I believe a huge part of our collective feeling of emptiness comes from living in a self-centred phase of our evolution as a species, where everything begins with I. I want this object, I want to succeed. I want to improve myself. Even: I want to belong.
But true belonging depends upon our reciprocity with the environment in which we are embedded, and unto which we are indebted. In the same way that mitochondria work to break down nutrients and turn it into energy for our bodies, we too are but a single component of a greater biosphere that sees no hierarchy between ferns and redwoods, worms and eagles.
If we imagine an invisible mycelial network under the visible surface of things, of which we are but fruiting bodies, then we see how our lives should be in service to feeding the whole forest together. Our negligence of that reciprocity is, more than any other factor, what fosters unbelonging. It is at the root of loneliness, because without the greater intelligence of the mission coursing through our veins, making our purpose meaningful, we are but isolated bodies going through empty motions. This is why people who experience tremendous success can still feel lonely and unhappy.
The word animism refers to something so commonplace, so taken for granted in Indigenous cultures, that most don’t even have a word for it—it is the foundational belief that spirit and matter are one. That all things are imbued with a soul; not just humans and animals, but mountains, thunder, shadows, and even the wind. If we learn to listen to and engage in a dialogue with that diversity of voices, we begin to see how there is a constant dynamism taking place between waking and dreaming, seen and unseen, mundane and holy. Like a tree whose roots are hidden in the rich darkness of the soil, human beings are meant to take our cues from the inner life—not the other way around.
Following on this idea that there is a symmetry between the inner and outer life, we might begin to see our global crisis as a collective initiation which each of us must, reluctantly, go through alone.
Initiation has several distinct phases. First we become separated from false belonging, which is a kind of awakening when the wool is pulled from our eyes. Then we must wholeheartedly grieve the losses we have sustained in exile. And if we grieve well, we come into conversation with our true values, listening for the call to act. If we rise to the challenge, we’ll bring back the medicine we’ve retrieved from our descent, and become contributing agents to global transformation. What sets us apart from all other species is that we have the free will to choose how to move across this frightening threshold. As evolutionary biologist Andrew Cohen puts it, “We must liberate the power of choice from unconsciousness.”
We are remembering how to be an ecosystem. As sustainable living writer Vicki Robin suggests, “Treat everyone within fifty miles like you love “them.” I would add that we include in our image of ‘everyone’ the standing people, the feathered people, the rock people, the water bodies, and so on. We must reconstitute the world through our many small contributions, collaborations, and togetherness. As we work to protect the last stands of wilderness around and within us, creating beauty from loss and heartbreak, we will meet each other: those with no extraordinary power but the devotion to do what we know we must do—and look after each other.
Nobody knows if humans will survive this crossing, if we’ll leave anything habitable behind for future generations, but I believe our global catastrophe is a clarion call to our highest abilities. Whether we’ll be successful or not, we must give everything we have to doing what we believe is right. We are but disappearing comets who must summon the grace to accept our fate while working to leave an elegant and contributive streak behind us as we go.
Excerpt from “Belonging” by Toko-pa Turner