Image by Enrique Meseguer
I’m asking you to stretch, to stare into the possibility of collective mortality: Humanity too shall pass. All living things on Earth shall pass.
Collective Mortality Awareness. I don’t even want to write the words. I can hardly focus, let alone imagine this unthinkable truth. I get up and walk in circles to catch a breath.
But, as I sit down again, the mountain roads around my home are flooding, only weeks after we escaped wildfires. Climate change is here now. And all of it—human civilization, the animals, the Earth itself—is at risk.
We are in a collective rite of passage. Not at the threshold—but fully in it.
How Do We Want to Live Now?
My friend Mitch Metzner, a longtime hospice midwife, says that, like a person in hospice care, the Earth is in liminal time, after life and before death—or reemergence.
So, I pose the question: How do we want to live now, given the whole truth?
And as we turn to face this truth for an instant, our rage, grief, and powerlessness break over us in a wave.
Listen to your shadow voices now: “Why did Connie have to go here?” “I don’t want to read about this.” “I recycle. What else can I do?”
We don’t want to face this “inconvenient truth.” We don’t want to know what we can’t tolerate knowing or what we can’t change. “Yes, I should do something—but anything I do is useless. I can’t really have any impact on this.”
Yet doing nothing is also intolerable. It increases the anxiety, the guilt, and the dread. So, we stuff those intolerable feelings again and put down this book. And turn on the TV.
I understand. I do this myself. We can’t stare too long at the sun.
But as we bury those daunting feelings and this certain knowledge in the shadow, as we repress them beneath awareness, something else happens: We numb out. And the unconscious fear and grief ripple through our bodies, eventually seeping up to the surface in other ways.
People sense the disturbance in the Force, like an animal sensing danger. They report free-floating anxiety for unknown reasons and widespread depression because, as one high-school student told me, “There is no future for me.”
Get The Latest By Email
This condition now has names—climate grief, climate trauma— and is an unprecedented, ever-present, ever-growing awareness.
Futurelessness: The Pivotal Psychological Reality of Our Time
Futurelessness—the people of my generation, the baby boomers, faced this at the peak of the Cold War and the buildup of the nuclear arms race. During those years, Joanna Macy wrote and taught about sharing our despair to carry us beyond our small, personal concerns and out into the world. Our despair, she taught, is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life. Rather than bringing more isolation, our shared despair brings community and links us in solidarity—and in uncertainty—with all living things.
Now in her eighties, Joanna wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
We may not want to know. We may distract ourselves or even deny this truth. But we do know—with or without conscious awareness. And the animals know as extinctions spread. And the children know.
Deena Metzger has another name for it: extinction illness. She wrote recently, “It is possible that Extinction Illness is the root of all contemporary mental, physical, and spiritual diseases. Extinction Illness, the essential cellular knowledge and terror that one’s life, one’s people’s lives, all life is threatened, that lineage is disappearing, that we, all, may well become extinct within a very short period of time, that the future will be eradicated.” (For Deena’s full essay, see “Extinction Illness,” published on the blog site of Tikkun magazine, January 3, 2019.)
A Climate Change Fantasy? Or The Dark Night of The Species
When I first learned about climate change in the 1980s, I had a fantasy that it would bring humanity together under a common threat and a common purpose: to create a sustainable world. As Deena wrote, “In order to save our lives, we have to save everyone’s life, human and non-human.”
But despite the international conferences and national pacts, the necessary sweeping global action did not come to pass. Now, according to scientists, less than a decade remains to prevent the worst scenario.
Spiritual theologian Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality, calls this the “dark night of the species.”
The great eco-theologian Thomas Berry put it this way in Selected Writings on the Earth Community: “In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. The desolation of the earth has become the destiny of the human.”
The Call to be an Earth Elder
Today, the call to be an Elder is the call to be an Earth Elder. Those of us in late life as I write this were the first generation to know about environmental disaster. In our youth, we became either vaguely or acutely aware of the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. Few of us did anything meaningful about it.
Today we know that what happens to each of us happens to all of us. Today, we are awakening from the trance of denial. We are called to bring the moral voice of the Elder to do our part for all living things.
Do you hear the call? It rises up from your soul and from the soul of the world. It may speak in your dreams, guide your intuition, rumble through your grief, or move through your love of nature.
This is an arena in which some Elder activists are highly engaged, writing investigative journalism, protesting fracking and pipelines, lobbying with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, divesting retirement funds from fossil fuels, mobilizing climate voters, and marching with kids during school strikes. Many have taken the vow of the Order of the Sacred Earth: I promise to be the best lover and defender of Mother Earth that I can be.
As a Native American proverb says, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
What will you tell your grandchildren or great-grandchildren when they ask: What did you do when you found out about the climate crisis?
Do you hear the call to serve something larger than yourself?
Can you identify the cause or issue that arouses the most passion in you and calls you toward it?
Imagine yourself serving others or speaking up in the public arena about this. What stops you from getting engaged?
What is your unique gift that only you can give? What stops you from giving it?
Gandhi said, “My life is my message.” What is your message?
In Hindu myth, Hanuman, servant of the god Ram, tells Ram: “When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I am you.” Can you see the evolution of your soul through service? How can you be the change you long to see in the world?
The Ten Steps of Sacred Service through Karma Yoga
Roger Walsh outlines these steps, paraphrased here from his article “Karma Yoga and Awakening Service.”
Before beginning any activity, stop, breathe, and become present to your purpose.
Offer the activity to God or the divine, however you understand it.
Choose an intention. Ask yourself, “What is this for?” Survival, comfort, awakening, the benefit of others, or some other motivation?
Do the activity as impeccably as you can.
Be mindful, observing your actions, intentions, and mental state.
Work with any reactions that arise, such as anxiety, anger, pride, hope, and disappointment, and use shadow-work here.
Release attachment to the outcome. Use the witness to let it go.
Stop at the end of the activity.
Reflect and learn about your action, its results, your ego, your mind, and your attachments.
Offer the benefits to the well-being of all.
The Six Perfections of Buddhism
In her book Standing at the Edge, Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax gives us a meditation prayer invoking the six paramitas or perfections—the qualities of compassion that embody the sacred service of a Bodhisattva:
May I be generous.
May I cultivate integrity and respect.
May I be patient and see clearly the suffering of others.
May I be energetic, steadfast, and wholehearted.
May I cultivate a calm and inclusive mind and heart so ! can compassionately serve all beings.
May I nurture wisdom and impart the benefit of any insights ! may have to others.
Copyright 2021 by Connie Zweig, All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Intl.
The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul
by Connie Zweig PhD.
With extended longevity comes the opportunity for extended personal growth and spiritual development. You now have the chance to become an Elder, to leave behind past roles, shift from work in the outer world to inner work with the soul, and become authentically who you are. This book is a guide to help get past the inner obstacles and embrace the hidden spiritual gifts of age.
Offering a radical reimagining of age for all generations, psychotherapist and bestselling author Connie Zweig explores the obstacles encountered in the transition to wise Elder and offers psychological shadow-work and diverse spiritual practices to help you break through denial to awareness, move from self-rejection to self-acceptance, repair the past to be fully present, reclaim your creativity, and allow mortality to be a teacher.
For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Connie Zweig, Ph.D. is a retired therapist and coauthor of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow. Her award-winning book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, extends her work on the Shadow into midlife and beyond and explores aging as a spiritual practice. It won the 2022 Gold COVR Award, the 2022 Gold Nautilus Award, the 2021 American Book Fest Award, and the 2021 Best Indie Book Award for best inspirational non-fiction. Her new book, Meeting the Shadow on the Spiritual Path: The Dance of Darkness and Light in Our Search for Awakening, will be available June, 2023. Connie has been doing contemplative practices for more than 50 years. She is a wife, stepmother, and grandmother. After all these roles, she’s practicing the shift from role to soul.
Visit the author's website: ConnieZweig.com