“More time always means more dying.”
(Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise, 2015)
Grief is the natural response of living beings to losing what they love. When a wild bison, our national mammal, is taken pursuant to a sham “hunting” tag in Montana (as there is no fair chase, it isn’t really a hunt), wildlife regulations provide for a 45-minute grieving period during which the dead bison’s clan confirm that he is dead, announced after some prodding by a loud wail from the clan leader, and then the clan proceeds to circumambulate their dearly departed a few times, slowly, before wandering away and leaving the carcass for the lucky tag-holder.
Thanks to the Covid-19 Pandemic, our own grief rituals have been severely curtailed. We are living in a time of suppressed grief right now. When grief is repressed, either individually or collectively, it will find an outlet for expression at some point in time, functional or not.
One of the more interesting things about human grief is that, while we tend to associate it with individual experience, our species expresses grief and trauma collectively, as well, through cultural processes. In fact, we can observe and study the human grieving process at multiple scales: individually and in family rituals, similar to bison, but also culturally (think 9/11 here) through a wide diversity of expressive outlets and shared experiences. And now, in an interconnected, interdependent world ruled by information and social media, we even experience trauma and grief at a global scale. We are fast becoming a global village, and making the rules up as we go along.
Thus, by being self-reflective and honest with ourselves about the increasing level of trauma we are feeling in our everyday lives now, and all the different ways our own unresolved traumas are being triggered in this global village, we find that our personal feelings are intimately bound up with and reflected in the pandemonium we are observing daily at all levels of society, from the streets all over the world up to the halls of power and beyond.
Viewing the utter chaos in American culture right now through the clarifying lens of cultural trauma and collective grief permits us to place current events in a much wider, long-term perspective. Chaos itself is a natural expression of the crying need for something new and different to emerge. This trauma-informed perspective can also inform our activism, revealing where the cracks in the system are, and suggesting opportunities for sudden social change.
The human population has progressed far beyond what would be considered critical mass for any one species on planet Earth, and so it should come as no surprise that all our relations now interpenetrate one another at a heightened level, beyond the mere geopolitical interdependence of the global economy. Because of this planetary rewiring, reflected most directly in the world wide web carried on 5G networks, change now happens at a quantum pace — not the snail’s pace of pre-modern, Newtonian history.
We’ve all seen this most recently with the authoritarian murder of George Floyd, which triggered us all at a deeply archetypal level, and then rather spontaneously catalyzed humanity’s collective awareness in a way that is suggestive of a whole new social order on the cusp of emerging from the miasma of our primordial, colonialist soup.
Human consciousness is now a global phenomenon that can shift dramatically in indeterminate time. Real social change arrives as the collapse of a quantum wave of collective consciousness. By appreciating this new paradigm and intentionally tapping into collective consciousness, activists feel empowered to rise above the madding crowds. Quantum activism transforms protesters into global social witnesses and catalysts for lasting social change.
So when considering a global collective trauma like the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, we begin our analysis of the collective grieving process by acknowledging what it is that has been lost. Everyone who was paying attention knew intuitively when the lockdown began last Spring that the world we have always known had just been lost.
That is a pretty significant thing to lose!
‘Life as we have always known it’ is to the collective what life itself is to the individual. So collectively speaking, the lockdown was not unlike receiving a terminal diagnosis from your doctor. Indeed, that’s how it hit many of us. We knew at the outset it meant that, this year and maybe next, we stood a very good chance of losing an elderly relative or two. For those of us over 60 ourselves, or with compromised immune systems for any number of reasons, suddenly a world without us in it looks a lot closer than it ever has before.
For all of us not actively denying reality, 2020 will be remembered as the year our previously death- and grief-phobic culture began charting a more death-informed way of life. Most of us know, as well, that even if we try to go back to it now, the world as we’ve comfortably known it has been irretrievably lost. We still don’t know what comes next, we remain in this rather eery global bardo, but we know that previous life of blissful consumer ignorance is over.
Collectively Grieving our Lost World
The first stage of grief in response to this kind of loss is shock and denial. It definitely came as a shock to suddenly realize that death was as close as our front door. For those whose trauma-response systems have long since been overwhelmed, it was much easier to simply deny that this was anything more serious than a common flu bug. In America, collectively we are led by a terrorist organization of know-nothings who elevate opinion over science, and greed over life. So it only makes sense that our political rulers would freeze during an election year into a two-footed stance of denial and blame, treating us like the walking dead swarming their gated homes.
Brazil, too, with Trump’s “mini-me” Bolsonaro seeing nothing but opportunity in the dying, using the pandemic as a biological weapon against the Indigenous Earth Protectors. Tragically sad. Denial is a lethal weapon when wielded by those in power.
The second stage of grief is anger.
It seems appropriate here to mention that these stages are not always experienced in an orderly manner at the individual level. But at the collective level, individual differences average out and we do tend to see a relatively linear progression through the stages of grief.
So here on the world’s rotten stage, it didn’t take too long before the afore-mentioned Americans with compromised trauma response systems, locked into life-long, dysfunctional fight/fright/flight cycles that have become integral to their identity (sometimes referred to in the media as “Trump’s core supporters”) began arriving on statehouse steps with automatic weapons and no masks, demanding that everyone join them in their constitutionally protected denialism.
America! Love it or leave it, right?
Oh, I know — they didn’t all show up. Some of them chose instead to go ahead with Spring Break drunken beach orgies, their Texas sized pool parties, and their naked-face taverns. And/or crowd into divinely protected churches to speak out freely in tongues. But all nonetheless with the same angry “F.U. America” chips on their non-socially distanced shoulders. Eventually, this devolved into the simple expedient of not wearing a mask in stores, where after all we have always been free to exercise our god-given right to buy stupid shit we don’t really need wrapped in tamper-proof plastic.
I hope that didn’t sound too angry. Believe it or not, I actually have a lot of compassion for emotionally disabled Americans.
The third stage is bargaining. This is where things get pretty weird, collectively speaking, and where we still find ourselves.
Yes, welcome to the 2020 Summer of Our Discontent…
In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the good consumers and good christians alike who just want everything to go back to the way it was in 1950, even if that means turning school children into silent disease vectors and converting nursing homes into extermination camps. As long as we can have college football in the fall, right? Because without football, what good are all our muscle trucks, beer and brats? And without real football, suddenly all my fantasy football leagues appear quite meaningless.
Or something like that.
But in THIS corner… whoa —
…who is this new contender?
Because as soon as white people began spoiling for a return to the Happy Days nostalgiaof 1950, an entire race of black people suddenly rose up in protest:
“WAIT a minute — we couldn’t even use the water fountains in 1950!”
…and then they were all like:
“Not only are we not willing go BACK to the way things were, we are upping the stakes of this bargaining process by demanding you dismantle the existing machinery of colonial oppression and race-bating cultural dominance!”
Like I said — whoa.
Wasn’t expecting that with a global pandemic going on.
But the streets quickly filled up here in America, and then overnight it seemed the entire world suddenly coalesced around the simple refrain that never did go away after Ferguson: Yes, we all now politically agree,
Black Lives Matter!
This really seems to have thrown our collective grieving process for a loop!
Suddenly, our tidy little bargaining phase, which was clearly meant to be foolishly defeated in a way that would bring us into the collective depression phase, has suddenly itself taken a quantum leap into an unprecedented ‘Grand Social Bargaining End of the World as We Know it Election Year’ phase!
Now what do we make of this? Indeed — that seems to be the question we are being confronted by. What can we make of this?
Well, one thing is immediately clear. We certainly seem to have forestalled any progression to the stage of depression! Tell Big Pharma to go back to making their silly vaccines, we won’t be needing boatloads of government subsidized Prozac and Effexor just yet. (Hold that thought, though).
The collective trauma of the global pandemic has triggered our unresolved cultural traumas in ways that can certainly be viewed as cathartic. Longtime GOP apologist for the New York Times and PBS News, David F’n Brooks himself, issued a rather radical, viewed in historical context at least, call for slavery reparations!
We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.
The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.
And a far-reaching legislative proposal from Rep. Barbara Lee for the kind of truth, reconciliation and cultural healing that would support reparations for both slavery and Indigenous genocide has been introduced during this time of pandemic. Major cities are considering pretty drastic defunding proposals to dismantle our institutionally racist and militarized police forces, replacing them with compassionately skilled social workers. And Donald Trump is actively dismantling the U.S. Postal Service as I write.
Umm.. wait a second. What?
Okay, so we seem to have regressed to shock, anger and denial again, since I’m sure this whole bargaining for racial equity thing made a lot of white people and good christian soldiers hanker for the good ‘ole days when everything was locked down nice and tight and protests without social distancing were still frowned upon.
So it seems, for the time being – at least so long as Trump and Miller plot to overthrow our government from the White Supremacy House – that we’re collectively trapped in this 3-step denial/anger/bargaining dance, and nobody is really interested right now in what that next stage of cultural grief might look like when it finally does befall us.
Which leads me to suspect that it is going to be a real doozie — the mother of all dark nights.
The last thing I want to diminish here is the critical importance of this unanticipated Grand Bargaining Phase, because I happen to believe that it is reflecting the same kind of systemic change that needs to happen for us to express our climate grief and resolve the collective trauma of biospheric collapse that continues apace. Still, we would be wise to anticipate what kind of opportunities might present themselves at the stage of collective depression, whenever it may arrive, because how we end up processing through that stage will, in turn, determine how the acceptance and meaning phases of collective grieving take shape.
The Dark Night of Our Collective Soul
As a lifelong advocate for Gaia and all of her wild children, it has always been clear to me that the global economy would collapse long before the global ecology collapsed. While we are certainly seeing the global ecological system unravelling right now, it is just at the beginning, with time lags and tipping points spread across a much longer time scale than economic collapse. Plus, the natural world is much more resilient than civilization is, and it is not too late for humanity to enlist ecological forces to avert climate catastrophe.
In any event, it does appear that the Great Dying 2.0 is already upon us, with waves of pandemic, climate refugees, and ravaged landscapes to come. From this perspective, the “absurd” stock market and house of cards that is our global economy can be expected to collapse quite suddenly, without any real warnings being seriously considered until after the fact. It could be triggered by something as simple as Donald Trump cancelling election results and declaring martial law, or going to war with China and Iran before it gets to that point of personal embarrassment for our grotesquely naked emperor.
While the natural world itself will somehow achieve stasis again, with us or without us, the heat engine of the global economy will not be amenable to repairs, whether it breaks down under Casino Don’s reckless driving or gets hauled into Uncle Joe’s Garage, or blows a gasket because of China or an ill-timed earthquake. One thing that is abundantly clear is that the global economy we are struggling to save is not itself sustainable. And it has never appeared more fragile, not to mention fraudulent.
Trump, Bolsonaro and Netanyahu? At the same time? Really??
Many economists are already predicting that we are presently entering into what they call a “Greater Depression.” Greater than “the Great Depression” of the 1930s, that is. And I strongly suspect that when we finally succumb to the stage of depression in our grief process over the Covid-19 pandemic, it is going to anticipate and reflect that same exaggerated degree of seriousness predicted by global economists.
What is on the not-too-distant horizon, in other words, is a global, collective experience of the Dark Night of America’s Dark Soul. Not just a mid-life crisis, mind you, but an end-of-life crisis. The American Dream which has served as the global economy’s raison d’être is already dead, though many still cling to its nightmarish entrails. And we are, after all, still the world’s policeman, backed by obscene militarism, with our knee firmly planted on the planet’s windpipe, glaring into the lens of the horrified and terrorized world’s camera.
The post-WWII global economy we built with our transnational military-industry-media entertainment complex is running on the noxious swamp fumes of our reality TV star corporate ruler. As it requires nothing less than death and destruction to fuel its rapacious growth, and as the living planet can bear no more death and destruction on the sudden, exponential scale of the Anthropocene, we are now very much like Wylie Coyote with a sputtering ACME rocket-pack on our back, running furiously in place with no firm ground beneath our feet.
Awaiting the Fall…
The Dark Night of the Soul refers to a psycho-spiritual crisis of meaning. So it is no coincidence that those affiliated with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross have just this year – just in time for the end times that is – added the Sixth Stage of Grieving to her evolutionary model of human grief: Meaning.
Which begs the question, when will we arrive there collectively in response to the Covid-19 Global Pandemic? When does any of this become meaningful? And what kind of agreed-upon meaning will we discover at the end of Pandemo’s Rainbow?
(An interesting clue can be found here in Greek Mythology — “Pandemo,” from which pandemic is derived, referred to Aphrodite’s unique ability to unite the people scattered throughout the land into one unifying, political force, and was also the surname of Eros, which refers to our life force).
This grand bargaining phase of the pandemic will eventually merge with and morph into the even grander bargaining phase of our collective climate grief, since they are commonly rooted in the soil of systemic oppression. Black countries matter, too, as do Indigenous Lives – and as do other species, for that matter.
And as suggested by this movement towards a truth and reconciliation process, the Dark Night of our Collective Soul will almost assuredly present us with a fertile darkness. Depression in today’s world is quite natural and organic. The seeds we end up planting in the cultural loam of economic collapse, watered with the regenerative will-power of collective intention cultivated during the global acceptance phase, will eventually ripen into the larger meaning that we attribute to the world we do not have a way of knowing yet.
“As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the Garden…
Yes!! There will be growth in the Spring!”
(Chance the Gardner, “Being There”)
No Hope, No Despair
And so this difficult death-and-rebirth process of human transmutation in the Anthropocene calls for something that has been in rather short supply in recent decades: faith. It is no more a question of hope. Hope is as much of a ruse and delusion as its disillusioned counterpart, despair.
Do not go there, oh ye of little faith!
Perilous times like these, when existential threats abound, demand a certain kind of faith, though. Not just any faith will do. And faith is a question that demands personal answers, unlike the ‘Hopium’ and ‘Desparium’ peddled by cultural influencers on social media.
No, faith is a precious psycho-social commodity, and it is up to each of us to decide where to place our faith, or how even to define our faith. Faith in social movements is a kind of collective expression. Faith in human nature is almost a religious faith, though I personally consider it to be a spiritual necessity. Faith in the resilience of the natural world can help us process our grief over extinction’s grim toll and capitalism’s lost environments.
Unlike hope and despair, faith is not predicated on any imaginary outcome or false idea that we know how any of this will turn out. Faith is nourishing in itself, whether we think it will be rewarded or not. In fact, it is precisely because we do not know how this very human story ends that these times demand our faith. Whether we consider ourselves spiritual, religious, or socio-political activists, it is our shared faith that unites us, and it is our individual faith that will see us through the daily traumas associated with these ongoing social upheavals and the gathering climate storms on our collective horizon.
And in the end, so to speak, it is faith that lends meaning and direction to the grieving process itself.
Pope Francis, who is kind of an expert on faith, concluded in his beatific social dialogue on the lamentable state of our common home, Laudato Si (2016), that the climate crisis calls for a “new and universal solidarity.”
That is precisely what is rising from the streets right now, here and around the world.
Collectively, let us place our faith in that.