Our Kitchen Table Conversation

“For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.”
Patrick Henry


Have you heard the expression ‘it’s time to have a kitchen table conversation?’ It rumbles around some family’s traditions like an old blanket kept in a hope chest or a rocking horse in an attic no one quite got around to throwing away. I think families should insist on eating together and resist the seductions of a society that would isolate each member in front of a television or make them too busy to gather at the same time. At such meals there are conversations that might become some of the family’s best memories. This is not that kind of kitchen table conversation.

When a member of the family is drinking too much, or smoking too much, running around too much, gambling too much or any of the other many addictions we are all prone to in this age of unrelenting competition, zero security and constant bombardment of messages about how we are lacking-losers unless we buy this or that, the time comes to sit that person down and have a kitchen table conversation. When the craziness of the addiction is such that the time to change has come, the loved ones sit that person down for some straight talk.

It is time on this blog project to have our kitchen table conversation.

Compassion, as my teachers teach it, differs a bit from what we typically think it is. In the New Testament it is said that if someone slaps you on the cheek you should turn the other cheek to them as well. My teachers say that compassion is acting to stop the arm from delivering that second slap. Now of course these are words, concepts, so we need to be careful not to get too hung up on them but the reasoning is easy to understand: cut their bad karma instead of going your saintly way and allowing them to go to the hells. In the current context the first slap is the reality of our ecological circumstances. The second is allowing these things to drive you into despair.

Past posts have mentioned ecological facts like population overshoot, bottleneck, and that an estimated 200 species are going extinct day in and day out so we can continue to shop. I am concerned that so far this blog project has not clearly expressed the full extent of the horror involved. No one who knows me has ever accused me of being Pollyanna and those who are friends through these words should have no doubt on that score either. If these things concern you, if they tear you up inside, rejoice. Contemplatives of many traditions have taught about the gift of tears or the heart of sadness. Far as I can tell, this is how earth is calling us to wake up.

On the other hand it is frighteningly easy to register these things as just so much cognitive content, file it away and go on with lifestyles hardly changed at all. It takes a lot of energy to maintain the constant denial involved with not feeling these things. Generally we are wise to fear that fully engaging our emotions might debilitate us, after all the issues are so much larger than we are as individuals and there are no solutions that are going to allow us to maintain the lifestyles we have grown accustomed to. So why bother? The problem is not talking about it is making us zombies.

We don’t need more facts; we need to feel what is going on. Adding that element of our emotional reactions melts the hard heart and pierces the character armor that keeps us barely alive. That energy is how we can get to the place where every day our most fundamental attitude is a joyous, playful one. Life should feel basically good most of the time. Not manic, not rickety pride, not hope for tomorrow’s wealth, fame and fortune but a ground of basic well-being that befriends oneself and then others. It is like a cellular level vibration resonating with everything that breathes.  Can you even imagine such a thing, basically feeling good without needing anything more than food and breath and relationships?

The world is much more magical than our consumer culture dares to let us imagine. The trick is to learn to say to say yes and thank you to the biosphere where the massive energies of the earth’s mountains and streams, lakes and trees, clouds and animals of every sort flow through our veins and nervous system, look out our eyes and touch with our flesh. The price for touching these sacred energies is allowing the full depth of feeling and just being with it. We do not need to label it depression or fear, sadness or despair. In its purity it is just the energy of awareness.

Our kitchen table conversation is going to end with my sharing two movie recommendations that reflect something important about the feeling-tone that accompanies mindful ecology as I understand it. They are depressing films yet they carry a message I think we desperately need to hear. The first is a short film that deals with the level of personal, day to day life and the interactions we find there. The second deals with the global picture as understood from the point of view of those who have studied the science and are convinced we are on the verge of encountering powerful tipping points in the areas of peak oil, climate change, mass extinction and population overshoot. Before getting to that though there are a few more things to bring up while the kitchen table conversation continues.

This might sound silly to some but I have struggled with the idea; how can I laugh or feel good knowing all the pain happening in this moment and the pain we are cooking up for our children and their children? Wouldn’t that make me a monster, lacking empathy? Wouldn’t I lose what is most noble in my heart to delight in the goodies of a first world life while ignoring the suffering third world from which most of it comes? I recognize there is an element of pride in such thoughts but there is also something precious I do not want to lose. It is an ongoing struggle but it brings to mind two things I read in my youth that have stayed with me ever since, maybe they can help others too. The first was from Jungian thought where people work with what is known as the shadow; without skill you might cast out your demons but in the process lose your angels too. That is how they put it. The second idea comes from reading Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

It is important to recognize in our kitchen table conversation that the violence and abuses are much more extensive in our cultures than we put on; the centuries of making greed and competition our gods have twisted what is noble about man and produced an army of the walking wounded. We like to think that these are aberrations, perversions that do not reflect the core values of our culture and, perhaps, to some degree they are. We like to think all these men in expensive suits are basically nice guys or the blue collar cat-calls are all innocent fun but after reading books like the following couple, I just do not think that is true. Derrick Jensen in A Language Older than Words has explored the roots of the violence he suffered at the hands of his father. In that most difficult book what he documents is how pervasive the pathology of violence and its denial throughout our cultures really are. Alice Miller has explored the roots of sexual and physical child abuse in For Their Own Good, a volume many psychologists and psychiatrists working in these fields consider a fundamental study. She explores Hitler’s childhood to make the point most forcefully that these abuses that take place outside of the public eye have serious social consequences, much like the private tailpipe or factory waste waters polluting our commons. No one reads or writes this stuff for pleasure. The human heart is answering to needs that run much deeper. This is the type of depth that if brought to mindfulness and ecology becomes springboards into living a whole different kind of life.

That alternative is loving-kindness. It seems to be less powerful than the violence it confronts, yet it is not. Remember the comments about compassion earlier? We label kindness or gentleness feminine virtues and thereby relegate them to the privacy of our homes. Culturally we dismiss them as having no practical role to play in ‘the real world.’ Thing is, loving-kindness is the one door through which we all must pass if we are to taste the beauty of the life we have been granted. The hubris that dreams of Nietzschean supermen or celebrates the heroics of the killing fields of war by that very move remains cut off from the beating heart of the mountains, the peace of the pure lake, and the streams of DNA unfolding in its mitochondrial embrace throughout all living things.

The first movie I would like to recommend to my readers is This is Water. It is only ten minutes long. In this short piece I find an element of daily life in an overdeveloped country is very well captured and turned into a lesson. It lays out the feeling-tone of the environment of walking wounded in which we move and reminds us that we have a choice in how we respond. You should know that the author of the words in this short film committed suicide. The words come from a commencement address; sharing the truth with our young people – that is the challenge for real heroes.

We are interested in being a help to others by ending our suffering and theirs but first we need to look at that suffering, take off the blinders and face it head on. The second film I am recommending should feed an anger good people hold against ignorance. This is a dangerous practice but if we nurture such awareness carefully it spurs us to action. What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire is Timothy S. Bennett and Sally Erickson’s heart-felt soliloquy. While it is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, nor do I agree with every point made, I think it should be required viewing for every citizen of an overdeveloped country. Find a place and time to view this where you will not be distracted. Consider lighting a candle and thanking the filmmakers for their generous contribution to our difficult times.

Thank you, each and every one of you who have read this, for sharing in this kitchen table conversation. It seems only right to let the filmmakers have the last word:

“Our culture, in its present configuration, could not last… One thing seems clear; this global environmental, political and economic predicament we live in today is critical. The possible scenarios range into the highly disturbing and the time seems, well, immanent.”

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