Sometimes it’s all too much. Especially these days, actually paying attention to the world comes at a cost. In a culture built on avoiding reality, the act of actually looking puts one in a tough spot. The picture of what we’re facing isn’t good. Ecological destruction, political upheaval, cultural collapse...It’s so much bigger than what any of us can even comprehend that the most sensible choice is almost certainly to shut down and pretend things are normal. I spend a lot of time pretending. Until I can’t.
I was stuck in pretending for a good few weeks recently. In practice, this looked like a lot of Netflix. Some alcohol. YouTube videos. I was just coming out of a two week wilderness immersion in the desert mountains of southern Arizona, and after returning from an experience like that it’s impossible to avoid noticing the decay of our historical moment.
The excruciating part is that I went out and fell in love with the world again, sitting in a single place for four consecutive days without a clock or human conversation, watching shadows shift and sprawl across the desert floor, learning the precise moment in the evening the sounds of Crow give way to Owl and how cactus thorns feel in my feet.
I remembered for the thousandth time just how magical this world is, how intelligent, how mysterious. I was reminded of my humble place as a single blink in the eye of eternity and was graciously welcomed into a conversation of such depth and profundity that I still don’t know how to feel fully worthy of it. It sounds crazy, but this kind of experience is utterly natural. It’s what we all still remember somewhere in our bones.
And then it was over. Driving away from the wildlife refuge, I was dropped back into gas station vibes and bad news and the wasteland of a broken story we have to call “culture.” In coming back from the wild, my freshly opened heart quivering like a sapling in a strong wind, I recognized all over again just how desperate our situation truly is and how vastly we’ve forgotten our sacred place in the world. And so I shut down. Like a case of whiplash, my heart recoiled and my soul retreated.
I lived in that recoil for close to a month. It’s what I call being stuck. Maybe it’s depression - that word definitely fits my experience. I know the place well because I spent the better part of a decade there. It’s not so much a presence of difficult emotions but rather their conspicuous absence. It’s a life-stifling numbness that bows before the altar of meaninglessness. And ultimately it’s the body’s rational response to recognizing that the world of materialism and the frantic pace of capitalism can’t meet us in the sacred softness of our open hearts. In days like these, depression is actually a good friend.
Until it’s not. Because ultimately, what I am brought back to time and again is that the only way to a world where we don’t live hidden behind the armor of depression or addiction or loneliness or despair is by braving the ache of cracking open all over again, letting the fissures in our shields be stretched by the longing intimacy with the world evokes.
What brought me out of the stuckness this time was what Stephen Pressfield, in his brilliant book The War of Art calls “doing the work.” According to Pressfield, each morning we are confronted with the force of entropy, what he calls Resistance, and we are given the choice to submit to its numbing call or face it down and give ourselves to our sacred discipline. It took me a month of moping, but yesterday I remembered Pressfield’s words and I sat down and did my work. And what do you know, like a long-lodged hairball getting hacked up, my soul came back.
To be disciplined is to be a disciple, a student, to one’s own deepest self. To show up for meaning in the face of meaningless destruction is an act of courage which alone may offer a path out of the desolation of our ecocidal trajectory.
Perhaps meaning and progress are incompatible, and thank the gods for that. It implies that meaning exists for its own sake - that simply by showing up for and serving what is most true in our own selves in any moment, we are living in the salvation that Jesus and countless others proclaimed. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things and maybe it doesn’t have to. Regardless of where this all goes, we are alive now, with the opportunity to exist for a reason. The way to true life arrives with the disciplined intention to fall in love with the world over and over again.
Even when it’s too much.