THE NEED FOR CONNECTION, FAMILY AND FRIENDS’ TIES WAS DRAMATIZED IN FRANK CAPRA’S CLASSIC “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE,” WITH JAMES STEWART AS THE SUICIDAL GEORGE BAILEY. The film resonated with audiences because it addressed a painful vacuum in American society, almost totally hypnotized with the pursuit of money.
BY SALLY ERICKSON
Dateline: May 28, 2007 | Recommended to CJO by Carolyn Baker, editor of Speaking Truth To Power
Sally Erickson, Producer of the documentary “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” writes of the extent to which we need each other in the face of collapse and how our programming for “rugged individualism” is not working and will not sustain us±CB
SAY HELLO to the last throes of America’s collective dementia. No amount of medication in the form of alternative therapy, I mean alternative energy, is going to repair the years of abuse to our collective body and spirit by the machinations of Empire. Antidepressants, I mean anti-inflationary economics, are rapidly losing their effectiveness. We’ve reached peak insanity. We’re sunk. Thank the gods. It’s all downhill from here.
We need help.
I come from a quietly dysfunctional, but highly functioning, middle-class American family. My brother and sister have both had incomes way into six figures for decades. I think. It’s not polite to discuss income so I can only presume.
I never had the guts to go there, to make a lot of money. I never felt I had the right to profit wildly from the abusive and exploitative system we call American capitalism. Well before I understood the nature of the crimes that American wealth is based on, I knew something was very wrong.
I traveled to India briefly during college. On my first day there I faced a tiny child who reached out with pleading fingers, still in her mother’s arms. I felt sick inside. What right did I have to live with privilege? America’s endless appetite left little to be shared. Members of the living community, human and non-human were suffering. Thirty-eight years later that little hand still tugs at my heart.
In India we were told not to give to the beggars. If we did, a hoard of needy humanity would engulf us. So we walked by. Several times a day, day after day, we walked by. But I never forgot.
My father has just entered a small facility that cares for people who have Alzheimer’s. My mother and sister, after years and then weeks of hyper-heroic efforts to care for him at home, at last decided it was time. Luckily for him and for them they can afford a small, homelike environment rather than an institutional nursing home. He is being cared-for by a well-paid and compassionate staff of saints. I can write about this without drowning my keyboard in tears because of that.
Our family can afford that kind of care because my parents and my brother and sister never had any qualms about making lots of money.
I have lots of feelings about all of this. I feel guilty that I couldn’t help my dad more in the last several years. I feel sad that when I spend more than 24 hours around my family I feel like my head is going to explode. I feel angry that the non-monetary gifts I have to offer the situation are not what the rest of my family want.
Those gifts include the ability to listen with compassion and to speak difficult truths. My family’s quiet dysfunction doesn’t seek these things. Conversations are stilted. I just end up crying a lot. There is a huge gulf between us I have given up hope of ever healing. There’s too much I’m called to do apart from struggle with my family of origin. There is an empty place inside I don’t expect to be filled. I’m okay with that.
When I spoke with my brother about my dad’s condition I heard a sadness in his voice that I’ve never heard before. He talked about how hopeless the situation is, how my dad’s mental condition has deteriorated despite, or perhaps because of, the plethora of prescribed medications. Dementia is clearly big business for the pharmaceutical industry. My brother and I reflected on how wise or unwise it was to try to stave off the inevitable with expensive technofixes, I mean pharmaceuticals.
It’s been hopeless for years for my father, and for centuries if not millennia for Empire. It finally got to be too much for my mother and sister at ages 83 and 61 to cope with my father’s decline. Caring for him at home was unsustainable. They came to terms with that. My brother said my mother seemed at peace with the decision to let others take over my father’s care. She was at peace, he said, because she could see that she had “given it her all.”
I don’t have any desire to criticize my mother. But when I heard that I couldn’t help but think “How American!” We just have to give it our all, don’t we?
My mother’s voice over the past three years has evidenced growing exhaustion. I don’t think my family had any real sense how difficult the situation was. Even toward the end, when things were becoming totally unmanageable, my sister calmly reported to me, “It’s 24-7.” When I enquired further she just calmly repeated the same, like she was reporting on the weather or the price of gas. The story was that everything was okay. That’s not what I heard in my mother’s worn out voice. Finally, I guess, the situation got so extreme that they gave up and admitted defeat.
My family is only an extreme example of the typical. Need is a nasty word in my family. Rugged individualism, the American identity, is their calling card. Our family simply does not need help. That’s why everyone works so hard. In order to accumulate enough money that whatever is needed can be quietly bought. There’s no need to admit any deficiency. We work hard and we buy what we need. We don’t depend on other people for hand outs.
And my family does “what’s right.” Our kind don’t give up just because it’s hard. We give our all, 24-7. Especially in latter stage dementia.
As I write this I am slammed up against the dogmatic creed of rugged individualism. It is in my bones. It speaks in my head. “What’s wrong with that, Sally? What’s wrong with hard work? What’s wrong with taking care of yourself and your family. What’s wrong with giving your all?”
Let me continue.
I’ve always been the exception in my family. It is one of the advantages of being the youngest, the baby. I insisted on being able to need, to be dependent, to feel and express my feelings. As the baby those things were tolerated, at least in small amounts. But need and feeling was not catered to, not affirmed. The above inner questioning–“What’s wrong with that?”– is just a mature permutation on the childhood mantra: “Stop whining.”
Stop whining Sally. When I was little, I whined when I needed something. Now I write blog posts.
My family is America. We expect to care for “our own,” no matter what the cost. We expect to maintain our lifestyle, no matter what. We give our all, our children, our young men, our whole lives, working to realize the Dream. We do this without thinking, or more to the point, without feeling what that’s doing to us.
America does not admit to need or weakness because that would make us dependent. And that’s just not right. Americans are rugged individuals, both as people and as a nation.
We won’t give up. Until we have given our all. Until the situation is extreme. Until the dementia has advanced to it’s final stages and we find ourselves stumbling around in the night looking for something we can’t remember.
I’ve always known there was something wrong with this whole story. And, in spite of his American identity, so did my dad, when he could still think. Many years ago he sent me a clipping. It was a piece by Daniel Quinn called The Secret Plan. The Secret Plan is this: “We’re going to go on consuming the world until there’s no more to consume.”
My dad knew there was something wrong with American individualism. And so did the rest of my family. They all read Quinn’s Ishmael. They even read The Story of B. They could think about all of these things. They could see the world being gobbled up. But they couldn’t feel it. Feelings and needs are intimately tied together, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So even with huge financial resources to draw upon, my family wouldn’t ask for help. They can’t break their identification as rugged individuals. They substitute the care, comfort, and fulfillment that comes with dependence on a larger community with the dubious pride that comes of not needing anything from anyone.
With rugged individualism as a main value, my dad looks pretty bad. He needs everything now. His ability to be a rugged individual has crumbled. It was quite humiliating for him as his abilities declined, especially in the context of our family system. That’s why he’s had to take more and more powerful antidepressants: to numb him to the shame of needing. It is very sad.
And America is in the same sad shape as my dad. We’ve taken this insane experiment of industrial civilization to its tragic conclusion. And sadly, we don’t face that. We don’t admit that we are clueless and helpless in the face of the converging storms of resource depletion, climate change and ecosystem collapse. Instead we grasp at the straws of more medication, I mean, technology, to numb us.
To admit that there is no fixing this situation looks bad, really bad. To admit we need help, that we can’t fix it, is humiliating.
Not even the rich are served by this system. The rich are the most duped and numbed of all. Like my family they are seduced by the flimsy pride of being “financially independent.” It’s a sorry substitute for the fulfillment and comfort to be had in needing connection to something greater than themselves. Americans’ ability to exploit and hoard without anyone noticing, to appear to be free and independent, just doesn’t rival the experience of connection, the mystical give and take of Being.
There is no escape from this inevitable condition: we living creatures need each other. And humans are some of the neediest of all. To survive and continue to evolve we need ecological diversity more than less complex life forms. Simple life forms have, and will, outlast us if we don’t accept our highly dependent state and learn to cooperate.
It took an extreme situation for my mother and sister to surrender to to their limits, come to grips with the fact that they can only exceed the carrying capacity of their bodies for a time before the effects of that excess take their toll. I have no doubt they would have pushed themselves even farther had it not endangered my father’s physical safety.
The parallels between Empire and my family are neither surprising nor coincidental. Only when it becomes physically impossible to continue are Americans willing to surrender.
Surrender. There’s another nasty word. It means defeat, relinquishing control, giving up. It’s not attractive if you are an American steeped in rugged individualism to contemplate these things. But surrender is exactly what we need to do.
How many examples in the current world predicament can we count that parallel my family’s resistance to surrender?
Let’s see. There’s peak oil. There’s climate change. There’s aquifer depletion. There’s mass extinction. There’s top soil and soil viability loss. There’s huge dead zones in the oceans and seas of death-dealing plastics swirling within those oceans. There’s pesticide contamination and soaring cancer rates. You want more? Google it. It’s all there. And that doesn’t begin to count the social, political, and economic trials that loom.
When we interviewed people for What A Way To Go we always asked the question “What’s it going to take for people to wake up and change?” Invariably the response was: “It’s going to take a catastrophe that actually affects the individual.”
We’re hopeless. Only when the system collapses will America come to terms with the accrued costs from having so thoroughly divorced ourselves from a life where most of us had our hands in soil and stream, our faces in fresh air and sunlight, our feet actually on the ground itself.
Our food and energy systems will collapse. They are already collapsing. World grain reserves are at a record low and grain production is falling despite our best efforts to pump up the system with more drugs, I mean chemicals. And only the very naïve can believe that rising gas prices are just about price gouging.
But listen. Those systems are falling only in the wake of the deeper collapse, the spiritual and social collapse that stems from the collapse of our sacred relationship to Life and to each other that has already been in process for centuries and millennia. We’ve grown farther and farther away from being indigenous to a place. We’ve lost our sense of truly belonging to each another as a people.
Only as climate change has become extreme are people willing to take even the tiniest of steps to change. How many terminally ill people does it take to change a light bulb? A way of life? To halt mass extinction? How extreme does it have to get for us to return to the sacred? Why are we as a culture so out of touch? Why did it take my family such extreme conditions to accept they needed help?
I am not better, only, perhaps, a shred more conscious. The same denial of need, the same urges to push past limits, to work to exhaustion, exist in me.
Yesterday I wrote in my journal for the first time in two weeks. My journal is my touchstone. It is the place where I pour it all out, where I dive in deep, where regularly I find my Self. How could I have neglected my journaling practice for over two weeks? I’m not being hard on myself. I’m just looking. Journal writing is my spiritual practice and I neglected it for over two weeks. Why?
I got caught in business, the business of promoting What A Way To Go. The business of moving to the mountains for the summer. The business of answering email. And on and on.
My soul was hijacked by the terrorism of Big Business. Big Busy-ness. The whole point of leaving day-to-day life at home to come to the mountains was to have time to read and reflect, and to write. Big Busyness took over. I fell into the pattern of giving my all, even my soul. I got lost along the way.
That’s true for most of us Creatures of Empire. We have lost our way. Thankfully, it looks like we have collectively created the end to that. But that end is not looking very pretty for the vast majority.
Talk about creating your own reality. America faces extremes at every level, on every front. How many will stop and sit and think and, most importantly, feel about it? How many will engage in a spiritual practice to come back into contact with themselves? How many people will write in their journals, or meditate, or walk in what precious little of the natural world is left? How many will feel the implications of what Empire is doing?
I’m ready to surrender.
Not to Big Busyness, but to need: for connection, for rest, for clean air and nutritious food.
I’m ready to surrender to the need to feel the peace that will come when I no longer have any part in hogging more than our share of the world’s pie. Only then will my piece of the pie taste truly sweet and satisfying.
A NOTE ON SALLY ERICKSON
An artist, community organizer, psychotherapist and executive director of Blue Heron Educational Association. She was born in Washington State where she developed a love of, and commitment to, the natural world. She has lived in rural North Carolina since 1979. She brings maturity, insight, organizational development expertise and inspiration to the project.