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"The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think."
Gregory Bateson

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Transforming Despair Into Empowerment

Dave Ewoldt, September 2005

   One of the songs my wife uses when working with elementary school children is "This pretty planet, spinning through space, you're a garden, you're a harbor, you're a holy place." This song helps young people connect with the Earth as something other than just a resource, it helps them see that the Earth is alive and provides meaning for their lives. For adults, it helps us remember how precious and fragile life on this planet really is. This song also reminds me of a friend of ours, a Rabbi in Northern California, who paraphrases Rumi in saying that if you believe walking on water is a greater miracle than walking on the Earth, you entirely miss the point of existence.

   How many of you experience some form of despair because so much of what you see happening around you on a daily basis simply doesn't recognize or honor how precious and fragile life is?

   The despair so many of us feel for both our world and the suffering of its peoples is a reminder of our interconnectedness; that what affects one affects all. And, since we're a part of Nature, what affects the natural world also affects us. The source of this common despair is the unraveling of the intricate web of living systems. We are despairing and feeling pain ourselves because, as our life support systems begin to die around us, what choice to we have?

   Well, actually, we have quite a few choices. Being able to make these choices starts with first understanding that we can meet our needs without destroying our life support system. Secondly is understanding that the despair, angst, isolation, and the generally disquieting feelings you may be experiencing are not a personal pathology, a failing, or something that is "wrong" with you.

   One thing that does hold many of us back from making new choices, however, is the repression of these feelings of despair. Pain serves a life-supportive purpose. It is a warning signal designed to trigger remedial actions. Our pain for the world is not the problem--our repression of it is. Lack of response is the problem.

   There are dozens of psychological and social reasons for this repression. Fear of pain, fear of guilt, distrusting our natural intelligence, fear of causing distress, fear of appearing weak, the belief in a separate self, and fear of powerlessness. The media distracts, misinforms, and goads us into consuming; job and time pressures make us concentrate on immediate survival needs; and social violence hardens us. The consequences of the repression takes an energy toll; dulling our responses is a form of psychic numbing; we experience fragmentation and alienation where our public face is business as usual and we then feel alone in our isolation. This all then leads to displacement activities, blaming and scapegoating, political passivity where we become docile and obedient, avoidance of painful information, and diminished intellectual performance because the repression of strong emotions impairs our ability to think.

   Every act of denial, whether it is conscious or unconscious, is an abdication of our power, and responsibility, to respond. Pain for the world is healthy and natural. It is only dysfunctional if it is misunderstood and repressed.

   Sustainable lifestyles, cooperative mutually-supportive relationships, and relocalized economies are three responses we can participate in to overcome despair. These three major aspects of our lives and social systems can all be based on the inherent wisdom of natural systems as expressed in a healthy and thriving ecosystem - mutual support and reciprocity, no waste or greed, and becoming increasingly diverse and creative. These three responses can be modeled and built on direct observable experience of the natural world that surrounds us.

   Inspiring people to make the change that starts with new choices entails meeting what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as the five human needs.

   The first need is physiological. We all need air, water and food that is clean and healthy. We don't need toxics added as they decrease our lifespan and our quality of life. This is the prime benefit of organic food. We need shelter that is natural and energy efficient, that can breathe instead of enclosing us in a toxic environment. Rebuilding our current built environment in a more natural way will keep local builders and contractors gainfully employed for a long time.

   The second need is for safety and security. This need can be very directly meet by embodying the principles of natural systems. Accepting and reveling in our unity within the web of life provides community support in times of need. A society with no greed means not having to live in fear of someone taking what you have. Stability is part of the definition of sustainability, and comes from not exploiting nature or taking more than it can replenish. We can work with the self-organizing principle of developing attraction relationships that support and improve all life within the system. When we try to _impose_, structure and order _decreases_. Look what has happened with the dams and levees along the Mississippi River. The delta is losing land at the rate of one football field every twenty minutes, wetlands are disappearing, and the silt that was replenishing the soil is now flowing directly into the Gulf of Mexico, along with the fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides that have created one of the worlds ocean's largest dead zones. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina painfully and forcefully demonstrated biological and human relationships falling apart.

   The third need is belongingness. The cooperation of natural systems helps us overcome isolation and build community. We need to realize that we're all lovable because the universe is friendly to life and its evolution. Attractions, which hold the world together, are a form of love, and points to the truth that love is all there is. Only when we're separated from any of our supportive relationships do we think it somehow works differently.

   The fourth need is esteem, and this is one where natural systems really play a direct role in the human condition. Self-worth comes from knowing that we're each a very important part of the whole, that we're positively contributing to our community. Working together to help and support, to help ensure we all have the opportunity to strengthen our abilities and develop our passions, to work toward fulfilling our potentials, builds self-confidence and self-respect. But, we need to be wary of some of the other emotions that in a materialistic, individualistic society actually give a false sense of self-worth and are a form of separation such as prestige and status. We must be careful with independence in an interdependent world. The difference between individualism and individuation is subtle but important.

   The fifth and final need is self-actualization. Realizing our potential and gaining fulfillment is a natural part of living according to natural systems principles. When we work with nature, instead of against it, we have the ability to become more of who we were meant to be.

   The need to institute change comes from realizing the overall situation is rapidly deteriorating. Hurricane Katrina makes it hard to deny that it's not just environmental problems, but with the way we're allowing ourselves to be governed. I mean, what if it had been Kennebunkport? One thing the current administration in DC is hoping we forget is that they can respond when they want to. Remember the hurricane that hit Florida just before the 2004 elections? The response was rapid and effective.

   My desire is to motivate you to strive for personal, professional, and social improvement. To experience greater success means to adopt and contribute to higher goals for yourself and your community.

   As Martin Luther King, Jr. says, I can never be all that I am meant to be until you become all that you are meant to be. This is the interrelated nature of the universe. This is why I believe that it's time to start acting like the humans we truly are, and not the genetically modified sheeple we've been led to believe.

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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