In the Face of Despair, Choose Life by Carol P. Christ


carol mitzi sarahYesterday I had a delightful swim with a friend in the cool Aegean Sea. In in the evening I met two dear friends at an open air restaurant for a delicious meal and good conversation. Last night a beautiful moon rose over the sea and a soft breeze caressed my skin. All of this made me very happy. However, the state of the world does not.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. The Ferguson police. Hold your ground laws. Bombing in Gaza. War in Ukraine. War in Iraq. War in Afghanistan. War in Syria. Wars that are not on my radar. Rape as a part of war. Joe Biden threatening to chase ISIL “to the gates of hell.” Citizens United. A rash of laws restricting voting rights. A rash of laws restricting abortion rights. Police brutality. Police brutality that is racially motivated. Young men being sentenced to prision for minor drug offenses. The brutality of the prison system. A woman with children being paid $8.50 an hour working at McDonalds and not even knowing when she will be called in to work. Open carry laws allowing Americans to walk the streets with loaded weapons. And that’s just off the top of my head this morning.

When I was young and protesting poverty, racism, and the War in Vietnam, I thought that it would be a relatively simple matter to change the world. It turned out that I was not only wrong: I was very wrong. The world has changed all right, but not for the most part for the better. In fact, despite the diligent efforts of social justice activists, in many respects the world has changed for the worse. In a recent post I discussed my experience with depression. I did not mention there that one of the causes of the depressions I used to suffer was “the state of the world.” Recently a friend of mine fell into a deep depression because “they are about to cut down old growth forests” in her state. (This is only one of the many things that she despairs of.) Her experience reminded me that I was deeply depressed for several years after hearing Helen Caldicott describe the threat posed by the plutonium used in nuclear power plants to the future of life on planet earth.

In many ways despair and even depression seem like the appropriate response to the systematic violence fueled by hatred, greed, and failure of empathy that is part of the world in which we live. Just a few moments ago I saw a photograph of a military dog on my Facebook page with a caption stating that the military considers these dogs military “equipment” to be disposed of when no longer useful. I commented “Sorry but dogs are feeling and conscious individuals.” My response seemed a bit futile in the face of longstanding scientific and philosophical traditions that view other than humans individuals as “part of nature” and nature as “unfeeling matter.” And don’t get me started on “the necessity of war.”

Despair and depression may be understandable responses to the state of the world, but I would argue, we should fight them with every resource at our disposal at every moment of our lives.

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Though she does not believe in the personal God alleged to have spoken these words, my friend Judith Plaskow loves to quote them. For me they embody a choice we have every moment of every day. We can “choose death” by dwelling upon the bad things that are happening in our lives and in the world. Or we can “choose life.” What does it mean to choose life?

  • We enjoy the love and beauty that is given to us in our daily lives, and we give thanks for it in every moment.
  • We never deny the conflict, pain, and suffering in our personal lives and in the world as a whole.
  • And we do what we can to repair the world.

It is important to keep these elements in balance. Sometimes we ask: How can I enjoy the half moon rising over the deep blue sea when somewhere else in the world people are suffering? My answer to this question is that life is meant to be enjoyed. Not to enjoy it when we can is to fail to appreciate the gifts of life and the Gift of Life.This doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to suffering. But we must keep our own lives in perspective as much as possible.

I enjoy life more when I know that I am also doing something to alleviate suffering. Two days ago I spoke to a friend about the death of her sister after she called me on Skype. She thanked me for not denying death and the pain it causes as “our culture teaches us to do.” This morning I joined a Facebook conversation about saving the wetlands in Lesbos, a cause I have been commited to for over a decade. Yesterday I signed petitions against war, in favor of abortion rights, and against police brutality. I looked into the eyes of a military dog in a photograph and spoke up for its rights. Now I am writing this blog with the suffering of my friend about the state of the world uppermost in my mind.

But you may be asking yourself: Does any of this really matter? Can anything any one of us does really make a difference to the state of the world?

In my blog on depression, I spoke of “errors in thought” that fuel depression. I suggest that the above questions are also based in errors in thought. Adding the word “really” in front of “matter”and “make a difference” confuses the issue. The word “really” encourages us to focus on longterm, worldwide, final results. Yet we are finite individuals living in a world where the future is indeterminate. No one of us has the power to determine the longterm “state of the world.” And there is no way we can know for sure what the future will hold. Even if, as my calculation of probabilities suggest, war is not going to end, the environment will continue to be degraded, and human and other than human suffering will be increased–is this any reason to decline to enjoy life in the present and to stop trying to make things better?

We should not be asking: Can I really change the state of the world? The question we should be asking is: What can I do to alleviate or heal suffering in the concrete, today, tomorrow, and the next day?

For me this means enjoying the company of friends in sickness and in health, communing with the other than human individuals in my life (those two cute little dogs among them), appreciating the sea and the moon, and also making a concrete effort each day to speak out against injustice and when I can, and to take action with others to make the world a more just place for all of the individuals who live in it. To expect more of myself than I can do or more of “the world” than is possible given the laws of nature and situations that have already occurred would also be an error in thought.

Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–$150 discount for anyone who signs up for the fall 2014 tour–www.goddessariadne.org.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.



Categories: Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Gift of Life, Goddess Spirituality, Social Justice, Spirituality

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32 replies

  1. Thanks, Carol, for this very compassionate and life-affirming post. We can’t not weep for the pain of others, and for the private struggles we face too. But there is a point, for sure, where we have to step back, and demand the right to be happy also, to enjoy whatever humble gifts we are blessed with, and remember every day to thank our loved ones for their enduring companionship.

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    • Thanks Carol for your thoughts. Change happens slowly and it is happening. It does not happen by learned men passing laws. Nope. It comes about when common ordinary women try with no guarantee of success to make things better. And we have to have a high degree of tolerance for failure and setbacks at every level. When you feel overwhelmed stop and call a friend, go for a walk,
      do something. That overwhelmed, helpless feeling is what pays the patriarchy’s rent. Change may be slow but it is moving along bit by bit. The part of the women’s movement we were a part of
      (I am 63 and I know your name from organizing in the 1980’s) accomplished a lot. There are lots of women doctors now. There weren’t when I was 20 (1970). We need to keep it going and now make a medical system that is oriented towards healing, not enriching insurance companies. On a scale of
      one to ten, we are at 1.06. But we are moving in the right direction. The reaction from the ignorant men in charge is brutal and vicious and I can understand feeling overwhelmed. Don’t give up and don’t stop. We’re on our way- to the freedom land (to quote sweet honey in the rock). Prayers for your light to radiate love to your own life and self fully and completely. Best wishes,
      Ellen

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  2. Communing with nature is healing for me, but I think humans are a plague upon the earth, and I’m very glad that I do not have grandchildren, because I am very concerned about the future. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes.

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    • But Katharine, how can you enjoy life if you believe that humans — and you are a human — are a plague on the Earth? I think this is an error in thought. Perhaps there are many humans who you would consider a plague on the Earth, but surely there are others? Like the women here on FAR?

      I believe that the idea of humans as a plague has its roots in a deep ecology understanding that separates human nature from the rest of nature. Personally, I know that I’m part of nature and that’s why communing with nature, as you call it, is healing for me.

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  3. I completely agree with you and your Old Testament friends, but it is an uphill battle. Our default is to regress into negativity: http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/humans-are-wired-for-negativity-for-good-or-ill/

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    • Interesting article. His conclusion that there may be no way to combat negitivity is incorrect, however. There is a way to change it. It is called mindfulness – living in the present moment and accepting what is. It would be interesting to look at a study on Buddhist monks in relation to negativity.

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      • Those studies have been done by Richie Davidson here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and they show that long-term practitioners of meditation are indeed happier than other folks. This is how Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama) describes some of the early findings of this lag: “According to Dr. Davidson, there is now science to underscore this belief. Dr. Davidson tells me that the emergence of positive emotions may be due to this: Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain’s violent impulses and our actions.”

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      • Awesome. Thanks, Nancy.

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    • I too looked at the article and I don’t agree with it. Traumatized individuals may focus on their traumas. Neurotic individuals focus on the negative. But what enables us to get through are the thousands and milliions of positive acts of kindness, care, and concern that have enabled us to survive and to develop healthy enough personality structures to do so.The article also does not take account of the fact that “our” culture is a dominator culture, that violence is often part of “normal” childrearing, and that guilt has been instilled into many by patriarchal religions. This may create the false impression that to be negative is normal or natural.

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      • From what I’ve read about how our brain functions, we’re wired to be alert for problems. This used to work when the dangers of life were what we found in a natural environment, but our fight-and-flight responses get triggered way too often in modern life. I haven’t read the article in Aeon, but I know in my life that I have to meditate to maintain a low level of contentment on which happiness can build.

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      • Nancy, I agree with your note here on the need for meditation in terms of contentment, it is also a great healer, mentally and physically. I spent many years as part of a zazen meditation group I loved and was devoted to. But the leader passed on, the group disbanded, and I was thrown back on my own resources. I was so used to a group I couldn’t do Zazen alone effectively and then after a few years had passed, I realized the meticulous art work I was doing — colorful illustrations of mandala like quilt designs — had picked up the meditation process and was carrying me forward, all on its own without my realizing it.

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      • Sarah, I think our meditation practices change over time. I know mine have. And in less than a month I’ll be going to Kripalu Yoga Center for a mother-daughter retreat, where the two of us will be taking a class that will teach 112 ways of meditating. So my practice may change even more.

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      • Thanks for sharing your journey, Nancy. I found Kripalu online. Glorious!!

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  4. Thanks, Carol, for this. I, for one, continually expect more of myself than I can possibly do, and the lack of what I consider to be concrete results becomes more and more frustrating as my time on this earth becomes shorter. I am going to print out these wise words you’ve written and try to read them every day. Doing one’s best is all anyone can ever do.

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  5. Thank you, Carol. This spoke speaks to my condition–and the human condition. I will want to re-read your words and absorb (and apply) their wisdom.

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  6. I recently learned that in Buddhism, one fights — hard — for what one believes in, then we let go. We just have to let go. It is, I imagine, the only way the Dalai Lama can smile so broadly every day. Thank you for your post.

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  7. Carol, this is beautiful. You wrote a lot of things I am thinking. I am now convinced that the whole world has turned into a dystopia in which it’s really hard to find anything good. That’s on my despairing days. You’re right: we cannot change the whole world by ourselves. But I use this image: the consciousness of the world is made of bubbles, big ones and tiny ones. Each act of kindness, each word of comfort, each blog like yours creates a new bubble, and these bubbles of goodness join together in the world bubble. Tiny bit by tiny bit we are perhaps changing the world in ways we can’t see yet. You’re right. We can change our thinking. We can change the world by being kind. Thanks for writing this blog. It’s a good thing to read on a Monday morning! ;-)

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  8. Carol,

    Thank you so much for this post. It hits on some of what I have been thinking about (and writing about)– the sadness within. My friends have lately been asking, ” How do we balance the want to stay informed vs. the want to still have inner peace?” I keep chewing on that question, struggling with it myself. As someone who struggles with depression and, as my husband says, feels things at 1000x the normal rate– I really appreciate when other speak out about how it is possible to do both–with action. I love your challenge: “What can I do to alleviate or heal suffering in the concrete, today, tomorrow, and the next day?. That is so much better than just consuming news for the sake of consuming and staying aware. It puts the heartache into action–and action heals. Again, thank you! I will be sharing this.

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  9. I think it was Merle Hoffman that said something to the effect of — Sanity is the ability to live passionately within the pessimism of your intellect and the optimism of your soul.

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  10. Beautiful post – mirrors my thoughts perfectly.

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  11. I love this post, Carol. It speaks to the condition of sensitive and compassionate people at this time on the planet. Despite being a witch for many years (1976 was when I started embracing the Goddess), it took the Dalai Lama to open my eyes to the human condition when it comes to joy. He said something to the effect that people are lucky to be human after all our incarnations as other species, and that we should celebrate that fact, that our purpose in life was to enjoy life, to be filled with joy.

    I love your action points, too. The third action point is written with the helping verb “can.” I think this is important, because as sensitive and compassionate people, we need to know what we can do at any point in time. Our activism needs to be predicated on our personal abilities and energy at the moment. Sometimes we’ll be very active; other times we’ll need time off.

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  12. Thank you for this Carol. One of the thoughts I had was that if I/we don’t enjoy the moon, stars, flowers, other beauty around us, why would we fight for respect for creation? Enjoyment, love – fuel for the action for change. I also remember something said during a struggle to bring some justice to a situation here. Someone asked: “Do you think your demonstration will really make a difference?” The reply was: “Yes, it keeps ME from forgetting, or becoming numb and indifferent to injustice” And it raises awareness for others too.

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  13. Thanks to all of you.

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  14. I wish that depression and negativity were as simple as making lifestyle choices. I recently experienced the suicide of my 22 year old daughter. Yes, life and the world around us can be depressing. Some people are very sensitive to the suffering of others…and are more prone to depression and suicide.

    In the US, we live in a society where expressions of grief and sadness are mostly unacceptable. These emotions are routinely chastised and discouraged. Our culture teaches us that sadness, depression, and other mental illnesses are “choices.” When those afflicted seek out help, they are often evangelized to (history shows us how well physical illnesses are cured through prayer….mental illness isn’t much different).

    When we consider negativity, then examine biology and evolutionary processes, it is obvious that species who are overly cautious DO fair better (and thus, pass on genes that favor such things….for example, humans are “wired” to “see” patterns that may not actually be there……20,000 years ago, if someone was alone at night and heard the grass rustle, they could think “It’s probably just the wind,” or they could run away, assuming it could be a lion on the hunt. Although the chances are small that the noise emanating from the grass was actually a lion, the person who assumes the worst possible scenario is more likely to survive….and pass on their genes).

    I believe that the major issue is how we DEAL with tragedy, sadness, and depression. From my own experiences, we don’t have much patience that allows people to process their trauma. If a traumatized person tries to work through their issues, others seem to have set “time limits” for tolerating mourning behavior. I can honestly say that my own grief processes have been HELPED by very few….and HARMED by countless others.

    We must find a balance…..we must be able to BE sad….we must have the space we need to process our trauma…..no, we can’t become STUCK in our sadness. However, it should be up to the affected person to draw the boundaries and decide what he or she needs. Others should respect, support, and lift up those who are struggling….without preconceived notions of what is “right” or “wrong.”

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  15. Thanks for sharing your pain. I hope I was not read as disagreeing with what you are saying here. My earlier post linked on the current post was on depression. And much earlier, I wrote this on dealing with suicide. Don’t know if either will be helpful to you. https://feminismandreligion.com/2012/04/23/to-a-friend-on-the-loss-of-her-daughter-by-carol-p-christ/
    We must all find our own ways.

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  16. Thank you Carol for the reminder that there is, and needs to be, a balance between activism for change and confronting pain and evil around us, and compassionate nurturing of our own spirits and the ever present beauty within and without.

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  17. Bob Dylan said “Those not busy being born are busy dying.”

    Despair is the handmaid of depression, there to tell us how useless it all is.

    I have long struggled with depression and finally have had my fill of it. I have been learning that where I put my attention and how I structure my thoughts have a huge inpact on how I feel. I am in a learning curve to change the old despairing habits.

    When I feel like there is no point to any of it, I remind myself that I am unique in all the world and all the universe, and that I came into this life to give and do something only I–in this particular lifetime and no other–can do. And that little actions go a long, long way to making changes. Having friends and family, plants and animals who remind me of this is invaluable.

    Thanks for an interesting and inspiring post Carol.

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  18. The future looks pretty bleak from my 66-year-old perspective these days, but I’m still forging ahead, heeding Mother Teresa’s advice:
    “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People who really want help may attack you if you help them. Help them anyway. Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt. Give the world your best anyway.”

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  19. Carol, thank you.

    Those words are a balm to my soul today.

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  20. Inspiring post.

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  21. Thank you for this, Carol. I’m still thinking about your column days later, especially the idea that as I strive to enjoy the beauty of life each day and appreciate its gifts, that too is part of alleviating and healing suffering.

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