gullywasher of the heart

It’s bittersweet pleasure to find out firsthand the meaning of words that no longer signify abstract concepts, but actual phenomena. “It’s a gullywasher!” my partner’s niece exclaimed. And indeed it was, for we could see, even from the kitchen window, the small trench that borders the road that passes by our house spilling rainwater, leaves, sticks and small pieces of gravel across the yard and even up into the road. The road itself had become a mass of gullies, each of which were, in fact, washed; in places, the gravel itself split into clay that didn’t even have the fortitude to be red, but was gray as the rock itself.

For weeks now, there’s been no reasonable engagement with the weather. It’s been immense, irrational, furious: a tantrum thrown from the sky.  It comes in sheets of dry, acrid heat; it comes in miles and miles of uncontained Colorado wildfire; it includes the broadest agricultural draught in over fifty years, and the Derecho’s hurricane-force winds that tore down power lines across eight states at the height of July’s heat wave. We turn desperately to the rationality of scientists – to help us understand, help provide a shared interpretation, bring this immensity to our ability to grasp so that we can respond, the factual charts they provide a cold container for everything we can’t know and so fear – who glumly predict more of the same to come. They suggest, both blandly and bitterly, that global climate is a response – a delayed response at that – to the catalysts that we ourselves have provide. We can understand this climate crisis through guilty knowledge that our own overconsumption has created it. Not only created it: what we currently experience is an accumulated affect of actions done years ago; what we do today will shatter the environment of our children.

I don’t doubt any of this. I’m writing this morning as a believer: someone who’s replaced her hot, round, short-lived light bulbs (most of them) with cold, curly ones; who no longer eats meat, who buys local food and eats from the garden. I reduce, I reuse, and I recycle. Granted, most of this came from learning frugality as a child; I wasn’t raised in a culture of consumption, and I’m cheap. There’s just a new urgency now that this has been tied to consequences less of pocketbook than of survival.

But with this urgency comes something too of the idea of power and control of what is, I also believe, essentially not within our power. Ever since Eden, we’ve had this idea that along with the power to name things comes dominion over them, as if by naming climate crisis we could somehow control it. As a believer in climate crisis, then, I’m going to suggest another way to respond.

Dr. Brené Brown, in The Power of Vulnerability, presented on the popular TED talks series, begins with her credentials as a scientist: she’s a researcher, someone whose basic assumptions begin with the credo “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” And where her research began was human connection, which has been identified as essential to mental health. Connection to each other as well as, I would suggest, to the environment around us. Repeatedly, there was one element, which, she found, “unraveled connection.” That single element was shame: the fear of not being worthy of connection. And the underlying condition that resulted in shame was what she called excruciating vulnerability.

There were some people she found who did have a strong sense of connection, and what they had in common was this: courage. They had courage. The Latin root of the word courage is the same as that of heart: cor. Those people who lived in connection lived likewise in courage, in “whole-heartedness…to tell your story with your whole heart.” The people she found who lived with a strong sense of connection had “the courage to be imperfect…to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.” To live in courage did not mean not experiencing vulnerability; these whole-hearted people experienced vulnerability as necessary, uncomfortable, but not excruciating. It meant the willingness to be uncomfortable: it meant to do things with no guarantee of good results.

It was at this point, Dr. Brown says, that she had a small breakdown. After all, she was a researcher, and the whole point of research is to control and predict. What her research clearly indicated was that to live a whole-hearted life required vulnerability, which meant practicing actions for which there was no guarantee of good results. Her therapist suggested that another word for small breakdown might be spiritual awakening. I would suggest that they feel about the same.

“We numb vulnerability,” she says. The problem, she went on, is that you can’t selectively numb emotion. You can’t numb the hard feelings without also numbing joy, numbing happiness, numbing love. We numb vulnerability by pretending to be certain about things that we can’t be sure of. Look at our current political system, she says: “I’m right, you’re wrong, so shut up.”

“We are the most indebt, obese, addicted adult cohort in US history,” she states. We numb vulnerability by perfecting, strenuously attempting improvement in our children, and ourselves, as if perfection could ward off the excruciating vulnerability of simply being alive. We replace our light bulbs and recycle our plastics as if these totems can prevent imminent disaster.

We know it can’t. We’re in the middle of a transitional time, one that inevitably includes crisis. What we can do, one day at a time, in the most private parts of our own hearts, is to muster courage: to attempt to live in connection with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us. That’s what we can do. We can let go of the idea of who we think we should be, and open ourselves to becoming who we are. Whole-hearted vulnerability must be at the heart of our response to climate crisis, and to each other.

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About Carolyn Ogburn

Writer, hiker, activist and gadfly. #Binder Writes @NumeroCinq555 / Blogs @pshares MFA @VCFA
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