This letter, by Swedish Transitioner Pella Thiel, was written as an introductory speech at the conference ”In transition for resilience”, the final forum of the international REALS project, held in Järna, Sweden in June 2016. REALS – Resilient and Ecological Approaches to Living Sustainably, is a project to increase learning, awareness and access to information in relation to sustainable lifestyles, waste reduction and sustainable resource management in western Russia, Belarus, Sweden and in the Baltic Sea region. To underpin this, the project aims to generate cross-sector and international networks within the theme of sustainable living. It involves the Ecovillage, the Permaculture and the Transition movements as well as private and public sectors. Here is the letter, which Pella read to the conference:
Todays challenges and the need for resilience – A letter to you, dear Transitioner
Dear fellow Transitioners from different corners!
As we are standing in the mess we are in, how are we to make meaning of our actions and to find strength to create the more beautiful world that we want to inhabit? How are we to take part in the transition to resilience?
What then is resilience? The schoolbook says it is the ability of a system to handle change and still keep its functions and ability to develop. The word means “springing back” or “bouncing back”. I would add that the resilience we are striving for in this conference is the health and integrity of the whole of which we are parts.
Another word beginning with RE that we often think about when we think about sustainability, is responsibility. When I looked it up, the dictionary gave me some very depressing synonyms, like: authority, control, power, management, influence; duty, blame, fault, guilt, culpability.
I think that says more about our culture than about the word itself. It is a very beautiful word, compiled by two: response and ability. The ability to respond. How can we have the ability to respond to crises that seem immense, almost unsurmountable?
Long ago, some of our fathers divided the world into two realms; a realm of appearance – matter, and a realm of permanence – abstract reasoning. Echoes of this radical split still resonate today. We live in binaries. Us versus them. Outer versus inner. Mind versus matter. Human versus nature. Man versus woman. In that split lay also a hierarchy – one of the two sides was valued much higher than the other one. The theoretical, cognitive, rational, abstract and calculable became where we laid our energy. As a culture we have been on a quest for abstraction, globalisation, general truths and Theories of Everything. Once we knew them we would be all powerful. Change in this worldview can only be enacted by force. The more power you have to apply force, the more change you can effect.
As you very well know, dear Transitioner, that story is now in pieces. It didn´t deliver what it promised. It didn´t make us feel more secure, happy, or successful. How could we, when we know about the spills of oil? The massive losses of soil? The toil of children far away making toys for our children? The millions of people fleeing their homes to never return?
So we don´t have the patience to listen to that story anymore. We resist being told about us and them, men and women, east and west, christians and muslims. It doesn´t make sense anymore. (And yes, I am aware that this story still rings loud. But it doesn´t ring true anymore.)
In a letter Einstein once wrote, he says:
”A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
The striving to free oneself from the delusion of being separate from the rest.
We are waking up to the realisation that the world, the Universe, is a complex, interconnected place that resists prediction. We are slowly realising, that we can´t even control the circumstances of a single field without loosing the very soil, the basis for growth, of that field. How could we miss that?
This is a deep transition. And as you know, deep transitions doesn´t come easy.
I want to share with you a story from the author Elisabeth Gilbert (she wrote the bestseller: Eat Pray Love – maybe you´ve read it, dear Transitioner? Or seen the movie? I haven´t. But I love what she is saying about transformation):
Elisabeth Gilbert once asked her dear friend, who for several years was an heroin addict, if — looking back on the pain and suffering of her life — she could imagine any scenario under which she could have gotten clean and sober earlier. Elisabeth was imagining that maybe if she’d been sent to the right rehab, or had found a better therapist, or had been told just the right words of encouragement by a wise former junkie, or had been rescued by the right family member… maybe she could have spared herself years of addiction and pain. She said: “The only way I could’ve quit drugs sooner would have been if everyone had abandoned me sooner.”
She explained that, as long as she was protected from total ruin by everyone’s love and care and support and enabling, she never had to completely face her own darkest place. So she lingered, hovering just above rock bottom ruin for years, barely getting by on scraps and crumbs. It was only when she had destroyed every relationship, only when everyone had left, only when she had been banished from everyone’s homes and lives, only when there was nobody left who would pick up the phone anymore when she called, only when she was dead alone with no money and no good will and no second chances left…it was only then, at the loneliest bottom of her existence, that she could finally hear the question that echoes at us constantly through the universe: “Is this really how you want to live?”
Her answer, to her own surprise, was “No.” And when that answer, loud and clear, becomes NO…that’s where our transformation always begins.
This is a necessary step in every hero’s journey, says Elisabeth Gilbert. It’s also the hardest thing in the world. Nobody ever chooses to stand in this place; it just happens to you. And you will often see later that it needed to happen to you, if you were to ever become more than a mere passenger on Earth. Because this dark place is where you must decide whether to die or live. You cannot go back to what you knew, because what you knew is a pile of smoking rubble. You cannot stay where you are, because where you are is a bleak shroud of despair. You can only move forward into the absolute unknown. And the only way to move forward is to change.
Change, to put it simply, sucks.
Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore.
Or, rather, you do have a choice — you can always die. As Sartre said: “Exits are everywhere.” But you don’t want to die, so you discover that you have no choice except to find a new way to live. Which seems next to impossible, but somehow, if you fight hard enough, isn’t. Because you know what else is everywhere? ENTRANCES. The task then becomes to find your entrance — to find your way through the tunnel, into the dim hope of your own light.
I don´t know if you ever was in such a place, dear Transitioner. Hopefully not that grave, but I believe all of us in this room have been at a place where we had to choose to go searching for the entrance. And as a culture, we have our back against the wall right now. We are aware that death is an option. We are scared.
But scared and sacred are spelled with the same letters. Emergency is also a state of emergence. It is not until times like these that we seriously begin looking for entrances.
Still, they can be hard to find. We are now being asked to deal with the complex, instead of the complicated. I am again and again discovering how difficult it is to deal with complexity. Yesterday a woman from something called Interactive Institute called, asking me to be a part of expert group in a project called Nature Calling. I don´t know how many hundreds of thousands of kronor they are applying for. What they want to do? Put out sensors in forests to measure things, collect data, to send to peoples devices in order to make them care about nature. To give Nature a voice. A noble endeavour for sure.
I said: that is great, but I would rather support people to get out in a real forest. I said I think there is already enough data.
She said she understood. She said yes there is data, but we want to measure a whole ecosystem. She said she hadn´t found that kind of data.
I said: that is because there isn´t that kind of data. It is not possible to measure a whole ecosystem.
We wish to measure more to understand the complexity of nature more to take care of it better. It is fine, and we have learnt a lot doing that, but I believe that is not where our challenge lies right now.
Because the forest, nature, in its subtle, yet magnificient dance, its flows of energy, nutrients, water, information, is always greater than we can grasp, if we limit ourselves to our cognitive capability. But anyone can understand complexity with the heart, and the senses. We are also complex beings, far more sophisticated than all the sensors we can invent. We listen to the birdsong, the movements of leaves. We see the direction of a glance from a loved one. We touch the grass, get caressed by the wind. Sometimes even blown over by it!
Maybe we get lost in the forest. And we understand. We understand that we are a part of this living world, because we can feel it. We understand that the other beings here also have interests and deserve a right to exist. We understand that how we behave matters. We understand, that often things which can´t be measured are the most valuable. We have gotten a bit lost in our culture. Instead of controlling the world, we are at this point in time invited to dance with it. In this worldview, change has very little to do with force. It is a matter of relationships and connection.
Dear Transitioner, even though this understanding comes intuitively, it takes practice. It has always taken practice to dance with the universe. It takes attention and intention. It takes ceremony, where we get together in the intention to live in a way that truly supports other living communities. It also takes practice in the sense of doing something practical. I think many of the activities we do in our Transition initiatives, like cooking, clay work, gardening, that when they are done in attention to the health and integrity of the whole of which we are parts, then they become spiritual practices.
My last word beginning with RE is resonance. One of its many meanings is a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important to someone. It is derived from re-sound, to sound again. I think we are invited now to resonate with each other, because that is what we need to do in order to resonate with the Universe, to re-sing the Universe. Give it a new story
A story where responsibility has much more to do with listening and the ability to respond, than with authority, power, and guilt. To resonate with each other is what we need to do to be resilient in these challenging times. We need each others resonance to dare to act, to keep our ability to respond.
Thank you all for creating this space to practice and to resonate with each other.
Writer Anne Lamott once wrote:
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
Dear Transitioner, I see you stand there shining.
Pella Larsdotter Thiel .