what is the blog you referred to in your comment (thanks) on my post. I will ask to be included.
I’m not sure what you mean. Where did I mention this?
You wrote “You might want to go see what they’re up to! Perhaps you will like their blog as much as they liked your comment!” I would like to join their blog.
Kenn, I think the comment at the end of some emails: “You might want to go see what they’re up to! Perhaps you will like their blog as much as they liked your comment!” might be an auto-response posted by WordPress appended to “likes” or other individual responses (such as yours to me). Anyway, some of us have already been to your blog, and indeed liked it!
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your prose is salve for deep wounds, a warm hand of peace on an angry shoulder. I awake so many days with recollections of my dad, he and I raking leaves, cutting firewood, driving through the farmland of northeastern Connecticut and his pointing out the distant hills by name. From those moments I found my way to being an ecologist and radical thinker, and in your words my very being resounds. Grief is not my adversary but a necessary companion and counsel. I weep for the wounds to the earth and to humanity, but then, I feel the warm hand on my shoulder.
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Fabulous piece of writing, Kenn! Thank you so much for that strangely and perhaps unexpectedly uplifting spirit that comes with acknowledgement of the truth.
I look forward every time to your work as it appears at the Counterpunch site. This one is getting shared on social media. Here’s hoping fot return ripples of recognition.
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Simply, thank you. rc
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Thank you for this.
Grief is love, and grief is being naked without shame. It’s not depression, which numbs. It’s not “curable” and it doesn’t want “consumer products” to tame it.
I think grief is the only wildness we have left to us.
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I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small.
I too have been there – and i truly understand. It is very new and raw for me. Thank you.
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Ken, Thank you for sharing. We, including myself, are locked in the grieving of our shared reality. It is not easy and not, ultimately, avoidable.
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Sir, great piece one major fail. Earth should be capitalized. Please fix it online here. Earth not earth. Wake up, grasshopper