Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

August 2010/ Letting in Joy

August 2010 Letting in Joy
I’ve started this article several times. I wanted to write my response around what has happened in the Gulf and was having a hard time finding my voice or making any sense of what I was thinking or feeling. As I talked to others I found I was not alone. It’s been hard to comprehend because it is so incomprehensible. I hope reading it helps you in some way. Maybe it will inspire your own response. Your voice is needed.

                                  “There is only one question, how to love this world”
                                         from the poem“Spring,” by Mary Oliver

Lessons from Loss
This summer I’ve attended three life celebration/memorials. They were exquisite not just because of the wonderful memories people shared, but also because of the fact that the individuals who were memorialized lost their lives when they were in the middle of the lives they had always wanted. They were doing work they loved, living where they loved and with people they loved. I can only imagine the loss felt by their families and close friends, but I know that I left each memorial hopeful and inspired by someone whose life had been well lived.

One thing that struck me was that at some point during each memorial someone said something along the lines of, “Here I am doing the dishes and they are gone.” That seemed to close to how I'd been feeling every day since the Gulf oil disaster. How could I enjoy a beautiful summer day knowing there was so much suffering going on in the Gulf?

I wanted to voice my feelings, but felt like I needed to say something brilliant, wise and profound. After all, I have taken on as my life’s work helping to restore the connection between people and place. And here I was confronted with a richly defined place that I could not face. Pictures and reports I couldn’t watch. A truth I wanted to ignore. A connection I did not want to feel.

I looked around to see what others were saying. I found voices that wanted to point fingers, voices that said it’s not that bad, and voices that said "cast the Gulf in a net of light." While I agree that casting the Gulf in a net of light is better than casting it in one of fear and despair, I wasn't hearing what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear people address the fact that this is really about how we steward the earth. And how our failure to be good stewards is quite simply, a defilement of the sacred.

There are many lessons to learn from this tragedy. Even with the well capped, we don't know the impacts yet of all that gunk in the ocean or all the life forms that will suffer because of it. At worse, I've wondered if the Gulf is like the martyr that has been sacrificed to teach us about how the way we live effects everything else.

I know we all use oil, but I cringe when I hear the phrase” addicted to oil." The way we use oil is planned. We've had alternatives all along. We're not victims. We're responsible for our choices. But perhaps the mantra that has helped so many addicts is most fitting here: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom know the difference.”

I have a friend who works in land conservation who has been in despair about global warming for as long as I’ve known her. Whenever we talk, I listen to her express her feelings, and after a certain point I always feel compelled to say, “Yes, all that is true, and in the meantime, what shall we do?” Now it was my turn to call her and ask, “What shall we do?”

"Feel your feelings.” She replied.

The Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief
I wrote out everything I had been feeling since the spill began. It seemed messy and all over the place until it dawned on me that what I was experiencing followed a pattern: the Kubler-Ross model of the stages of grief. Of course! The grief we feel regarding the loss of human life also applies to loss of other life, to non-human beings, to the loss of a place. Here’s the model if you’re not familiar with it.

  1. Shock and denial: Avoidance, confusion, fear, numbness, blame
  2. Anger and frustration: Anxiety, irritation, embarrassment, shame
  3. Depression and detachment: Overwhelm, lack of energy
  4. Dialogue and bargaining: Reaching out to others, desire to tell one’s story, struggle to find meaning for what has happened
  5. Acceptance: Exploring new options, a new plan in place
  6. Return to a meaningful life


Creating Change
We need to remember there are other voices to add to this conversation. Joanna Macy is one. She has been working in the center of storms like these for a long time. At 81 she is articulate, passionate and a true wisdom keeper. Visit her homepage and watch the short video from her keynote at last years Bioneers conference if you want to be inspired. www.joannamacy.net

In the work she calls “the Great Turning,” she identifies three ways of creating change and taking action, all of which can be happening simultaneously.

  1. Holding actions to slow the damage to the Earth and its beings.
  2. Analysis of structural causes and creation of alternative institutions.
  3. A fundamental shift in worldviews and values, both cognitively and spiritually.


My Story
While looking for other voices to help me make sense of all this what struck me is the need to find my own. Talking with friends helped me find my way through. Being able to eventually articulate my feelings has always helped me get through things in my life. Giving my experiences form, whether it's an essay or a song, has always been a healing thing to do.

So, like the mourners at the memorials, I know there is life to attend to here and now. I've thought about the Buddhists monks who live in war torn countries who practice being loving and kind, even in the midst of great unkindness. This industrial accident which has resulted in unkindness to so many life forms has made it hard for me to let in joy. But I know now that to not let in joy is also a defilement of the sacred----right outside my door.

Your Story
Find your gift to bring: Read or listen to Joanna Macy, or just know that there are different ways to help, and on different levels. From cleaning birds to limiting your consumption of petroleum products. From changing policy to creating a song or poem that changes the way people view the world . . . All contributions are valuable. You just need to figure out what gift you can bring to the problem. And don’t think you have to solve the entire problem all by yourself.

Write it out: Where are you on the grief cycle? Write out your feelings. Talk with others. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Let in Joy: It won’t do anyone any good if you don’t! Here’s a quote to inspire you:

"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
from Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry

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updated: 7 years ago

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