Paul Kingsnorth writes in the most recent issue of Orion, “I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?” It’s part of a long essay, worth the read. (Kingsnorth’s answers to that question are: withdrawing, preserving non-human life, getting one’s hands dirty, insisting that nature has a value beyond utility, and building refuges.)
What would not be a waste of my time?
What are my answers to this question? I think in ways both dramatic and subtle, I’ve been making my way towards answering this, with a rapid crescendo of late. There are looming shapes in the fog, sudden moments of bright insight, bewildering doubts, and precious few solid bits of rock to stand on.
The question seems to be the same as What is my purpose? What am I here for, in the time that remains? So now what?
There is everything I’ve done in my life up to this point, every identity I’ve ever claimed. I can picture it as a sort of curriculum vitae writ large, including all the stuff you’re not supposed to include, every personal detail. It would be easier to whip out that document and say, “Here, this is who I am, this is what I do,” and present it to some great Hiring Manager in the sky, and await an assignment. Except I think it doesn’t work that way, at all.
Kingsnorth writes about the value of withdrawing:
If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
This is where I’m at. I haven’t been very quiet about it, though. Maybe I need to shut the fuck up. Is it time for me to do that?
One thing I’m noting about Kingsnorth’s responses about what to do is that he seems to leave out an aspect that feels core to my being: a need for being relational. This would seem to be in direct contradiction with the need to withdraw. Can I do both? I feel like I’m trying to do both. I’m trying to get space and perspective, radically reorienting my vision, going right up to the edge of my awareness, past any sense of comfort or safety. This is not even close to remaining in the flow of “normal” life; it feels utterly necessary to discern what to do next. But equally important, it seems I’m meant to engage in dialogue, whether that’s in person, through writing and receiving feedback, or even through startling visions. The idea of squirreling myself away in some hideout doesn’t seem quite right. Yes, I desperately need to feel my way forward, and I cannot do this by myself.
I ask for your help. I’m deeply thankful for the help that has already been offered. I need still more. I’m ready to help you, too, ready to give everything that it’s possible for me to give. I can’t do this in some ethereal, cerebral way. Let me do it this way, as described by poet Mary Oliver: Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.