Updated: Apr 6
What’s distracting her? I’m not sure; my eyes are fixed on her child. He is maybe a year old, wearing only a diaper—with no life jacket—even though he sits precariously close to the edge of the boat. Diffidence distracts her. Her limp gaze tells me she is floating elsewhere, resisting the reality of the lifeboat, the flood, the destruction. Tell her to watch him, an inner voice warns. But I don’t. A weakness of mine: choosing passivity over intervention, especially when intervention could offend. The boy slips, sinking deep and fast as a sack of sand. “Ah!” I yell, pointing to the water, “He fell!” The mother hesitates, blinking at the space beside her, blinking out over the water.
She won’t save him. Still, I hesitate for a moment too long—always hesitating, always thinking instead of acting. Finally, I dive in. But the underwater foliage is thick. The lifeboat floats over wrecked ecosystems and flooded civilizations. The submerged trees and vines tangle my arms, as if in revenge. I swim past gas station pumps, debris from houses, broken concrete. But no baby. I come up for air, and the mom has finally roused herself. She is swimming in the water, yelling. A rescue team has joined her. I am no longer needed, so I swim to dry land. Some time later, the mother emerges from the water, laughing hysterically. Her boy’s limp body in her arms. “I found my boy!” she laughs. “I found him!” I cringe. “Good, good,” I appease her, drawing near and taking her arm. “Come rest, let’s rest.” The boy is dead. She is delirious. But now reality is crowding the image, clarifying the edges of the scene as a dream. The boy blinks, and the mother chides him. “Play dead,” she whispers. As the “reality” glitches and the actors recover their roles, I wake up.
Most dreams are composed of physic detritus, but some seem to plop into the brain ready-made, built of archetypally resonant dream language. Symbolic dreams have been haunting me. Of course, these dreams do not mean one thing. Neither do they predict anything. They simply reflect what I already know, but resist knowing. That I am that mother, letting my gaze float away from catastrophe. That the child is humanity, in a boat with no life jacket, treacherously close to the edge of drowning. I look away from threat and suffering, again and again. When I act, I am two breaths too late. I just finished reading Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, so apocalyptic anger is upon me. But there are other ways to start this email. For the climate-queasy, here is an alternative:
My daughter is a miracle, in the most ordinary sense. There was nothing miraculous about her conception, gestation, or birth. No particularly difficult obstacle that she had to overcome. And yet, moments erupt in her proximity: life electrifies time, making strange dead objects and dull events, making wondrous. She stumbles over a new word, cracks a joke, nods knowingly as we adults chat (as we finally grasp that she understands everything, even subtle undertones). And there it is: the expansive sensation of a sight renewed, my chest cracked open for an instant. She laughs and the world becomes impossible again. Everything a miracle, as in Einstein’s famous formulation.
Love is not just the gaze that plumbs the depths, or the gaze that opens the iconic nature of a thing: it is the widening of one’s horizons into new possibilities. Possibilities that sometimes feel miraculously manifold— of the lover, the beloved, and the space between. So the beginnings of love are always giddy. Because each human as object of love is also a container for possibility. In her smell, wisps of future scenes; in his eyes, new avenues of feeling. In this place, profession, plant, new ways of being. This is also why the end of a relationship is triply heartbreaking: you lose the person, your possibilities with that person, and that ineffable thing between your minds and bodies. This is also why love may be so liberating. If a person loves you well (i.e. not egoistically), that love opens up an expansive space for you to be, for you to grow, for you to change, sometimes even miraculously. A person does not change by being controlled, criticized, pleaded with, begged (I find this infuriating, but it seems to be a fact). Yet people change all the time, and always when freedom and acceptance are present.
Today’s email is about this kind of love. And it can be seen just as clearly by its counterpoint, the climate catastrophe illustrated in the dream. The opposite of love is not hatred, but diffidence. It’s the gaze that refuses the real risk and transformative power of sight. We refuse the full weight of suffering (human, plant, and animal), so we cannot shoulder the full weight of hope. In letting the world roll mechanically and unreflectively towards a collective suicide, we deny the miraculous possibility of possibility.
What is environmental degradation if not the extinction of possibility? Extinction is part of the process: 98% of species that have existed are now extinct. But the background rate of extinction is now between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the pre-human rate. A society that cares about human diversity without protecting biodiversity is not practicing love. Love preserves possibility in both human and nonhuman societies.
Rejection of human diversity is part of the problem, of course. Racism is such a strong-rooted weed that it’s difficult to see how deeply it reaches into the collective psyche. Most perniciously, it limits possibilities: for people of all races, but especially those who are almost universally vilified. When I approach a Black man or woman with a set of biases in my brain (which is likely always the case), I limit his or her horizon of possibilities. These expectations can be surmounted by the target of my bias, but it takes incredible psychological acuity and stamina. Most of us are passively expected into our roles, ushered into the collective stereotype that best suits our particular gender, race, or sexuality. So the opposite of love is diffidence, but also the brute force of Society, which is diffidence institutionalized. The world rolls on mechanically, horizons shrinking in each unopposed age.
How do we break free of these narrowing horizons? Of the de-humanizing of humans, and the de-sacralizing of Earth? How do we let love unfold the miraculous? Every truly new possibility is a miracle, a miracle let live by love. This is where I nod to a practice that I have only taken seriously in the past two years: meditation, centering prayer, contemplative practice. One practice, with numerous names and endless techniques.
Pick your flavor, but pick something. To open your heart to the earth before you. To stop letting your gaze stray, resisting reality. To face life head-on and to find in that facing the only peace that can withstand anything because it includes everything. In meditation this morning, I mulled over these words: I open myself to the weight and wonder of the world. The more weight you include (of seeing suffering, of accepting responsibility), the lighter you will feel. You will have more consciousness to carry this weight, and finally, the weight will release. You will no longer need to stereotype, scapegoat, and slot people into good, bad, better, less. You will accept your utter debility in changing anything or anyone, and this will free the world to change itself. Maybe even miraculously. Maybe in time to avoid the worst of climate calamity.
In the meantime, my daughter reminds me of the miraculous core of everything. Of the innocence of humans, of our weakness that limps into harm of earth and others. We are all good and all evil and all containers of infinite possibility, if love can free our sight and redeem our diffidence.
Until next time,