Notes on the Election, Climate Change, Thanksgiving, Standing Rock, and Preparing for Revolution: A Two-Part Series
Part I: Preparing To Be Deployed
If you’ve been looking at your Facebook feeds or Twitter or reading the papers or listening to the radio or watching TV or having any conversations recently, you’ve already heard everything that could possibly be said about this election. How it happened, why it happened, who’s to blame, why it’s bad, why it might not be as bad as we fear. You’ve heard that it’s a catastrophe for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for refugees, for Native Americans, for Muslims, and for the ecosystems of the earth that sustain us all. And indeed, it is. If you ventured beyond the liberal bubble, you may have learned that liberals bear some of the blame here — how our leadership failed the white working class men of the “flyover states,” how we shamed them for being who they are, condescended to them, scoffed at their faith, and forged an economy that rendered them obsolete. There is truth to this too. It goes back and forth, the winners and the losers, hurling blame at each other and driving the divide between us even deeper.
You’ve heard all of this. It doesn’t help to rehash these arguments or rail against the past. The question before us is where to go from here. Many of us are grieving the loss of progress made, the loss of another milestone that seemed so tangibly within reach, the fading vision of an inclusive and welcoming nation. People grieve in different ways. Some people hole up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and watch reruns of Seinfeld. Or in this case maybe The West Wing. Some people rail on social media, finding a thousand different ways to pour their hearts out on the screen, weeping in emoticons. Some people want to get busy right away and fight back. They plan demonstrations; they send money; they strategize for winning back the Senate in 2018. If you need to do any of these things right now, do them. Do what you need to do in your own way.
But there is a fourth possibility as well: focus on our own bodies, hearts, and minds first. Before jumping into or back into the fray, take some deep breaths and prepare ourselves to be deployed. Like it or not, by being alive in 2016 a stunning responsibility has landed in our laps. We are at a point of fulcrum in history. Not only are we seeing whether this country will ever realize its humanist ideals, but it is not an exaggeration to say that life as we know it for humans and for many other species on earth hangs in the balance. That was true before this election. The poorest and most vulnerable around the world are already starting to suffer for the actions of our country and countries like ours. And now there’s a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The stress on our fragile ecosystems has reached a tipping point. And we are alive right now at this tipping point moment. A hundred years ago, we would not have had the scientific understanding or the tools to address it. A hundred years from now it will be far too late. This is the time, these are the generations, and we are the people who will determine whether humans can someday live in peace with one another and with the earth. We didn’t ask for this responsibility; we didn’t want it. But here it is.
So why not just go out and fight? Why “prepare ourselves” instead of just going out and doing it? Because we have no idea what to do and we don’t yet have the spiritual power to get it done. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed, outnumbered, and out-funded. We imagine that we would have to charge at the world’s problems with our own individual strength. To make this work possible, we need to prepare ourselves to be deployed by something greater than ourselves. We can call it being deployed by God, by a Higher Power, by love, by our deepest self, or by our highest ideals. But as spiritual progressives we believe that there is a gravitational force in the universe pulling us toward oneness and love. Whatever we call that force, it is available to us. And it’s our highest calling to try to align ourselves with it, to enter its stream, and be guided by its power. Then any work for the protection of the earth and for the vulnerable among us will be unstoppable.
Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught of the need to intentionally prepare ourselves to be channels for holy work in the world. Both of their approaches to non-violent resistance depended on the resistors being spiritually strong and conscious. It was essential that resistance came from a place of love – that it was evil itself that was being resisted, not individuals being demonized. Gandhi asked his followers to purify themselves in a Hindu ascetic way through fasting and long periods of silence and meditation. King would do it through daily prayer and he explained in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that, “Mindful of the difficulties involved [in nonviolent action], we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’” These are lessons that we would be wise to learn. We can’t do this work with hate in our hearts. We can’t do this work while disdaining or mocking people with whom we disagree. We can’t do this work when we see others as our enemies. And we can’t do this work with just whatever of our own meager strength happens to be left over at the end of our busy days.
So in practical terms, how do we do it? What does it actually mean to prepare ourselves to be deployed in our culture with jobs and kids, in our day of Facebook and Uber? We can put it all under the heading of self-care with a sacred purpose. This is a practical recommendation: Start with the body. All of our life energy originates in the body. This includes our mental energy – our ability to focus and grasp the complex, nuanced issues of our time. Our bodies are the source of our emotional energy, which allows us to access compassion for people in pain no matter who they are and to control our reactivity when hurting people lash out. Our bodies are the source of our spiritual energy, which is the energy of purpose and hope in the face of adversity. The stronger our bodies are, the more overall capacity we have – we can show up more fully for our partners and our kids and our friends; we’ll be more creative, communicate better, think more clearly. We’ll have better stamina as we go through the difficult days and years ahead.
That means three things: first, exercise. Whatever level you’re at, whether you run marathons or you’re just learning to walk again after surgery, do something to move the muscles in your body. Try to get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a few times a week. You don’t need any special gear. Second is food. In the words of Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” When we eat mostly plants, not only are our bodies healthier, but we are aligning ourselves spiritually with a practice of reverence and care for the earth. Third, sleep. Most of us need at least seven hours, few of us get it. It is crucial to prioritize this. Build your entire day working backwards from when you need to have lights out. Plan for what time you’ll need to shut down your computer and phone, turn off the TV, finish your housework, and get ready for bed. We ask so much of our bodies and they need the time to recover and regenerate. So exercise, eat well, and give ourselves permission to call it a day. We need to start taking care of our bodies as if we were athletes.
The other category of self-care with a sacred purpose is spiritual practice. If you don’t already have a daily practice of some kind, find something that you can commit to, at least as an experiment for the next month or two. It can be Zen meditation; it can be prayer — a daily conversation with God. It can be yoga or Tai Chi or chanting. Whatever for you connects you to something larger. Sabbath practice is another vital spiritual tool. If there were ever a year to try this out, this is the year. Take some time each week, unplug from everything, step out of the consumer cycle of working and buying, spend time alone or with family and friends. This can be your place outside of our culture, outside of the problems, outside of the striving. This is your chance to get quiet enough to listen. What is your calling? What breaks your heart? Where is your unique role in healing this world? We need to start taking our spiritual lives as seriously as if we were monks.
All these directives may sound like a parent saying to a young child, “Brush your teeth, get into your PJs, and get some sleep. It’s going to be a big day tomorrow.” But these practices really are stunningly effective; they are vital for us at this moment in history. Do not think for a moment that caring for ourselves in these ways is indulgent or a luxury that we cannot afford. The difference in how we can show up for the people in our life and our work in the world is so huge, we can turn it around for ourselves and say that it would be selfish not to. We may think that these things will take up time that we don’t have. But what we find when we take care of our bodies like athletes and take care of our spirits like monks, is that it was never the time that was the limiting factor to begin with; it was the energy. An hour can either be wasted or extraordinarily productive depending on our mental energy. A conversation can either create snowballing problems or melt hearts, depending on our ability to listen. Tackling the problems of our day can either make for burnout and cynicism or for a life of meaning, depending on our connection to our deepest Source.
Pick your metaphor: be an athlete, be a monk; be a soldier without an enemy. When we prepare our bodies and spirits in these ways, it puts us in a different place. We can’t really imagine in advance what kind of difference it will make in our lives and or what kind of work we’ll be called to do. How we do our work and where we place our focus will be different for each one of us. We can’t know what’s on the other side of a mountain until we climb it and look over. To some extent we have to just take it on faith that if we open our hearts and minds, connect with spirit, and generate more energy in our bodies, good things will flow through us.
Faith teaches that every single person can be vitally deployed.
If we could wave a magic wand, we should wish that not only people reading this article would prepare ourselves in these ways, but everyone in this country. These are not tools to help progressives vanquish an enemy. These are tools to help us see that there is no enemy. If we succeed, the single mother in South Philadelphia and the out of work steel worker in Youngstown, Ohio and the transgender teen in Durham, North Carolina and the evangelical cop in Miami, Florida will all realize the dream together. There is no enemy. There are just hurting and scared people on all sides, there is a living earth that is crying out for healing, and there is still an opportunity before us to realize the unity promised by our many faiths. When we can open the tap for the loving energy of creation to flow, we will all win. On that day, in the words of the prophet Micah, “everyone shall live in peace and unafraid.” So brush your teeth, get into your PJs, and get some sleep. It’s going to be a big day tomorrow.
Part II: Downstream of Everything
When we click on the word “Thanksgiving” in our minds, it links to a million different things. For some of us it’s the comfort of family. For others it’s the discomfort of family, especially now. For some of us it’s joy. For some, loneliness. For some of us, the Thanksgiving meal is the most delicious, warmest, coziest, most emotionally fragrant meal of the year. For others the meal is a bacchanalia of indifference to the suffering of animals, farmworkers, and the fate of the planet. Some of us take it as a time to get in touch with genuine gratitude. And others of us revel in it as a giant project involving excel spreadsheets and weeks of work.
But it’s hard to think about Thanksgiving these days without thinking about the native people whose generosity was central to the story. The story goes that in 1621 the settlers in Plymouth held a festival to celebrate their first harvest in the “New World” — the world that was new, to them. They would not have survived their first Winter if it weren’t for the kindness of the indigenous Wampanoag people who helped them learn how to grow corn and other produce and how to catch eel. That modeling of kindness was real and it’s reason enough for gratitude. And so the Thanksgiving story always includes the 90 Wampanoags who took part in the celebration. But it’s hard to think of that for long without the Norman Rockwell tableau fading to the images of settlers then driving the native people off their homeland, making and breaking treaties with them, and ultimately committing genocide. This is also part of the story, which is why for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a bitter day.
And it’s hard to think of all that without thinking of what’s going on right now in North Dakota. In this unfolding drama, once again the settlers are using their political and military power against native people. Once again, they are breaking a treaty and defiling sacred lands in the name of progress. And it’s not as if they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not as if they don’t know that an oil pipeline would jeopardize the Standing Rock water supply and the ecosystem of the Missouri River. Oil pipelines leak and break with some regularity. Which is why when this pipeline was originally proposed, it was supposed to cross the river just upstream of Bismarck, North Dakota. Bismarck is a larger town than Standing Rock and the community is mostly white. But those plans were scrapped because the area was called a — no joke — “high consequence area.”
Granted, “high consequence area” is supposed to refer to an ecologically sensitive area. But it’s hard to hear that term without thinking that it also refers to a high political consequence area … as opposed to the Standing Rock Reservation, which was assumed to be a low political consequence area. That assumption is being tested right now. We’re witnessing the largest gathering of indigenous people in over 100 years — some say since the Battle of Little Big Horn. They are gathered in faithful protest for their own communities and for the earth. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said, “This pipeline was rerouted towards our tribal nations when other citizens of North Dakota rightfully rejected it in the interests of protecting their communities and water. We seek the same consideration as those citizens.”
It’s a good way to say it, that the people of Bismarck “rightfully” rejected it. They did. And the Standing Rock Sioux are rightfully rejecting it. And so should every community rightfully reject it. So where should the pipeline go? Nowhere. There is no community, there is no river, and there are no grounds that should be endangered in the name of money. There is no new oil or gas infrastructure that should be built anywhere because the burning of oil and gas anywhere affects everything everywhere. North Dakota, in a bit of cosmic humor, is actually warming faster right now than any other state in the U.S. — the winters are significantly warmer and they’re seeing more droughts. This is already starting to create pressure on agriculture and competition for water. What the people of Bismarck may not have realized when they rightfully rejected this pipeline in their backyard was that they remain downstream of it.
Environmental devastation does not stay contained in one place — it ripples outward and affects everything like a chain of dominoes. The exploitation of a vulnerable community, the disregard of what is sacred to them, never results in a peaceful “well, okay then, never mind” — it creates rage and resentment and pits neighbors against one another. Injustice is never contained. There is no such thing as a surgical strike on any group of people or any part of the planet. When Jewish children find a swastika sprayed in their playground, all children lose. When women lose, men lose too. When people of color lose, white people lose too. When lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people lose, straight people lose too. When immigrants lose, those born here lose too. When Muslims lose, Christians lose too. And when our ecosystems lose, everybody loses. Our moral failures do not just vanish silently into the vapor; they are reflected and refracted back to us in a thousand ways. Every area is a high consequence area.
The beauty of what’s going on in the wake of the election last week is that people are finally starting to get this. It’s an elevated consciousness. And it’s sweeping the country right now. The Standing Rock struggle is one epicenter of this new consciousness. The people camping out there on the North Dakota plains in the cold, facing dogs and teargas and arrest are not just the native tribes. They are white people and black people; environmentalists and veterans and clergy; people of all faiths coming together in the name of their own religions, saying, “My faith calls me to be here.” At the rally in Manhattan last week at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there were over 2000 people, a diverse crowd all standing together in recognition of our interconnected web. There was a spiritual overtone, like a glow, to the whole evening. An indigenous man got up and spoke. He had just gotten back from Standing Rock and he concluded by saying, “We are sustained by the prayers of our ancestors seven generations back. And we are standing on the love we have for the next seven generations. Love! Love! Love!” And the people shouted it back to him.
Religious communities and social and environmental groups are getting flooded with calls and emails since the election from people wanting to participate in our common struggle. It feels like everyone is an activist or wants to become one. People are wanting to work for immigrants’ rights, provide sanctuary for refugees, tackle climate change, and protest the president-elect’s new appointments. People want to go to D.C. for the Million Women March on January 21 (the day after Inauguration Day) and the People’s Climate March on April 29 (at the end of the first hundred days). There are a million ways to work together because we are realizing that we are all downstream of everything.
Two suggestions: first, pace yourself. You don’t want to go gangbusters for a sprint while you’re all fired up and then run out of gas. Cultivate very intentional care of your body and of your spiritual life so that you can be the best possible channel for the flow of universal love. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Second, do what you’re passionate about but look particularly for opportunities to act at the intersection of several struggles. Look for those struggles where the interconnected web is especially interconnected. The climate justice movement is starting to work on what is called “just transition,” where the workers who will have to be displaced from coal mining and oil jobs are cared for and retrained for new work in the green economy. It’s already starting to happen and it’s a brilliant place to focus our energies. The Standing Rock struggle is another one, of course, that sits at the intersection of indigenous rights, water rights, climate change, corporate power, racism, and poverty. These intersection areas have great moral power.
Despite how it may appear, this piece is not an attempt to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. May we all enjoy the holiday and find some peace and comfort during a difficult time. May we be able to get in touch with true gratitude — not guilt — but gratitude for the gifts we have been given unearned. The gifts of food grown far away, the gifts of the labor of others, the gifts of the earth and beauty of the falling leaves, the gifts of whatever education and opportunities have allowed us all the blessings of this moment. We are all downstream of everything in good ways too. “Before you’ve finished eating breakfast in the morning,” says Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “you have depended on half the world.” May we go into this holiday season with reverence and humility and thanks for all the blessings we have been given. Let’s enjoy the day with friends and families if that’s where the day leads us. And let’s also let gratitude fuel our commitment to work for justice for all the people and the whole of the living earth.