Tag Archives: grief

A Message to the Fragile Heart

Since the recent death of the prolific singer/songwriter Chester Bennington I have seen the usual spat of nasty or unfeeling comments regarding those who take their own lives.  They may be well meaning, but some have said “how selfish” or “cowardly” they think he was. Others ask how a person who takes their life could ignore the pain it causes their family friends and loved ones.  Anyone who has been in these dark valleys in their lives or have gone through them with someone they love know all too well that it isn’t that simple.

 

Depression, loss, mental illness and addiction are not phantoms.  They don’t vanish at the mention of a simple platitude.  And well meaning bromides aside, we live in an age where militaristic chauvanism still dominates. We are inundated daily in hyper-masculine jingoism which eagerly brands anyone who challenges the dominant, patriarchal culture with derisive labels like “snowflake.”   Girls and women face especially hard treatment when faced with a constant barrage of misogynistic criticism and expectations related to how they look, act and think.  But this culture can also be very difficult for boys and men struggling with imposed stoicism regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

Add to this a profoundly sick societal paradigm where money dictates, racism persists, the poor, disabled or elderly are invisible, politics is a spectacle, news is entertainment (and vice versa) and the living earth is being relentlessly decimated thanks to war, greed and mindless consumerism.  You get a good idea of how any fragile heart can break into pieces.

 

I don’t know very much about Chester Bennington’s life or the demons he wrestled with.  I don’t know what eventually caused him to go over that ledge.  But I understand what it feels like to be on one.  I know the desperation, the isolation and the panic that can flood one’s mind.  The late novelist David Foster Wallace summed it up pretty well when he described it:

 

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

 

The world we walk through is one of crushing cruelty.  It is full of destruction, misery and pain. Exploitation of the powerless often appears to be the law of the land with alienation, demoralization and despair the result.  It is a world that will gleefully cut your heart into shards especially when you show it that you care.

For the fragile heart there is no preventing this from happening except by hardening it.  The latter may protect you from unpleasant feelings for a time.  It may give you the facade of strength and detachment. But it will surely lead you to a life of bitterness and indifference ending in a soulless death.  Even though it is fraught with great danger, it is only in its brokenness that the heart has a chance of experiencing love and knowing joy.  And in doing this it opens up a greater possibility for healing the world you inhabit.

 

So if you are in possession of one this message is for you.  There is a big lie that is told all too often.  It’s that the fragile heart is either weak, useless or cowardly.  On the contrary; it is none of those things.  It is, in fact, the greatest quality our species has ever had.  In the midst of violence, avarice, cruelty, oppression and ecocide it is a clarion call for sanity.  Its fragility challenges the lie that “might makes right.”  Every time it breaks it causes a crack in the wall between this world and the one that should be.  One where unshackled joy and fearless love abound.   It is the only thing that makes solidarity with one another possible, and in the end the only adventure worth taking.

 

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

 

If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide or are struggling with depression, anxiety or addiction please know that there are many people who care.  Help is available.

 

https://www.suicideprevention.ca/

 

Title painting credit is “Song of Songs” by Marc Chagall.

Grief and the Unbreakable Sinew

As the close of this year approaches I have been thinking a lot about grief.  I have reached that age in Western society where one begins to lose family, lovers, friends and even childhood archetypal heroes from the celebrity world at a faster and more alarming pace.  Two years ago it was my father, a year later I learned of the death of one of my first loves, and very recently I lost a sister-in-law whom I adored.  I have worked in hospice care for half my life so I am familiar with the stages of grief and the theoretical approaches to death and dying, but I have learned that nothing can fully prepare one for the journey through grief.  And that journey, once began, has no end.

angel-of-griefThere are no magic spells or elixirs or incantations that get us over grief.  In fact, no one ever “gets over it.”  If you love someone that love is not discontinued by their absence. Our bodies feel this deeply, so much so that we feel their detachment in very tangible ways.  Our hearts and body literally ache.  As the author C.S. Lewis put it: “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”  This is not only defined by physical distance though. Even when we learn of the death of a loved one who is miles away the pain is no less deep as if they were by our side.  The soul is not bound by time and space like the body. We feel on a visceral level that something has shifted and that a direct link in this realm of existence has been altered. Grief is the response not to the absence of love but to the absence of direct connection with the beloved.

In fact, grief is the dreaded companion of love. But like love, it has the power to transform the barren into fertile ground. It can expand our capacity to embrace others and increase our empathy for the universal experience of suffering and loss.  However, if allowed it can also preclude the flowering of compassion in exchange for self absorption, self destruction and bitterness. It is ruthless when ignored and can inflict madness on anyone foolish enough to think they have mastered it.  The only coherent response to it, therefore, is respect.

The pain of grief can have the effect of chasing us away from ever loving again. But to do so would invite spiritual death upon us and poison everyone who surrounds us with unyielding despair. The journey through grief is agonizing and its manifestations and twists and turns are often unpredictable. But we can navigate our way through it by gaining insight on the very nature of love itself.

Here is what I have learned. Love is not merely affection. It is not a drug. It is not a state of being either. Love is the unbreakable sinew that connects us to each other. And without it we are nothing more than single cells of life drifting aimlessly in the void, meaningless, empty and featureless. Death tears apart the corporeal, but love completes us by making us one organism.

In the broader sense I believe that grief, whether recognized or not, defines our current age. We are a part of a living web of life, but unbridled consumerism has divorced us from this ancient knowledge. Ever since then we have lived as aliens on our own home world, plagued with emptiness, apathy and neurosis, disconnected with each other and the myriad of other life forms that live here. The biosphere on which we all depend is being hurried into oblivion by rapacious greed and this is something we either feel great sorrow for or we bury it under layers of denial fostered by our pathological culture. Denial is abundant in this age, free to anyone and everyone. But once ingested it can rapidly transform into a poison that is difficult to extract.

cropped-img_93601.jpgWhen we lose someone we love those around us generally respond with caring and support. But we have all lost the sense of our connection with the living world that we inhabit.  The phantoms of materialistic pleasure haunt every corridor and room, and especially at this time of year.  Yet if we look beyond we will see the landscape of desolation all of this disconnect causes. Plastic bags and packaging choke our oceans and waterways.  Traffic clogged roadways spew toxic soot into the air.  Dehumanizing and base advertising hammer home feelings of alienation against the backdrop of a landscape festooned with billboards with hollow promises.  Wars for material wealth and dominance still menace.  And mass species extinction is fast becoming the norm as climate change and greed driven exploitation devastate ecosystems across the planet.

Where, then, shall we look for caring or support? Truthfully, it must be from others who recognize that something is gravely wrong with the direction of the world.  Those who see the Great Dying unfolding before us and refuse to be silent witnesses to it.  For all we know, this epoch of human history may be the last. After all there are many powerful forces converging to create unmatched havoc and chaos.  Facing our grief can expand our capacity to love and nourish the courage we need to meet what ever calamity comes our way.  But this is not a solo experience.  It is a journey of solidarity and one we must all take together or not at all.

 

A special message to all readers of this blog: This month people around the world are celebrating the birth of Christ and Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.  Earlier this month was Milad un Nabi or the Birth of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), Bodhi Day when the Buddha attained supreme enlightenment and Geeta Jayanti, the beginning of the sacred text of the Bhagvad-Gita.   There are many more traditions that see this time of year as hallowed for honoring birth and rebirth.  For me, the most powerful is the Winter Solstice which is one of the four sacred turns of the living earth, our beloved home.  But whether you are religious or not the message of healing is natural and universal.

Music and art are perhaps the most powerful mediums for the expression of the sacred.  And for me there is something about Marc Chagall’s “L’Ange Bleu” or “The Blue Angel” that resonates at this time of year. When I worked with terminally ill people, with refugees or with the mentally ill it seemed to bring many of them calm too.  Blue is the color of both healing and spiritual birth in many traditions and I think it is appropriate for winter where our hearts lay dormant so long waiting to be reborn into the world.  Waiting to add our humanity, our life force.  The angel is symbolic of our aspirations to transcend the muddy world of suffering we are all born into.  Her wings give our soul flight to meet our rebirth.

marc-chagall-the-blue-angelMany grieve, may you find solace in the fact that you loved and loved deeply. Many are angry, may you find justice. Many are uncertain, may you find strength in the core of who you are. Many are joyful, may your joy increase and bless the world.

 

Kenn Orphan  2016

 

In loving memory of my sister, Lisa Hanaway~Herrera (1962-2016).  Your absence makes the world a much dimmer place.  But your love is an inner light that will help me find my way through it.

Title artwork for this essay is a painting by Lisa.

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One Dark Night in Orlando

Practically any member of the LGBTQ community understands the power and sense of place that the night club holds.  It has always been a place where one can let down their guard for a few hours, dance like crazy with friends and feel the joy of being free.   All that was shattered in Orlando on Sunday, June 12, after a gunman opened fire in the crowded dance club “Pulse” in Orlando, Florida.   But it wasn’t just shattered there, it was shattered everywhere.

LGBTQ people, in whatever culture or society they belong to, identify with each other in very tangible ways.  Even in the most tolerant of societies it is dangerous and often lethal to be outward about ones sexuality in public.  Holding hands, kissing or dressing in accordance with your gender identity often leads to slurs, threats and violent assaults.  Most of these go unreported or are dismissed, but they occur every single day.   The club offered a sanctuary from the dangers of the street.  Now that has changed.

Grief following the massacre at Pulse dance club in Orlando Florida. Source APIn time the club will once again become a place of freedom and the joy of expression. But for now the global LGBTQ community is in mourning.  Every tragedy like this inhabits its own sphere of injustice, sorrow and pain; but they are related to one another in that they emerge from a common place, the dark underbelly of supremacist thinking.   This kind of thinking can unhinge a small few who may already struggle with mental illness and its stigma, and have relatively easy access to extremely lethal weapons.  But it is not limited to homophobia.  It is a vicious infection that fuels all paranoid bigotries, including Islamophobia.

In the aftermath of this tragedy Muslims from all over have come forward to denounce the actions of this man who self identified as being a Muslim.  They should not have had to do this since no one asks Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus to denounce violence done in their names.  But many volunteered to assist with helping families and loved ones and many more gave blood for the victims even though it is the holy month of Ramadan and doing so meant not being able to replenish their bodies until after sundown.  It is this kind of solidarity that we must focus on.  It is this common humanity that we must choose to believe in.

Not in My Name, Muslims condemn Orlando attack.In the coming weeks and months this atrocity will be exploited by pundits and political leaders.  Indeed, it has already begun. The language of discrimination and bigotry is being employed to stoke fear and suspicion at home, and justify more war and military aggression abroad.  It is therefore imperative for people of conscience to expose the fear mongering for what it is and shun it.

The LGBTQ community is in shock.  It has witnessed unspeakable horror and it is hurting.  But it will heal.  And I have every confidence that it will emerge stronger and embrace its intrinsic humanity more than ever before.

Kenn Orphan 2016

Grieving in Silence

When I was in my early twenties I never thought that in my lifetime I would see the death of the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world.  I never thought I would see the temperature of the North Pole reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, or gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never thought I would read about scores of species dying en masse, washing up on shores, or going extinct every single day.   I never thought that plastic in the seas would outweigh marine life by mid century, or huge swaths of forest succumb to pine beetles and blight.  Now twenty years on I have witnessed all of that and more, and most of it has happened in just the last few years. I often find myself being overwhelmed by an enormous tide of grief that envelopes my entire being; and it doesn’t countenance being ignored.

But I live within a society that values denial over truth.  And lately I have begun to relate more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of the status quo.   I realize that many of us feel this deep sense of sorrowful terror; but many more can do little more than cry out in that private, interior space that our culture has consigned us to.
The Scream by Edvard Munch.Many traditions have a public means for displaying private grief.   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. Today much of that has been rejected as being too morbid or depressing Perhaps part of this normalization is due to our evolutionary heritage; but certainly the distractions of our industrialized culture have numbed most of our senses and reinforced the myth of our separateness from the natural world.  How else can the absence of outrage or public lamentation regarding the unfolding ecocide be explained?

I, like almost everyone else I know, go about my day in the routine that has been assigned to me by society.  I get up in the morning, take the drugs that keep my blood pressure in check, eat something processed, wash up and merge into the busy and confining passages that define modernity.  Living within this labyrinth discourages any introspection. There simply isn’t enough time, ever.  Thoughts about our place in the universe, or our mortality, or the meaning of it all are summarily dismissed in this culture.  In the media or in popular entertainment this subject is usually only included as a form of comic relief.  “What is the meaning of life?” has become the crux of jokes.  We are chided or ridiculed for thinking too much and sent to a cubicle to perform as a useful cog in the machine of industry; and then to another cubicle to shop for items we are told we need or that will “enhance” our lives, and then to a cubicle that we are charged money to live in and sit in front of yet another cubicle that tells us what to think, how to feel, and what is important.

Cubicles via The Repetitive Swan.This is the only way that it can all work.  It is the only way that the natural world can be compartmentalized and commodified.  It is the only way that the killing ideologies of militarism, nationalism and capitalism can go unquestioned.  Now, of course, we can see it has worked all too well as we march head long into extinction with nary a concern.  But the tower of mythology that supports every aspect of industrial civilization is beginning to crumble beneath the weight of its own hubris and apathetic indulgences.  We ignored the planet’s boundaries, and now those boundaries are closing in on us fast.

The world will look very different in just a mere decade or so.  This is not a prophetic declaration, it is a certainty that is easy to demonstrate.  Our leaders, when they are not in outright denial, reinforce the absurd notion that we still have plenty of time to stop climate change even as it is abruptly shifting before our eyes.  And sustainability is nothing more than a lie of consumer capitalism.  What, after all, is worth sustaining?  A societal model that requires an economy that must grow regardless of the ecological and social costs?  Or that tolerates mass species extinction?  Or that allows for endless military aggression to ensure a constant flow of minerals and fuel to produce objects which will end up in a landfill or in the ocean for eons?  If depression and neuroses are companions of cancer and heart disease in this model of sustainability, is this really worth preserving?

The stark truth is that there is little collective will to change the path we are currently on as a species.  Its trajectory is solidly towards collapse of the biosphere.  And even if monumental changes were implemented tomorrow by the powers that be it would not stop the seas from rising, or stop the process of ocean acidification, or resolve the plastic soup that churns at its center, or solve the never ending meltdown at Chernobyl or Fukushima, or prevent the release of methane from the seabed, or stave off famine for millions of people, and bring back thousands of species now gone forever.

Greetings from California by Joe Webb.I realize that this entire essay is antithetical to the zeitgeist of interminable optimism that defines our age.  In truth, I gave up trying to fit into this model a long time ago when I saw it as merely a kind of collective psychosis.  I write because, selfishly, I must.  It is my silent scream outward from a dark, interior pain of alienation, frustration and sadness.  I am not looking for a magic elixir or a pharmaceutical or an intervention to medicate or block out this pain either.  I want to feel it because it exists and because this is a culture that I wish to separate myself from; and I think we must all feel it and show this publicly while we still have time.  I don’t think that doing any of this will spare us the calamities that appear to be waiting for us just down the road, but maybe it can help us reclaim a sense of meaning to it all that has been robbed from us by an insipid, manic and brutal system of mindless consumption, and vacuous distraction.

I see what is unfolding and I cannot help but feel great sorrow.  My scream of anguish, though silent, can no longer be inward.  I am in mourning.  I grieve all that has been and will be lost.  And I will place a black wreath upon my door and wear a black cloth around my arm for all the world to see, not because I am brave, but because I simply cannot grieve in silence anymore.

Kenn Orphan  2016

On Being a Climate Migrant

When I first moved to San Diego twenty years ago I fell in love.  Blue skies, blue Pacific, lush, rolling hills of scrub oak and chaparral and warm sun most of the year. Back then the freeways did not seem to be full all day and night as they do now. People weren’t as aggressive towards each other either. I could walk along the beach alone and feel like I was the only one for miles; and the tide pools were brimming with life. The containment of urban sprawl was a cherished community value. The cost of living may have been high compared to many other places, but one could enjoy a very satisfying life even with a meager income.

San Diego Traffic. Photo from LA Times Blog.Now living here has become very costly, and enjoyment a rare luxury. The people seem perpetually hurried and harried. And so many of the hilltops have been scraped away for housing developments, shopping malls and industrial parks. Wildlife has been cordoned off into “preserves” and roadways lace the canyons and mesas. Make no mistake, I love California and will always consider it my home in many ways. But the state I knew only exists in memory. And now we are facing a megadrought in a place where the population is ballooning with seemingly few taking notice.

Suburban Sprawl in San Diego. Photo, Getty Images.So my partner and I decided a couple years ago that it was time to move on. We are collecting what we need and embracing our loved ones before we embark on a journey northward to the place of my ancestry and that I consider a home from my childhood, in what is shaping up to be the last epoch of human civilization as we know it.  I would like to carve out a small sanctuary in one of the few pristine places left on the planet. Is this hyperbolic? Am I only two cans of corn away from being an “end times prepper?”   I’m sure to many Americans I am being extreme. When I tell people that I am migrating from California because of abrupt climate change, and the ecological and societal collapse that will accompany it, I am often met with blank stares or eye rolls. I think this is because the reality of our dire circumstances has not yet hit home to most Americans who live in privileged, coastal cities. But to those of us who are paying attention the approaching maelstrom is undeniable.

San Bernadino Fires Getty

Homes fall to flash flooding in California. Source NBC News.Our planet has been warming, but this trend has taken leaps and bounds in the past few years with each one hotter than the last. Records are being shattered each month. For most of the world’s population calamity is not some distant risk factor. Water scarcity and famine now tower over hundreds of millions of people from Sudan to India to Malaysia and beyond like ravenous angels of death. Species extinction is accelerating across the globe as well. It is like watching a dystopic science fiction flick with no end of the chaos in sight.

Drought in India. Photo Source India Water Portal.

Rohingya Refugees Source The GuardianTo say that all of this is overwhelming is an understatement. But I think what is perhaps worse than this is living in the heart of a culture where grief is ridiculed and that is defined by a collective disconnect from the unfolding reality of ecocide. The sham that is American democracy is also demoralizing, especially when given the current spectacle we are seeing in the Presidential election cycle. And with climate change appearing to accelerate, the prospect of living in a divisive, burgeoning police state is terrifying to say the least. Dying empires cast long shadows of cruel absurdity as they unravel. And if one lingers too long in its darkness the soul begins to wither and harden.

Bread and Circuses Source International TimesSo I am declaring myself a climate migrant. But I am lucky. I do not have to clamber on to shoddy boats and risk drowning, or take a perilous journey on foot across a parched and dangerous land. I see what is ahead and I have the privilege of fleeing from a lot of it. This isn’t much consolation, though. Only a smug sociopath would get satisfaction with being right in this instance. For anyone with a conscience there is no joy in telling people “I told you so” when faced with their suffering and sorrow, even if you have been largely ignored or dismissed as over the top for years. Some can do this with ease. They can point jagged, scornful fingers at the smoker who is now dying from lung cancer, and feel somehow justified in doing so even as such callousness reduces their own humanity to ashes. I believe that the depth of ones character is measured in the compassion one has for other beings; and I haven’t shed near enough tears to measure up to the tremendous suffering of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Young Buck On The Second Peninsula Lunenburg Nova Scotia is a photograph by William OBrien.

Giants Lake Wilderness, Nova Scotia. Source, The Chronicle Herald.I hope that this move will at least demonstrate just how serious and dire I think things really are. Maybe it will cause some to sit up and pay attention. I realize that most people do not have the resources to take bold steps like this; and I am not attempting to cast myself as a martyr. I do not possess the spiritual credentials to warrant such a distinction anyway. But I think if more of us take steps, big or small, that shun mindless consumerism and recognize the urgent state we are all in, we may have a chance of building communities of compassionate souls who cherish each other and hold sacred this beautiful planet while we still have time left to do so.  I can only hope it will.

Kenn Orphan  2016

The Seeds of Empathy

In the days following the horrific attacks in Paris, which claimed the lives of over 100 civilians and injured hundreds more, I returned to the United States from Europe after a long visit with family and friends. I was not in Paris this time, but I did spend time in France.  I, like so many others, have a connection with the ‘City of Light’ so this tragedy struck me in a visceral way. Whenever something like this happens there is shock accompanied by despair. But I am reminded that despite how abhorrent this incident was, there is a big world outside Western borders that suffers this each and every day and on a much larger scale. And its misery is mostly due to our willful ignorance and our leaders penchant for division, aggression and plunder.

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 14: Mourners gather in front of the Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon restaurants on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

To the powerful of the world irony is something reserved for satirists. It is easily dismissed. Hypocrisy is not in their vocabulary either. In response to the attacks French President Francois Hollande said “France is at war.” This statement is astonishing given the country’s long history of colonialism and recent events in its foreign policy.

One might ask Mr. Hollande what the assault on Libya that left thousands dead and demolished one of the richest nations in Africa was if it was not war? Or the continued military aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel which have mercilessly slaughtered thousands in Yemen and Gaza in the last two years alone? Or France and NATO’s relentless bombing of Syria over the past few years which has done nothing but create unimaginable suffering in what once was a jewel in the Middle-East’s crown?

Syria before and after the war. Source News Items.

Unsurprisingly, in the United States political opportunists have used the tragedy in Paris to ramp up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric. Incredulously, these are the same ones who drone on endlessly each year about the non-existent “war on Christmas” on a holiday which commemorates a Middle-Eastern family seeking refuge from terror over 2000 years ago. But they cannot be bothered by such irony either, nor can they take any responsibility for a legacy of American imperialistic plunder that has fostered constant misery for millions of people daily around the world. By all accounts, crippling sanctions and the invasion of Iraq, a war based upon lies, spawned the creation of ISIS. But now it is being talked about as if it sprang out of nowhere.

Fear mongering and demonization of Syrian refugees in the media. Source Fox News.The propaganda of politicians and the mainstream media, which revel in beating the drums of nationalistic xenophobia, is ubiquitous these days. And their selective grief and outrage encourages a largely misinformed public to ignore the long list of Western backed atrocities that have caused the refugee crisis to begin with. For instance, just weeks ago the US military bombed a Doctors Without Borders run hospital in Afghanistan, burning patients to death in their beds and incinerating doctors and staff alike. But critical coverage of this was scant in the mainstream press. The same applies to grief. On the same day as the attacks in Paris suicide bombers killed scores in Beirut, but media coverage of this tragedy was dwarfed by the enormous attention that has been paid to Paris.

A relative of Samer Huhu, who was killed in a twin bombing attack in Beirut, waves his portrait. Source Associated Press.For the rest of us there is a choice. We can ignore the enormous costs of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism and believe the lies of the war profiteers; or we can choose a path toward shared humanity that sees no boundaries of worthiness when it comes to suffering. We can also oppose the political and economic order that is rapidly destroying fragile ecosystems and that perpetuates alienation and misery in most of the world.

Solidarity with those suffering in Paris is to be commended; and there is no shame in expressing it publicly. But if we do not come to realize soon that we must seed the fields of empathy for all who suffer needlessly on this ever smaller and beleaguered planet, I fear we will doom ourselves and our children to a world of perpetual savagery or even, possibly, end civilization itself once and for all.

Kenn Orphan 2015

For the Record

When I was a young boy I dreamt of other planets in far flung solar systems in our galaxy.  I would draw pictures for hours of what I thought alien life might look like and try to imagine civilizations that may have evolved to our level of technology or beyond. I would build starships out of loose leaf paper and plastic utensils and fly them through my house and out into the backyard.  As I grew older these musings faded, but never died.

I confess I still have some of those starships in an old trunk, and every now and then when no one is around, I take them out for a flight around the room and picture myself traveling to one of the countless planets that fill the Milky Way.  The alien life I imagined as a child has expanded, but in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was very young. I have had the good fortune and privilege to travel the world, learn about other cultures and encounter wildlife up close. I began to realize that I did not have to travel to a distant world to see alien life.  It was all around me, and it was wondrous.

According to a growing number of scientists, we are in the grips of the Sixth Mass Extinction; and, sadly, we can only guess how many incredible life forms have been eliminated by the rapacity and carelessness of industrial civilization.  Hundreds more species go extinct every day, and it is likely that our own may be on that list in the future, given our trajectory and penchant for self-destruction.  But I have compiled a humble collection of some of the creatures my partner and I encountered on our numerous journey’s to Central America.  And I wanted to put them on the record and share them here.

Please keep in mind that I am not a biologist so I will not attempt to identify any of the insects, plants or animals with scientific names.  This is merely a photo essay to register their marvelous existence on this planet.  I hope they fascinate you and enliven your imagination and sense of wonder as they do mine.

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IMG_1405IMG_1607IMG_1586IMG_1609IMG_1691IMG_1621IMG_1718IMG_1633IMG_1635IMG_1628IMG_1612IMG_1746IMG_1555IMG_1576IMG_1618IMG_1767IMG_1416IMG_1415IMG_1407IMG_1768IMG_1562IMG_1693IMG_1713 IMG_2521IMG_2560starfishslothgeckored frog

Kenn Orphan  2015

 

Walking With Grief in the Anthropocene

It was a couple years ago that I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died. He had always dreamed of seeing the region, and we were happy we could do this one, last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glaciers glimmering with cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to one of the last, ever receding glaciers.  All of it was as awe inspiring as it was heartbreaking.

IMG_4293I am one of those people who finds it difficult to set aside what I know about the planet and where we are headed, and simply enjoy the moment for what it is. I cannot walk through a forest without feeling a sense of dread that it will someday be felled. I cannot watch whales breaching the waves without wondering if they will die out in my lifetime. I cannot see a glacier and ignore the overwhelming evidence that globally, they are in retreat. And I have come to realize that I am far from being alone in this feeling of joy mixed with sorrow.

IMG_4310Grief in the West is often viewed as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by pushing it away, ignoring it or medicating it. 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.”

The reality is that our consumer culture is incapable of understanding grief. It is designed to ingest anything and everything just to keep it going. It does not pause for reflection. It is a giant throat ravenously swallowing the earth with our soul along with it. But this culture is destined to slam into a wall of reality on a finite planet with dwindling resources. There is a point of no return and it is closing in fast, and no distraction or technological fix will be able to stop the impending crash of a system that is fundamentally flawed. One way or another, we will have to face the crimes we have committed against the natural world on which we all depend.

An empty big box store. Photo by Kenn Orphan.I, like many others in the West, understand the paradox of where we stand. My family and I took this journey to Alaska thanks to our inordinate privilege. By global standards we are wealthy and benefit from being born into one of the most powerful empires the earth has ever known. And while many of us in the West mourn what industrial civilization has done, most of us still benefit from its excesses, wars of plunder and ecocidal convenience. But none of us can avoid getting caught up in the coming turmoil. It is a tide that will sweep all of humanity into its chaos. It has, in fact, already begun to do so in many areas of the planet, although this is carefully obscured by the wizards of Western, consumer society.

Air Pollution in China ChinaFotoPress Getty Images

Highly polluted and toxic lake in Bangalore, India, which routinely catches fire. Photo Anoop KumarBut perhaps if we shun the impulse to avoid feeling despair, as this culture encourages us to, we can step into our sorrow and walk with our grief as a companion rather than an adversary. In doing this we may be able to open up corridors of empathy and compassion for each other and the myriad of species we share this planet with. Grief can be a guide through the wilderness of alienation that this society perpetuates. It can deepen us and open our senses to a force greater than ourselves. It won’t spare us our fate, nothing can. But it may spare us a kind of spiritual death.

IMG_4243Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of wonder that a child does when struck by the awesomeness of life itself.  I also felt immensely small.  My heart beat with an ache 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.   I embraced him like a long lost friend.  And he smiled at me and said, “what took you so long?”

Kenn Orphan 2015

 

IMG_0058This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, George Orphan, Sr. (June 7th, 1925 – November 25th, 2014).  You will be forever in my heart and I can never repay you for the gifts you have given me.

Normalizing Extinction

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Several years back I had the good fortune of traveling through the rainforest in a remote part of Panama. Along the way I stayed in a small cabin at an ecolodge with the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea just steps away. There were no roads, televisions, or internet access, and no phones or electricity except in the main house. Out back was a trail that meandered through a dense forest brimming with tree frogs, sloths, iguanas, leaf cutter ants, and countless species of birds hopping from branch to branch. Just a couple feet into the water and I counted dozens of bright orange sea stars. And at night the sea shore came alive with biolumeniscent dinoflagellates, who would respond to my flashlight signals in short bursts of blue-green neon and the canopy was a cacophony of countless species in song. The abundance of life in that tiny corner of the world crowded out most signals of modern civilization.

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But as with any trip like this, I eventually had to return home where the reality of “The Great Dying” is everywhere. Like climate change, the Sixth Mass Extinction, is not a hyperbolic, political trope. It is in fact the death of most complex forms of life on earth at our own hands. And by all accounts, with mass die offs of bees, coral, salmon, frogs and beyond, it is in full swing. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction” makes this plain:

“If we assume, very conservatively, that there are two million species in the tropical rainforests, this means that something like five thousand species are being lost each year. This comes to roughly fourteen species a day, or one every hundred minutes.”

Yet in the midst of this tremendous catastrophe, the magicians of our consumer society continue to normalize the carnage. Indeed, under the economic model of global capitalism all life, human and non, is measured by its ability to produce or create material wealth for a select, privileged few. And it is a system that encourages both amnesia and indifference. So it is unsurprising that mass species extinction barely registers on its radar unless their profit line is affected. This is how over fishing, clear-cutting of thousands of acres of virgin forests and piercing the Arctic seabed for oil, like a fiendish vampire sucking out the earth’s primordial blood, can all be justified and even celebrated as “growing the economy.” As long as it produces intangible numbers that indicate wealth it is all fair game. And in the meantime it manages to numb our senses to the spiral of death that is beginning to engulf us.

Photo Jason Hawkes National Geographic

Garbage and sewage chokes a river. Source Getty

I often go back to places like that rain forest in Panama in my mind when I feel hollowed out from the alienating sterility of modern society. It is a sacred place in my memory that is a balm to the wounds inflicted by the  landscapes of capital. A part of me never wishes to actually return there, because I fear that, like so many other wild places, I will be struck by the cruel realities of a world under siege.   I fear my own memory of all the creatures that are no longer there.  But this is not how the story should end.

These species at the very least deserve the recollection of their existence; and the only way to break free from the indifferent paralysis imposed on us from an apathetic, self-absorbed culture is to remember, and mourn and take action.  Indeed, the catastrophe unfolding around us can be overwhelming; and we may not be able to hold back the enormous tide of destruction coming our way. But we have a choice. We can step into our grief, feel the pain and use it to deepen us and our capacity for compassion. Or we can sleepwalk through it all into oblivion, normalizing the cruel madness, as the dominant culture encourages us to do. One way has the potential to lead us to meaning and enrich our lives no matter what the outcome. But the other will surely deaden our souls and lead us to our doom.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Panama by Kenn Orphan
Kenn Orphan 2015

(1) “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert at Amazon:

 

Time to Listen

Dying Trees Source The GuardianIt was a little over a year ago when I was on a meditation walk, in a beloved park, that I began to notice trees that once provided me shade and a sense of embrace were now starting to go brown, only it was not Autumn, it was Spring. Since then a sense of sadness and alienation has followed me as I chart my course through the new world of the Anthropocene.

That day I walked as I usually did. My speed started in a measured manner. I took the paths I usually took, walked by familiar sights and listened to familiar sounds. But there was one sound which I could not initially identify, and it was persistent.

At first I did all the things I our society has taught me to do; I invented things in my mind that soothed my conscience and searched my memory for any distracting thought. But the sound was incessant and unyielding. Then, suddenly, it was undeniable. It was the sound of wailing. When I realized what it was I was hearing, my pace quickened. I felt that pain one feels in their heart when brutally confronted with loss and grief, and it overwhelmed me. The trees around me were dying slowly and in obscurity, crying in silence in the deafening din of civilization’s march of progress.

Pines killed by pine beetles in British Columbia, Canada.  Photo by Udo Weitz, Getty Images.We don’t listen to trees in this society. I know this very well. But I’ve got a secret that many of you may share. I have always heard them. Now admitting this in some circles might earn you a one way trip to a psychiatric ward. But I can no longer ignore the lamentations around me. And as time goes on I care less about what others think of me or the consequences of my truth telling. There were others on the path who crossed my way. Parents with strollers, young lovers holding hands, old men strolling the speed of snails. But none of them seemed to notice that the non-human world around them was suffering. Life seemed to go on as it always has.

Our society trains us to avert our senses to what is literally before us, marshaling our attention to narcissistic celebrities or the latest iPhone. Mindless consumption, whether of entertainment or objects, is the national religion; and the high priests of Wall Street and Madison Avenue work over time to ensure that their profits grow exponentially, regardless of the cost to other human beings or to the countless species with whom we share this planet. But the signs surround us all. Climate chaos is nearly upon us, if it isn’t already. And truthfully, we have been given ample warning of the consequences of our way of life. Now the Great Dying, the Sixth Mass Extinction, is in full swing.
work buy consume die Source Truth Theory

The mechanisms of Western civilization are constantly conspiring to prevent us from contemplating all of this. To the powerful, doing nothing is a lazy, if not punishable, offense. It is not a surprise that in such a system loitering is a crime. If we are not consuming, we become suspicious to the established order. When we are not at work we are expected to shop, or eat, or drink, or drive somewhere, or watch something, or text, or check Facebook. This is because all of this requires our attention to the consumption of something. But if we find ourselves still and quiet, without being asleep, we may hear the sorrow we have inflicted on the nature that surrounds us through this rapacious devouring.

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If we manage to loosen the grip of consumer culture on our consciousness, for even a short time, marvelous things can happen. I have learned that this is not an easy or one time practice; on the contrary, it is the hardest task we will ever do.  It will not spare us from all of the calamity that lies ahead.  It offers no redemption for humanity’s crimes. But it may carve out a sanctuary in our soul from where we can draw strength when the gales commence and the water rises.
Barkbeetle damage.  Photo from the Colorado State Forest Service.
The ears of society have been deafened to the wails of countless beings on this life drenched earth.  It is high time we started listening again, like our ancient ancestors did, to express our grief, stir our imagination and, most important, enliven our compassion, while there is still time left to hear.

Kenn Orphan 2015