Life Support Systems
Resistance and Resilience through Love, Joy, and Hope
Author’s note: This essay was originally published in the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance.
Many things in the world today seem very dire: species are going extinct, ecosystems are being ruined, humans are waging wars and oppressing each other; all across the globe are signs that the state of the world, everywhere, is terrible.
There are those who look at these events and say that, as our life systems continue to collapse and take our civilizations and other beings with them, now is a time to treat the world as if it has gone into hospice, as if not only our death as a species is certain in the relatively near future, but the rest of the world’s living systems as well.
It is true that things like global warming and its massive side effects will get worse before they can get better (we have not cut global carbon emissions enough yet); many species on the edge of extinction will cross over. Many ecosystems will be changed significantly — permanently, from our human-life-span perspective — into something different from what we have known for centuries.
But we do not have to react to this by falling into despair and hopelessness. And we do not have to tend only to the dead and dying, or to treat every living thing as if our primary concern is to help it pass on.
We can also use our magic, our devotion, and our relationships with spirit allies to help mend the holes in these damaged webs of relationships as best we can, to restore function and resilience.
If magic is making manifest your will in the world, then realizing (in the sense of causing something to become real) positive change– the conditions for further growth and the supporting of life — is a magical act with the intent to keep this going. It is to not let it be crushed by capitalism or kyriarchy or corporate greed, to defy and deny the people and processes that will destroy the life processes of the world, to say through action, “This world you create, dominators, shall not come to pass, it is not coming to pass. Another world is possible; I make it so.”
Life will go on. In abundance and beauty and joyousness.
We must honor and mourn the dead — species, ecosystems small and large, cities, ways of life … giving special care to those brought to wrongful ends by the dominant culture — but we must also build resilience, for us now and for those who will remain after our deaths, that we-and-they can better come through the harder times yet to come. This will take time, it will take care, it will take hard work — but this is a process of love, it is love-in-action, and of hope, and it can be very joyful, as it affirms the value and delight and small triumphs of life where it would otherwise be put down by the obliterators.
Building stronger networks provides not only hope and support for the future, it is an act of resistance against the forces behind our worst current problems. Working together, creating commons, valuing life for itself — these things are antithetical to capitalism, imperialism, to all forms of abuse and power-over that harm human beings and the other beings and life systems we are entangled with.
Resilience is strengthened through reciprocity, maintaining healthy networks of relationships in which members support each other (not necessarily directly:things can be passed on, or through, one member to another). Reciprocity can be viewed as a form of love-in-action – it does not require strong affection for other members of the network, but a desire for the overall network to live and thrive. Doing something beneficial for a person or a river is expressing hope they will benefit from it – and perhaps in turn pass good actions along to others, or back to you, as a consequence of having benefited themselves.
Wild systems (aka “natural” systems) function this way., though it does not appear to be intentional the way human cultural networks have intention built into traditions of gift-giving, mutual aid, reciprocity, etc. The members of a wild ecosystem support and feed each other, and the outcome of these processes, over millennia, has been an ever-expanding diversity of life forms, in configurations that, barring major geological events, tend to be fairly stable for centuries or more. But remove a part of the network, whether it is a plant or an apex consumer like a wolf, or dam a river, and the network becomes less stable, less resilient, more likely to change into a significantly different ecosystem. Some losses cause quick changes throughout the ecosystem; other changes take decades to become apparent. And sometimes a vanished species has its niche filled by another member of the system, but the biodiversity cannot be replaced without many, many more generations of evolution.
The dominant and dominating culture would flatten – is flattening – diversity, both biological and cultural. Anything that cannot be bent to feed capitalism and the kyriarchy is a threat to it, and has been ignored or attacked with intent to be destroyed. This flattening of diversity is the opposite of what life itself will do and has done for millions and millions of years.
We resist the dominant, dominating culture and its processes of obliteration of life’s great diversities by reaffirming the value of life and by supporting life-supporting processes to encourage greater diversity. Among our means of resistance are love and joy and hope.
Love, to act with love, to love as an act, is to direct your energy to the betterment of the recipient of your love (self or other), not to confine or limit, but to encourage growth.
Joy is to find delight in the other, in yourself, in existence, in whatever is here before you and with you right now.
Hope is to see, based on more than wishful thinking, that better is possible and achievable, and to create a way forward.
Love is tricky. Love is an emotion but it is also a verb – to love someone is not just a type of affection, it is to act towards them, or with them, in a way that may not have any connection with how affectionate you feel towards them. It is to treat them with care, with respect, with a sincere desire for their well-being and desires. It is not to seek to dominate them against their will.
To love in this way, to take care with someone (self or other) and work with or for them for their betterment, is to break with the dominant culture and its reinforcement of the “rightness” of dominating and looking for power-over, to be the “victor” in situations defined to only be perceivable as win-lose (some have the potential to provide win-win solutions, if looked at differently). To love does not necessarily mean everyone lives together happily ever after with each other – leaving a harmful situation is being loving to yourself; loving a group or place can require setting boundaries and keeping harmful influences out.
Capitalism, having perverted commerce with its approach of power-over, of power through accumulation of material goods (or symbolic representations of same), both monetizes and weaponizes love.
It preys upon normal human feelings, like the need for reciprocation of feelings, signs of affection, jealousy, feeling like you fit in with others, and so on, and repackages them as symptoms in need of quick fixes, rather than processes we need to come to terms with in a more functional way. Romantic love, long held to a limited resource (one of the few resources the system believes IS finite! O the irony), is particularly targeted: the way to get it and hold onto it is to buy these things for your beloved to “prove” how much you care, so they won’t leave you.
In or outside of romantic partnerships, if you aren’t gaining enough under capitalism’s influence to be able to buy the latest trendy object, then you’re a moral failure, how can you face the rest of the social group without the newest widget? And what will you talk about?? (If you have the means to participate, but choose not to, then you’re another kind of outcast.)
Capitalism also perverts the practice of reciprocity by making gift-giving an excessive obligation that many people do not feel a need to be on the receiving end of, but feel forced into participating in and nobody is happy but the profit-counters; it creates social pressure through marketing techniques , not to help support a healthy social network based on the members’ and group’s true needs or desires or best possible outcomes – but to benefit the producers of the most popular trendy items. Things that will, of course, “need” to be replaced in a year or maybe five; they are made that way. Holidays that are theoretically about family, about strengthening social bonds, things that cannot be bought and sold, have been overtaken to focus on the things bought and sold instead of the people. The few federally-recognized days off in the United States are not days off for retail workers, because these “breaks” from work have become “special sale” days, shopping days, encouraging people to save money rather than go somewhere to relax or see friends.
Exchanges of gifts can be beautiful, wonderful things; this is a legitimate way to act in a loving way towards someone. Thoughtfully done, in the right proportion to the relationship, understanding what is really needed or wanted, it helps strengthen human relationships and networks.
Gift-giving, whether material objects or gifts of time and attention, also strengthens relationships between us and the non-human beings we interact with through devotional practices, devotion being love and love-in-action. We are not alone in this world, and by strengthening our relationships with our Neighbors, we strengthen all parts of our ecosystems, the human-made as well as the wild and the Other.
Joy is another form of resistance against the dominant culture, and a vital part of creating resilience to what that culture does to us.
I was depressed for several years, and it was nearly impossible during that time to find anything that brought me more than a temporary bit of joy; it was hard to even remember what that feeling was like previously. While the worst is gone, I know I’m not always that far from the edge of that pit, and some things make the ground tilt towards it. In addition, I have a bad habit of seeing something bad, or potentially bad, and working it up in my head into something that will be absolutely terribly awful, and then there’s the ground pitching towards the void again.
I am pretty sure this is one of the reasons that, when I’ve been in distress and sought advice for how to handle the situation, the People Upstairs have advised me to focus on things I have in my life right now that bring me joy. It has been a good way to keep away from ground-tilting thoughts, or to pull away from them. It doesn’t directly solve any problems, but it keeps me from over-focusing on my distress and fears, and gives me a greater ability to act on the problems.
I’ve also found the concept of joy an important, powerful thing outside of my personal life. It can be a transgressive act.
In Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside1, she writes,
“The researchers of brainwashing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. The Turks, for instance … the soldiers who faced their torturers with laughter sometimes survived when others did not. Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves; laughter is by definition heretical, unless used cruelly, turned outwards against an opponent or enemy.”
And in an article on openDemocracy by Michael Edwards, about Sister Megan Rice2 (serving time in jail for breaking into a nuclear weapons plant to protest), he states,
“In the face of bureaucratic authority, the expression of joy can be both powerful and subversive, partly because it is so unexpected. It disarms those in power through an absolute refusal to be provoked or humbled, and it provides great inner strength for the struggles that lie ahead.”
In the broader culture I am familiar with, expressing joy doesn’t really seem to be encouraged (my cultural context is a white American from a basically WASP background). Acting “positive” is, of course, but spontaneous expressions of delight – not so much, though you’re probably okay expressing delight about something among like-minded enthusiasts or friends. But generally, it really isn’t the mature adult thing to do much of, is it? Unless you present it just right, dress it up in the right toned-down language, so it shows you know how to present emotions in a socially-acceptable manner. In addition, there’s a nasty strain running through the culture that says if you’re enjoying something, you’re doing something wrong, not working hard enough, or you’re merely getting your earned time away from “real life.” Because real life isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, I guess, unless you earn your pleasure through drudgery or pain first.3
I’ve seen similar things come up from time to time in discussions of pagan/polytheist practices, since they are embedded within this same context. A lot of people believe that, if you write too much about being happy about what’s going on in your spiritual life, someone will”helpfully” point out to you that this is hard, and it is supposed to be hard and unpleasant. There’s often a sense of an implied “Why aren’t you suffering or struggling more?” and outright statements that if you don’t find the hard painful parts in your spiritual practices, then you’re not getting deep enough into your practice, you won’t get out of it what you ought to, you won’t ever really understand your gods, and so on. As in other parts of life, you risk being met with all kinds of skepticism, nonconstructive criticism, and outright scorn if you express happiness without also describing enough of the right kind of “hard work” and experience of pain.
Of course it is important to understand that life, work, spiritual practices, relationships, etc., will have their ups and downs, and what those might look like in order to be prepared, but the kindest thing I can say to the people who feel obligated to respond to an expression of joy by squashing it is, “Please shut up. Come back later, in a different context, with your helpful advice about how things can be hard.”
Listen: Joy is life affirming.
Lots of things in life hurt and suck. People know this. It is thoughtless if not cruel to respond to expressions of joy – or hope, or love, or other expressions of optimism – with what amounts to the message, “It is wrong for you to feel that, and to make sure you understand it’s wrong to feel that, I’m going to hurt you for admitting you feel that way.” Everyone must toe the cultural party line, or be brought to heel, attacked until forced into the right order.
The dominant culture, the kyriarchy, all the -isms that keep people down, they tell you/us: “You are wrong for being [that], and you are most definitely wrong for feeling joy or pride in being [that] or doing those stereotype-denying things. By the way, you’ll also get put down for enjoying the things associated with the stereotypes.” And so finding joy in life while being [that], in being alive as you are, defining for yourself who you are and what you enjoy, refutes the dominant culture and its abuses – and make no mistake, it is abusive to tell someone, “You are wrong to feel that way.”
The ability to again feel simple joy-at-living, joy in what existed around me, was one of the first gifts I received after converting, and I find it precious beyond words. I thought I had lost that. Around the time I converted, I had gotten out of the worst depression – I felt real motivation and positivity for my future – but I still had no idea how to find that spark, that particular kind of easy delight-of-being again. Finding small moments of joy, reaffirming the goodness in life, now feels so much more important as a result. This excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” expresses something about this:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”
Take pleasure in simple comforts that come from being alive, whether it is good food, a soft place to rest, or the enjoyment of the wind, ocean, trees, or company of others. The basic things around us, things that are part of all animal lives – if there isn’t joy to be found here, among the circumstances in which we evolved, then where? How could an animal evolved to live surrounded by these phenomena not find some of them comforting and enjoyable? And how could finding joy in these things be wrong??
Oliver’s poem concludes:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. “
There are so many amazing things in the world, all around us, all the time, and acknowledging that awesomeness acknowledges their value for simply existing.
Joy is life affirming.
We are surrounded by so many life-denying forces.
Joy is an antidote to their poisons and a reminder that there is more to existence than what they offer.
The kind of hope that is wishful thinking is needed to get started – without a desire of some kind, there will be no action – but there is also a kind of hope that is based on seeing proof that things like that which is desired are possible. This provides encouragement to try other things, and a necessary reminder that not all is lost.
We create hope by resisting the dominant culture, by unlearning its lessons of power-over and learning instead what power-with means, and manifesting that in the world. Any change made to undo caused-harm is an act of hope, of enacting hope: “another world IS possible, I-and-we make it so, one action at a time. There can be – there will be – more like this.”
It took decades for industrial, fossil fuel-based culture to create terrible climate problems; it will take a long time to correct the problems, to help heal acres upon acres of strip-mined or chemically-soaked land, to address harms done to colonized peoples and places. To hope under these circumstances is sometimes to take many, many small steps towards something that will not see large results for decades. But this progress also provides hope for others working elsewhere – and some things can change dramatically for the better in a very short time. The Elwha River was dammed for over 100 years, but within a year of the dams’ removal (which came after many decades of political effort), salmon returned, and long-absent sandbars and beach area are returning to the river’s mouth, recreating tidal ecosystems. Many wild systems have a great deal of resilience inherent in them, and will eagerly return to pre-industrial states. Some will need much more, or ongoing, human effort.
Take encouragement from what others have done and are doing – and show others what can be done; mend the holes in the networks that they will be stronger when damaging forces contact them again. Do not focus too much on the harms being done – also find sources that tell you about the healing work, reminders that a better world is being made, and you are not alone. Look to those stories to help find your own way forward and to find other people to work with. Strengthen bonds through reciprocity and loving action, thus creating resilience in your human communities, in your places, and in your own life.
While this work of love and creating hope now and for the future is about webs of relationships, it is vital to not neglect yourself in all this. You are also part of many webs. Love yourself, hope for yourself (find it, make it), find joy in your circumstances.
That does not mean putting aside the harder things: If you need to grieve, grieve. Express your anger at what has been done. We aren’t “supposed to” acknowledge “negative” feelings, either, if they are feelings about things the dominant culture has done, or what it tells us isn’t valuable – wild things, people of the wrong skin color or gender presentation, the ability to find self-worth outside of a “real” job, etc. If we DID really feel those things, and even worse, talk to too many people about it, that would be a threat to the dominator culture–we might start understanding more how desperately it needs to be replaced with something healthier. Really allowing yourself to acknowledge and feel what you really feel, without bottling it up making excuses, or putting it down is resistance. It is resistance to being silenced, resistance to falling quietly and obediently into the power structure, and it can help you become more resilient as well. If you have a handle on your feelings, they will have less power over you, and this is a great act of loving yourself.
Acts of resistance to the dominant, dominating culture that is behind the damage to our living systems and to our diverse cultural heritages are acts of love and of hope. And in the face of this damage we can – and must – look to where joy exists, to support us in this work, to remind us what it’s all for.
1: Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1987
2: Michael Edwards, “To remain in prison for the rest of my life is the greatest honor you could give me: the story of Sister Megan Rice,” openDemocracy.net
3: Why there is this notion that pleasure must be earned instead of being a birthright is another good question.