Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

Roots Where None Ought to Be (Searching for Agua Santa)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My clergy study group used to meet at the former, Catholic Our Lady of Peace retreat center in Narragansett, RI. The original building is an old stone mansion called Hazard Castle. On one side of the mansion is a seven-story stone tower which had fallen into disrepair and had been closed off to visitors many years prior. The first time I saw the tower, all of its windows were boarded up, but I was struck by the good-sized, healthy tree growing out through the boards of a second-floor window and reaching up three or four more stories. It was impressive—a tree growing out of a building.

Our Lady of Peace closed its doors in 2006 and later sold the property to a private school called Middlebridge.[1] The tower is still there, still boarded up. I can’t tell if the tree is still there. If they intend to restore the tower, it would make sense to remove the tree so its roots don’t cause further structural damage. What impressed me then, and what sticks in my mind twenty years later, is that tree, somehow planted, somehow thriving in the second floor of an old stone tower. Roots where none ought to be. Roots taking hold, reaching down through layers of human construction toward the earth, finding water and nutrients, finding what is required to sustain life.

Our ministry theme for February is resilience. I offer this tree with roots where none ought to be as an image, a symbol, a declaration of resilience. I am here. I will not only survive, I will thrive.

I figured someone must’ve posted a photo of that tree online somewhere, but I couldn’t find one. I did, however, go hiking at Waconah Falls State Park in Dalton, MA over this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the rock ledges above the falls, trees plant themselves. Their roots creep over the rocks until they find cracks and fissures where they reach down into the soil beneath, down to where the water pools. A photo of one of these trees is on the front cover of your order of service. I assume this type of tree, and the type of tree on the Hazard Castle tower, have evolved over millennia to grow in this way, to plant themselves on rock surfaces. Perhaps they can survive with less water than other trees.[2] Perhaps, given the power of natural selection, this planting is nothing extraordinary. But that doesn’t lessen the power of the image for me. A tree with roots where none ought to be. Resilience.

This is metaphor for our spiritual lives. When life is hard, like rock, and that’s all you know in the moment, what do your roots reach for? When life is hard, like the floor of a rock tower room, like a rock ledge, and that’s all we know in the moment, we might think of resilience as our capacity to find the cracks and fissures in the hardness of life, to reach into them in search of the cool, refreshing, nourishing life-giving waters that pool in great reservoirs below the surface.

As I read through the standard dictionary definitions, I learn that resilience has something to do with rebounding from difficulty, bouncing back from hard times, returning to where we were before the crisis. There are many references to rubber bands returning to their natural state after being stretched. A resilient community rebuilds after the fire, the hurricane, the earthquake, mourns its dead, accounts for its losses, and slowly resumes its daily patterns. A resilient immune system enables us to fight off an illness and resume life as we knew it. As the world tracks the progress of the new corona virus emerging in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, there is much discussion of resilience—who is most at risk, how best to treat the disease? What do we do as a global community to limit the spread of the virus so that it can run its course and we can return to life as we know it? That’s one understanding of resilience: recovering, returning—bending back into our regular shape.

This definition of resilience is fine, but it’s not sufficient for a spiritual exploration of resilience. It doesn’t speak to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Specifically, it doesn’t speak to the reality that we can’t always return to life as we knew it.

A loved-one begins losing their cognitive abilities, slides slowly into dementia. Life simply will not be the same.

A loved one dies. We may return in time to some semblance of normalcy, but life will never really be the same.

We age. I’m old enough to know that there comes a time in our lives when our bodies simply don’t do what they used to do. Despite our best efforts to stay healthy and strong, our bodies slowly, slowly, slowly break down and we can’t go back to the way life was.

This doesn’t mean we lack resilience.

I’m thinking of all those profoundly hard experiences, experiences that cause suffering—living with and treating cancer, living with chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, losing a job, losing a friend. We don’t return to life as we knew it. Sometimes even those things that bring us the most joy are also profoundly hard and push us beyond life as we knew it—raising children, and sometimes grandchildren; sustaining a marriage through challenging times; being true to the self you love even as that self is rejected because of homophobia or transphobia, sexism or racism. So often we can’t return to the life we knew. That life is gone. Certain features remain—we never change completely. But we can’t live the way we used to. Perhaps, in such moments, we are like a tree, on solid, cold, unforgiving rock. Can we now find the cracks and fissures, the often hidden, hard-to-find pathways to those reservoirs of sacred water below the surface? Spiritual resilience is our capacity to adapt to losing the life we knew and accepting life in new forms, on new terms.

Our friends at the Unitarian Universalist resource hub Soul Matters remind us that the word “resilience comes from the Latin re ‘back’ and saliens ‘the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.” This reminds me: the true starting point is not how we were living before our loved-one died. The true starting point is not how we were living before the diagnosis, before we realized we are aging, before whatever hard thing is happening in our lives. Those reservoirs below the surface? Those holy waters? They’ve always been there. Consider the the waters that sustain life on our planet. They’ve been feeding this earth and its creatures since life began. Our ancient singled-celled ancestors emerged in those waters as they gathered in pools along primordial shorelines. We each rode their gentle waves in our mother’s womb. When life becomes hard, resilience isn’t about getting back to where we were before the hardness; it’s about our ability to keep reaching for our holy waters, our agua santa, our spiritual resources which are, in fact, vast.

In her poem, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” tejana poet, Pat Mora, hints at this spiritual vastness as she describes a jelly fish floating gracefully beneath the ocean’s surface: Without brain or eye or heart, / Aurelia drift, / bodies transparent as embryos. / Tentacles trailing, / they ride unseen / currents, bathed by all they need / in agua santa, old sea, / depths where we begin.[3] The true starting point is not where we were before the hard thing entered our lives. The true starting point is the unseen current that has been carrying us, bathing us in all we need, all along.

When I contemplate the image of the tree on the rock ledge on the cover of your order of service, I imagine, though it sits on rock, it knows the holy water is there, knows it has to find the cracks and fissures, knows even once it finds the soft earth beneath the rock, it still must reach deep down to where the water lies in vast pools. There’s a lesson for us in this image. When the hard thing happens to us, it’s very rare that we begin our journey into it with acceptance and grace. More likely we react to the hard thing with strong emotion—sadness, anger, frustration, disbelief. Depending on what the hard thing is, we may simply feel overwhelmed, unsure of how to proceed, unsure of whom to tell, unsure of how to tell it. We may feel uprooted, disconnected, cut off, lost, adrift. Often the hard thing demands that we focus first on technicalities – arranging for a funeral, arranging for doctor appointments, meeting with a lawyer, re-arranging finances, moving. In the midst of strong emotion and dealing with technicalities, we easily become cut off from our spiritual resources. In such moments I commend to you the tree with roots where none ought to be. It knows water is there. It knows to reach. We know it too. Can we remember?

As we wrestle with the hard things in our lives, may we be like trees with roots where none ought to be. May we remember to reach. May we have moments of epiphany:

Oh yes, I remember now: self care. I need to take care of my body: exercising, stretching, sleeping, eating healthy food, and some comfort food. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

Oh yes, I remember now: soul care. I need to care for my soul: surround myself with beautiful music, artwork, books, nature. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: friendships. I need friends who will support me and care for me, people to whom I can name this hard thing, people whom I can ask for help when I need it, people who will spend time with me, engaged in the simple things that bring joy, the card game, the ice cream cone, the cup of tea, the new drama on TV. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: community. I need to participate as best I can in community, to join with people who share common values, a common purpose, common goals. This, too, is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: prayer. I need to still my mind, calm my mind, center my mind, so that I can encounter the sacred, that reality larger than myself that nourishes me, sustains me, reminds me I am not alone. I need to reach for, to invite, to welcome, to embrace the sacred. This is agua santa

Then, finally, once my roots where none ought to be have found the cracks and fissures, have reached deep into the earth, have touched the holy water, then I need patience. Hard things are hard in part because they take time. We read to you earlier “A Center,” from the Chinese-American poet and novelist, Jin Xuefei, known as Ha Jin: You must hold your quiet center, / where you do what only you can do…. / Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. / If others think you are insignificant, that’s because you haven’t held on long enough. / As long as you stay put year after year, / eventually you will find a world / beginning to revolve around you.[4]

He is not advising us to cling futilely to things that don’t matter, or to obstinately refuse to let go of attachments that cause needless suffering. He’s offering insight  into resilience. Find your quiet center, and wait. He’s advising us to stay rooted. He’s reminding us that our persistence, our perseverance, our patience, help us stay rooted, help slowly strengthen the connections between ourselves and those agua santa reservoirs below. He’s reminding us that it is not only we who adapt to life’s hardness, but that as we root ourselves, life’s hardness adapts to us.

****

Now, speaking of patience, I want to change the subject, although I am still speaking about resilience. I want to offer an update. As some of you are aware, though I know not all of you are aware, our experience of providing sanctuary to an asylum seeker last year was not easy. Disagreements over how best to approach various challenges resulted in conflict, and we are now working with two facilitators from the Unitarian Universalist Association to help us address this conflict well. While it would be unfair to those involved in the reconciliation process for me to share details of that process, in part because we need to honor confidentiality, I want all of you to rest assured that a reconciliation process is underway. Though it is hard, the people involved are engaging with openness, grace and integrity.

Second, though it is hard, my impression is that everyone involved understands that reconciliation takes time. In those who are participating I observe patience, rootedness, and a deep commitment to this congregation. In short, I see incredible community resilience and it warms my heart.

Finally, I previously had said that while we need to honor confidentiality, this conflict is not a secret. I am willing to meet with anyone who would like to know more. I am still willing to do that, however, one of the goals of this process is for those involved to be able to tell one story about why disagreements became so difficult to manage. I am recognizing that, for the sake of the integrity of the reconciliation process, it is better for me not to tell my version of the story, but rather to let the collective story emerge. We’re not there yet. We’re in an in-between space. We’re a tree on hard ground whose roots are seeking the agua santa reservoir below the surface. We will find it. We will tell a common story. Of that I am certain. I thank all of you for your patience. It is yet another sign of our community resilience.

Amen and blessed be.         

 

 

[1] Snizek, Rick, “Diocese Sells Former Retreat Center,” Rhode Island Catholic, April 29th, 2012. See: https://www.thericatholic.com/stories/diocese-sells-former-retreat-center,4943.

[2] After preaching this sermon, a congregant pointed me toward Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, for insight into the role of moss in enabling such trees to grow on rock surfaces. See: https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-Moss-Natural-Cultural-History/dp/0870714996.

[3] Mora, Pat, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” Agua Santa / Holy Water (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) p. 19.

[4] Ha Jin, “A Center.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/152066/a-center.