BY SOFO ARCHON
When I experience beauty, I tend to also experience grief. That’s because encounters with beauty usually remind me of all the beauty that has been lost.
When I hike through a forest, I’m reminded of the billions of trees that are being cut down each year. When I swim in the sea, I’m reminded of the 150 million metric tons of plastic that have been dumped into the ocean. When I come across a turtle during my morning walks in nature, I am reminded of the 200 species that go extinct every single day.
I often feel that the world is crying in pain, and this makes me experience deep sorrow. But what I find even more saddening is that most people don’t seem to feel the same way.
For years, I thought that’s just because they are ignorant or even stupid. But at some point I came to realize something very different: People do know what’s going on, yet only on an unconscious level, and that’s because they’ve repressed their feelings associated with pain.
To come face-to-face with the destruction of the world can induce feelings of immense pain. And who dares to do that? Because of the traumatic experiences people have been through in their lives, they’ve developed various kinds of defense mechanisms to avoid experiencing pain, such as a hard emotional skin that enables them to navigate the world without being hurt by it. Otherwise, how could they not care about the millions of people who are dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases, or the trillions of animals that are being needlessly killed year after year?
We’re living in a pain-denying culture. In this culture, pain is considered as something terribly bad that we need to avoid encountering. So we try to escape from it in all sorts of ways, such as by numbing our minds with intoxicants or by distracting ourselves with entertainment. Pain is our most-feared enemy; hence we do anything we can to hide from it. This way, however, we don’t give ourselves the chance to look into our pain, understand what’s causing it and effectively deal with it. Rather, we push it deep into our unconscious where it resides unresolved.
In reality, pain isn’t our enemy. Rather, it’s our friend, and, in fact, a great one. If you take some time to think about it, pain is there for a very important reason: To show us that something is wrong with the way we live, and to urge us to make change in order to correct that wrongness.
Let me give you a simple example to illustrate what I mean. If you place your hands in fire, you’ll instantly feel pain. That pain is there to tell you that you’re in danger, and that unless you do something about it (i.e. remove your hands from the fire), you’ll burn yourself. Of course, emotional pain is more complicated and subtler to understand, but the same core logic can be extended to it.
Seen this way, pain is a wake up call. But when we’ve been traumatized again and again since the early days of our lives, we feel so hurt that we don’t want to feel pain anymore. As a result, we try to rationalize, forget or just plain deny it. That’s why so many of us have become insensitive to the suffering of our planet. But unless we acknowledge and befriend pain, how can we empathize with the world? And unless we empathize with it, how can we do something to heal it?
To deal with the social and ecological crises ahead of us, we first and foremost need to reconnect with the world. This, however, requires that we pay attention to it — and hence to the suffering that it’s going through. By doing so, we’re bound to experience tremendous grief, due to all the life and beauty that has been lost. Yet grief can remind us of our interconnectedness and interdependence with the rest of existence. It can help us to expand our sense of self and to realize that we’re a part of the world, not apart from it — and so that when we destroy it, we’re in essence destroying ourselves.
Then, what the great biologist E. O. Wilson called biophilia will be awakened within us — that is, our inherent affinity for all life on Earth and our deep-rooted desire to intimately interact with and protect it.
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