We live in a world of profound beauty and horror. One can turn on the news and view famine, war, and terror attacks and then stroll down the street to the park and revel in a glorious summer day. Of course, it must be said that this is evidence of our privilege as citizens of the first world nation where we live in relative comfort compared to our fellow humans and across the globe, millions of whom don’t have enough to eat or have been forced to flee their homes due to circumstances beyond their control.
Here in San Diego, our own homeless are seen but then quickly ushered to the back side of the postcard. No need to harsh our mellow with the thought that that kind of suffering is not an aberration but rather only the tip of the iceberg of human misery.
For many of us in the place where happy happens, these realities are still just background noise. Our easy life knows no pity. We can proceed blithely from day to day, savoring the luxury of not having to deal with the coarser realities just beyond the edges of our lives in the bubble of “civilization.” Our connectedness to the larger whole has been obscured.
As the British poet and writer Paul Kingsnorth writes in “Learning What to Make of It,” we can find an apt symbol for our culture of disconnectedness in a certain room of our places of residence:
The flush toilet, to me, is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. It is convenient, it is easy, it is hygienic and it is wonderfully warm and dry. It is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man. You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food which created it in the first place. You can act, if you like, as if you have never produced it at all; as if you were far too civilised to have to engage in such base and primitive behaviour. You can sit in the warmth, reading an amusing light-hearted book, then you can simply press a button, and you will never have to deal with your own shit.
What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.
Of course, the natural world has long been seen as the antidote for the ills of Modernity since well before the Romantics, but in the age of the Anthropocene, our encounters with the wild have been problematized. We can drive to the beach, but we know that our drive there was contributing to destroying the natural wonders of the ocean.
The coral reefs are dying, scores of sea animals are racing to extinction, and the very heart of the ecosystem of the ocean is in peril.
But it is not dead yet and it is still achingly beautiful, a wonder.
We can breathe in the dense sea air, frolic in the surf, and let ourselves get lost in the ocean’s caress as we swim. Even the sound of the rhythm, the pulse of the sea is healing, transcendent if we know how to listen. And who cannot help but lose themselves in the glittering dance of the sunlight on the water? It transports us, inspires us, gives us the stuff of dreams.
It is a tonic, a respite from our naturalized alienation, this tragic beauty. If we let it penetrate us, it can burst the bubble. Somehow, as William Carlos Williams once wrote, it seems to destroy us.
Image credit: YouTube ScreenGrab