We Can’t Go Back To Normal

We can’t go back to normal, because “normal” is a disaster. Normal, at least anywhere that industrial civilization is dominant, is deeply destructive, based on exploitation and domination of people, plants and animals; subjecting the entire biosphere to the demands of profit and power. These are turbulent times, by turns encouraging and dispiriting, but there is no viable “normal” to return to for anyone living in the industrialized world. Whatever comes from the current protests and the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing movement to safeguard Black lives and the authoritarian impulse to suppress dissent, going back to the way things were a few months ago is simply not an option.

In the “normal” world that many want to return to, not only is racist violence endemic to America, but so are rising atmospheric carbon and heat, and the mass extinction of living organisms and species. The destructive and exploitative nature of global travel and global commerce is normal; environmental racism is normal; the ways in which humans penetrate and colonize nearly every habitat on the planet and harvest what they find there for themselves is normal. We can’t go back to normal, because “normal” is where the roots of racist violence, ecological destruction, and disease-spread lie.

My ancestors were European: German and English. And I have lived most of my life in Vermont, still the whitest state in the country. I grew up with the assumption that I could do whatever I want, be whatever I want, and society would support me. As a young man, I was blind to the fact that many people cannot live with that assumption, and that in many ways, my ease depends on their suffering. I accepted what was handed to me as mine, without question, until it became clear to me how the land and the people have suffered, while I benefited, from the taking.

My complacency began to unravel when I lived and worked among homeless people in Atlanta. The wall shattered when I traveled to Nicaragua in 1986 and experienced for the first time that I was a wealthy person (despite the fact that I was living on a poverty-level income at the time—I had shoes! I had a spare shirt!), and I experienced in dramatic ways that the country that supported me was killing innocent Nicaraguans, for no reason other than racism and ideology. I was deeply unsettled by that realization, and it took me years to adjust to it. There was no question for me that real change did not just mean ending the war against Nicaragua, it meant changing American society in fundamental ways. Change wouldn’t be real if it didn’t require me and people like me to give up the benefits that society bestows on us at the expense of others. The changes required in society also required fundamental changes in me, in my worldview, in my social status, in my psyche, because all of those were formed by an unjust system. But how would such a change come about? The system that raised me, and the mental frameworks that grew in me through acceptance of that system, do not hold the answers to the problems they create! In other words, I could not find a way forward from within the world as I knew it, so my fundamental ways of knowing the world needed to change. Who am I, and how can I live in harmony with the world, if all I know comes from a culture that is exploitative at its core? Those of us who have benefited from the exploitative normalcy of western civilization have a lot of work to do to shift our understanding of how the world works, and to abandon the structures that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.

We can’t go back to normal. We need real change, and real change does not come without real loss, in this case loss of the belief that the system that formed me is right and good, and the loss of the security that comes from being supported by that system. In an op-ed piece [June 13] in the Washington Post titled To my white friends: the time for talk has passed, Brian S. Lowery writes,

“It is time to be more than a cheerleader or ally and find ways to make permanent change. This will not be easy. The price of justice — the loss of privilege — will be a painful shock.”

But surely not as painful as the current and long-standing cost of privilege, exploitation and domination.

As I have often repeated (here, here and here), the reason, as I see it, that real change is so hard for those immersed in the dominant culture, is because real change requires a loss of identity. We identify with the culture that formed us. That culture is not some objective thing “out there.” It is “me,” “in here.” No one finds it easy to unravel their identity. Who am I, if not what I always thought I was?

The spiritual life in general, and the contemplative life in particular, does not mean much unless it provides more solid ground to stand on than the exploitative normalcy of a violent and dominating culture, and the mental frameworks (identities) formed by culture in the individual psyche. That ground, which precedes all societies and psyches, goes by many names. I call it life, or the whole movement of life. It was here before I was born. It will remain after I am gone. It is my deepest ancestry, older than my German and English forebears. It is everywhere, in the soil and the air, in the animals and plants, in all people. It is everything together. Nothing can be separated from it. And yet we do carry on as if we are separate, as if some deserve to be exploited by others, as if Earth is merely a resource, a pot of gold to be harvested for our enrichment.

To end this violence and exploitation, to effect real and lasting change, we who have benefited from the exploitation system must be changed. In my experience, big protest marches have their place, but only as a beginning. For the most part, they are the easy part of the work. The hard work is looking the truth in the face; seeing how the system that nurtures some abuses others; seeing how I am contributing to that suffering and oppression in thought, word and deed; and being changed by that realization. Seeing how I benefit from and identify with structures of violence and exploitation, withdrawing my consent, and changing my allegiance.

Facing the truth is not easy. I do not pretend that it is easy. Unraveling the web of our identification with oppressive systems is hard work that requires loss of status and security for those whom the system has benefited. But it is vital and necessary work if we are to end the ages of violence and exploitation that we have inherited.

For my part, I am trying to be a better listener: listening to the land, the animals, the plants, and listening to the stories of those whom the dominant system has oppressed and marginalized, and taking it all to heart, letting them inform my life. Trying to live with greater reciprocity, finding ways to give back what I have taken, and what has been taken by others on my behalf. Trying to find ways to live in support of the lives who were here in this land long before I was. Even the fact of owning land is problematic, because it would not be possible without the displacement and near-eradication of the original inhabitants of this land. My discomfort with the idea of land “ownership” is only somewhat mitigated by trying to care for the land for the benefit of the wild lives who make their homes here. I feel at times like an infant who hardly knows the world and has to start at the beginning, and I have been on this Earth for almost 60 years! Racism and exploitation go deep in the culture that made me what I am, so I have to start over. Right now, I see Earth as my teacher, and I a very slow learner. I have so much to unlearn, so much to let go of, so many structures of implicit consent to violence from which I must still withdraw.

We can’t return to normal, because normal is a disaster. Normal is traveling the world as if we own it and spreading disease and domination wherever we go. Normal is turning everything—people and plants and animals and minerals and water and air and genomes and ecosystems and “exotic” human communities—into commodities to be bought and sold. Normal is institutionalizing and internalizing racism and sexism. Normal is pretending that we are all in this together, when in fact a very few people own most of the wealth and have most of the power, and don’t give much of a damn about the rest of us.

The time has come. We cannot put this off any longer. The reckoning has arrived. And those of you who, like me, grew up thinking that the world was made for us, need to step aside, to abandon everything in our psyches and our societies that destroys and dehumanizes and dominates and excludes, and turn toward everything that creates and includes and makes whole.

Everything in this good Earth is sacred, except for one thing: the belief (and the actions that follow) that anything or anyone is not sacred, that anyone or anything does not matter, that anyone or any life has no value. Everything and everyone is valuable. Everything and everyone is sacred. Everything and everyone is interconnected and interrelated and interdependent. No one and no thing can be excluded, or abused, or killed, or exploited or enslaved or have their home destroyed or poisoned, without damaging the whole structure of life on Earth. We will live in perpetual distress at all levels, personal and societal, until we recognize that basic fact about the world in which we live: when one suffers, all suffer. But the brutal fact of inequality is that some suffer a lot more than others, and most of us benefit from the suffering of others. That brutal reality is being put on display now. Acceptance of that brutal reality is baked into our psyches and our society, and that is what needs to be uprooted. Those of us who benefit most from that exploitative, violent normality have the most work to do, in ourselves and in our communities, to bring about real change.