Healing Our World Commentary: We Can Choose Life

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

We Can Choose Life

The brook has gentle melodies,
and far is dust and city;
the tree-tops are swaying to and fro
and making me so weary.

The wood is wild, the world is wide,
my heart is clear and big;
pale solitude is holding
my head upon her lap.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by M.D. Herter Norton

In the midst of a political climate in which the U.S. president and vice president are telling us that conservation doesn't matter and that war in space is our next big priority, it is easy to become disheartened, to feel that the helm of the most powerful ship in the world is running amok.

The reality is, though, that we all have the power to act, to change, to transform our relationships with the natural world - and with ourselves. We don't need approval from anyone else to make that choice.


Baby sees his first waterfall. (Photo by Jackie Giuliano © 2001)
Seeing our Earth from space has inspired millions. But it has also made crystal clear that we use the planet of our birth like an infinite supermarket and at the same time as a sewer. We extract materials to use as resources, confine our neighbor species into pens and warehouses and use them either as slaves or as food, and use our chemical knowledge to create materials the byproducts of which poison us at the genetic level.

Yet we have the technological power to create sustainable practices today, if we want to. But that can't happen automatically. Greed churns parts of the Earth into comforts for many, cash for few. It may feel like these pathways are set in stone, yet they are really all about choice. What do you choose?

Choices are happening all around us, yet we may not notice because of all the distractions that fill our lives. Joanna Macy, a great environmental scholar, psychologist, and Buddhist teacher, describes the time in which we live as The Great Turning. She says that this time has three great aspects.

Holding Actions
Actions taken by people all over the world that slow the damage to the Earth and its beings are the most visible dimension of the Great Turning. They include the political lobbying done by groups defending the Earth, the boycotts of destructive products, and the writing done by individuals who are documenting the effects of the non-sustainable choices of our culture.

Analysis of Causes and the Creation of Alternative Institutions
The second aspect to the Great Turning is a dimension of attempting to understand how the world works on a level that has previously been ignored. This involves understanding what forces are at work that create obscene wealth for a few while millions of children suffer and die. Communities are banding together around the world to challenge the notion that for some to be powerful, others must suffer. From the recognition that many aspects of our way of living are incompatible with life, new ways of being are springing up, as Macy says, "like green shoots pushing up through the rubble."

Fundamental Shift in Worldviews and Values
Macy reminds us that none of the harmful institutions and practices can exist on their own without being sustained by deeply ingrained values. These values, based on a profound separation from the natural world, insist that the Earth is a source of resources to create perceived comforts for us, comforts that increase the separation. This self-sustaining process ensures that a system of classes will exist to fuel the fire of this view.

We are taught to be afraid and that the fear can be quenched with purchases and good solid jobs in industries that manufacture goods. This guarantees that a few will be super rich while the rest of us work to make and then buy their goods.


Protest for indigenous rights of the Innu people (Photo courtesy Innu Nation)
But shifts are taking place that are exposing these values for what they are - destructive ethics designed to make a few very rich while the rest of us wander in search of home. People all over the world are merging ancestral teachings and scientific thought. You won't hear about these people on the evening network news, but they are out there, working to change the face of how we perceive our world. Those insights are necessary if we are to free ourselves from the grips of the Industrial Revolution that is choking our planet.

This third element of the Great Turning requires a solid rethinking of how we have been taught to define ourselves. We can learn to expand our definition of who we are to include our family, our friends, and the creatures and ecosystems around us. We don't have to be so lonely.

The greatest obstacle to creating the required shift in world values is the deep pain and resulting numbing that so many of us experience when we confront the consequences of our lifestyle choices. The sound of the Earth crying is loud for those who choose to listen. We need support from like-minded souls to sustain ourselves.

Malidoma Patrice Somé, a West African medicine man with three masters degrees and two Ph.D.s, in his book "Ritual, Power, Healing, and Community," gives us some clues to our confusion. He says, "Industrial cultures live with the essence of two extremely dangerous phenomena. One is the good side of production; the other is the danger of what happens to the tools for production when they are devoid of any spiritual strength."

Some says, "The spirit liberates the person to work with the things of the soul. Because this reaching out to the spiritual is not happening, the Machine has overthrown the spirit and, as it sits in its place, is being worshiped as spiritual. This is simply an error of human judgment. Anyone who worships his own creation, something of his own making, is someone in a state of confusion."

Somé gives us a powerful clue about how our culture has shifted us away from core values based on life. He says "Western Machine technology is the spirit of death made to look like life. It makes life seem easier, comfortable, cozy, but the price we pay includes the dehumanization of the self." He says, "It has made the natural way of living look primitive, full of famine, disease, ignorance and poverty so that we can appreciate our enslavement to the Machine and, further, make those who are not enslaved by it feel sorry for themselves."


Our only home. Earth from space taken by Galileo spacecraft on its way to Jupiter (Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
How many times have you seen a story in the newspaper and felt sorry for all those people in "Third World" nations who live their lives without fancy clothes, washing machines and vacuum cleaners? What if, instead, we chose to envy those that are closer to the natural world and living fully in its cycles?

It is true that many people in the lesser developed worlds are suffering. But they are not suffering because of lack of superstores and dishwashers. Their deaths are usually because of nutritional deficiencies and tainted water. Nearly five million children each year die from diarrhea caused by diseases transmitted in polluted drinking water.

This is not a necessary consequence of living in a country that is less technological than the United States. Their suffering can usually be directly tied to the choices being made by political leaders who choose weapons of war over clean water systems. The lives all those five million children who die each year could be saved for about $700 million - what the world spends on armaments in six hours!

So what will it be? Will you choose life? After the initial pain and shock of fully appreciating the consequences of your impact on the world, a great peace can set in.

Start out small: drive less, buy less, walk more, seek out connections to the rhythms of the world. Take a chance and attend a drum circle, shop at a health food store, cancel a credit card.

You don't have to wait for politics to catch up with you. That will be along wait. Just look into the clear eyes of a child and you will have all the motivation you need. Choose life.


1. Joanna Macy's work will change your way of looking at the world. Get her book, written with Molly Young Brown, "Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World," New Society Publishers, 1998. Learn about the book at: http://www.newsociety.com/cblfs.html

2. Read articles by Joanna Macy at: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC34/Macy.htm and at: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC28/Macy.htm

3. The wisdom of Malidoma Patrice Some is beautifully captured in the work "Ritual: Power, Healing and Community," Swan/Raven & Company, 1993.

4. Follow the work of Echoes of the Ancestors, Inc., a non-profit group headed by African scholar and activist Malidoma Somé, at: http://www.malidoma.com/Malidoma/

5. Try on a new perspective and see how it fits. Visit the Indigenous Women's Network at: http://www.honorearth.com/iwn/

6. Find suggestions in other Healing Our World commentaries, particularly the ones at: http://www.ens.lycos.com/ens/jun2000/2000L-06-09g.html and http://www.ens.lycos.com/ens/jul99/1999L-07-19g.html

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found trying to clean up his act while waiting for his new baby. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://www.healingourworld.com}