Pagan scholar Michael York has a guest column on Sunday’s Wild Hunt titled “Being Upon the Brink of Catastrophe” where he expresses his fear we are living in “end times.” He cites “melt-down of our economic systems, governmental deceit, depletion of resources, global pollution and disregard of others” as symptoms of a coming disaster, and says “We are disappointingly unimaginative as a communal voice despite some exemplary individuals among us.” He quotes Phoebe Wray in saying “our planet will survive. We won’t.”
I have a lot of respect for Michael York and his work. I see the same symptoms he sees, and I agree that we as a species are behaving in ways that are detrimental to our long-term prospects for survival and success. I agree we need to wake up and face reality. And I agree with his addendum in the comment section that “we pagans have what it will take not only to survive but to implement the kind of growing consciousness that could foster a collective shift before it is too late.”
The problem is that York doesn’t point us in the direction of how to grow that consciousness, nor does he hold out much hope we can. The column generated well over a hundred comments, most of which can be summarized as “we’re screwed.” Despair is not a very helpful way to live. When you think the situation is hopeless, you’re much less likely take the kind of steps that would prevent or ameliorate the very things you’d like to avoid.
People have been predicting the end of the world for a very long time. Evangelical Christians are perhaps the loudest, but the pagan Norse had Ragnarok, and the Mayans may or may not have predicted the world will end December 21, 2012. AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer has a new book called “Apocalypse Not” where he describes end times prophecies from throughout history… and how every one of them has been wrong. The world is not going to end – at least not any time soon.
Further, we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures. We live in jungles and deserts, on mountains and islands, in the arctic and on the equator, in cities and suburbs and forests and farms. We live in wealth and in poverty, in freedom and in oppression, in health and in sickness. These conditions of being aren’t equally desirable for our physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being, but the point is that life – human life, our lives – can continue in them until things get better.
Michael York calls on us to face reality and I agree. Reality is that peak oil has already passed, climate change is happening and the steps needed to reverse it aren’t going to be taken because they’re too inconvenient for the people with the power to implement them. Reality is that no matter wins the election in November millions are going to be left in debt, without access to health care, or without prospects of a good job. Reality is that as bad as things are for these people, they’re far worse in parts of Asia and Africa.
Reality is that there’s nothing you can do to fix it.
But reality is also that while despair accomplishes nothing, you can make things better.
Recommit to your spiritual practice, to the things that keep you connected to the Earth, to your goddesses and gods, to your ancestors, and to all of humanity.
Recommit to living as responsibly and sustainably as you can. Moving off the grid isn’t going to fix everything. If you feel called to do that, then do it. But do it because that’s the way you’re called to live, not because you think you “should” do it. A good Pagan spiritual practice will help you learn the difference between what you need, what you want, and what you’ve been told you should want so someone else can get rich. Once you start to learn that – once you start to feel it – living sustainably becomes a lot easier.
Recommit to taking care of yourself and those closest to you. You can’t help anyone if you’re burned out or burned up. You have obligations to partners, children, parents, neighbors and others – don’t neglect them while you’re trying to help people on the other side of the world.
Recommit to helping someone else. Volunteer at a nursing home or homeless shelter. Pick up trash on the side of the road. Give to environmental causes. Give to those who do work you support but – for whatever reason – aren’t able to do yourself.
Start small, practice, work on yourself, practice, help someone else, practice, set a good example, and practice some more. You’ll persuade far more people to live responsibly by happily living responsibly yourself than by angrily demanding changes that people aren’t ready to make.
Yes, the problems of the world are immense – too immense for us to solve. So can we concentrate on doing what we can and not on what we can’t? Can we look back on a seemingly blind process and say that if it brought us out of the oceans and down from the trees, we can trust it to take us farther? Can we let go of the need to fix the world or cry in despair? Can we trust that Theodore Parker was right when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”? Can we just do what we can do?
It will be enough.