In the last decade or so of my father’s life, the accumulated effects of a lifetime of choices escalated into a number of serious illnesses. The primary illness in his decline was type 2 diabetes, and the complications that unfolded from that. On occasion, I would be in town visiting while he had scheduled medical appointments, and I was happy to spend the day with him while being his transportation and advocate. One of the things that I heard every single doctor tell him is that in spite of his advancing illness, his lifestyle choices, and especially his diet, could slow or even halt the progression of the disease process. They gave many clear and specific instructions, and I took careful notes so that I could support him once home. For years, I pushed fairly strongly, encouraging and almost demanding that he follow their instructions – all out of a deep sense of love for him, and wanting him to be around for as long as possible. After all, he was my best friend – and surely the only person in my family who I felt I could truly trust and confide in. Whenever I visited, I would shop for delicious, fresh, and organic foods, and I would share new and amazing recipes for healthy foods that were in alignment with the diet his doctors had recommended. But ultimately, the choice was his, and ultimately, his desires for the foods that he had grown up with, the ones that were the most delicious to him, were the ones that he continued to choose. Familiarity and habit are certainly hard to break away from, and food can be one of the most intimate and personal relationships of a person’s life, for sure. My dad grew up in the mountains of Appalachia, and the rich, carbohydrate-filled, and fatty fried foods of the south were his delight. Though he made occasional small changes, he left this world with his preferences in tact, never taking the words of the doctors to heart.
As a keen observer of cause and effect, I watched the choices he made run their course in his health. Terrified to find myself in a similar health crisis at a young age, especially one that could be completely avoided through better dietary and lifestyle choices, I made radical changes of my own, accepting the gifts of learning that came from my father’s experience. I was able to observe the ways that he was stubborn and unwilling to make difficult changes because he was just too hooked on his personal tastes, and he wanted what he wanted with little concern for the long term result of those choices. I think that by the time it was clear what was happening in his health, he felt that it was too far down the line to make any significant changes that would improve his quality of life. Even though his doctors said otherwise, he accepted the results of his lifestyle choices, not wanting to suffer through giving up his life’s pleasures of food, certain that it wouldn’t help in the long run if things were too far gone.
What is it that keeps humans from seeing the results of their choices and making different ones that would bring a better outcome? What inner force keeps humans continuing to do things that are destructive to themselves, to others, and to the world? What is it that keeps people hooked in habits and patterns of action, and refusing to change even when continuing in the same way is clearly going to bring the same harmful results? Is it just willfulness? Laziness? Ignorance? Or pure denial? Is it refusal to see beyond the present moment? Or beyond oneself? Or is there some drive toward destruction that is hidden within us, and we simply look away as it continues to run its course, ever more surprised when things don’t turn out quite the way we had hoped?
This shows up in so many ways. People who smoke cigarettes do so by choice, knowing that in every single use, they are exposing themselves to cancer causing chemicals that destroy health. And yet, the addiction keeps them willing to take that risk, choosing the high of tobacco, and implicitly accepting the illnesses that may result. People continue to consume sugar in copious amounts, even when the risk of diabetes is known, and even when others in their families and lives have been diagnosed. The delight in the sweet taste and its richness calls them back over and over again, diabetes seeming to be a distant idea, and a bummer to consider. On a personal level, people may see the writing on the wall, and blatantly ignore it, as it’s just too difficult, too inconvenient to change. Life seems so much better just as it is, thank you very much, and those dire consequences are so far away, and unlikely to even manifest at all… until they do. And of course they do, eventually, and suffering is most definitely a result. The question that so many face later in their lives is this: was it worth it? If I could go back and change things… if only…
On a cultural level, a national level, and a global level, these things are much more complex to manage. While a struggling smoker or sugar junkie might hate the process of quitting their addiction, it is totally possible to make those changes and see rapid results. Some do, and change their lives. Some don’t, happy to stay with things as they are. But in scenarios where many people are involved, finding a way to make collective changes is much, much more difficult. When the international scientific bodies, for example, have been demonstrating valid and undeniable evidence of climate change, with its causes and effects, and decades later there are still significant numbers of people in positions of authority and power who refuse to believe it, the problem is much harder to address. It seems that in the US, this is yet another of the major areas where we stand divided: many of us feel clear that the scientific evidence on climate change is beyond sufficient to warrant major changes in our lives on individual and global levels. And yet, it seems that we have a persistent and sizeable anti-science movement of people that would rather ignore the evidence until something more convincing is presented, finding little believable truth in the global scientific community’s decades of research. It is likely that for these people, only a catastrophic turn of events will be sufficient to convince them.
We know that fossil fuels are causing irreparable harm to the planet, and yet somehow, that’s not sufficient evidence to change our ways. Every day now, we see inflated, wealthy politicians continuing to speak their deep denial of the problems. Do they truly not believe what is presented by the world’s greatest scientific minds? Are they actually skeptical about the values of scientific inquiry and findings? I doubt it. I’d venture to say that the greater truth is right in alignment with my dad and his unwillingness to give up cheese laden sausage biscuits by the half dozen: addicted, stubborn, and unwilling to change.
When it’s cultural, though, there’s a much stronger undertow, and a much more complex system to break that extends far beyond one person’s bad habits. Beyond the urban areas with excellent public transportation, most Americans would be hard pressed to live without a car for long. Most Americans have a limited ability to choose the source of electricity that powers their homes. Most Americans don’t grow their own foods, and are dependent upon the food industry to haul in truckloads of food to feed their communities. Woven into all of these things is a dependence on, and an addiction to fossil fuels, of course, and in order to change the systems in place, we ALL have to be a part of it. Fossil fuel vehicles have to become obsolete so that we are all more reliant upon electric ones. Dirty forms of energy must be replaced by solar and wind so that our needs for energy are met without continuing to cause harm, and the infrastructure must change to support that on both personal and community levels. And it all costs a lot of money, for sure. And as things are now, there are very strong systems in place that keep us going using the same resources in the same ways, resisting the flow of change, as things are just fine as they are right now, thank you very much. A lot of people are making a lot of money from the systems in place, and making major changes to those systems would jeopardize that success. After all, just because you’re a billionaire oil tycoon doesn’t mean you’ll be equally prosperous if you have to start over in solar. But much greater is the cost of continuing in our ignorance, and ultimately contributing daily to our own annihilation as a species.
And so, the powerful ones in charge deny the science, they deny the evidence, they ignore the facts and stick their heads in the sand as they continue to direct the flow of profits, filling their pockets, keeping them in place as the wealthy and powerful. They do everything possible to keep things in place, of course, as they like being wealthy and powerful! And with that much control being exerted from our wealthy and powerful leaders, it’s increasingly more and more difficult for the rest of us to attempt to make necessary changes, no matter how much we want to. The ones of us with greater means do everything we can to install the solar panels, to buy the eco-friendly car, to eat organic foods, and to support the industries of change, voting with our dollars. But the ones with lesser means that are struggling to have any food and electricity at all? The ones walking to work because they don’t have any car at all? It all seems far outside of the realm of possibility for those of us, and so we continue to support whoever is in power that will bring them what is needed for the bottom dollar. Simply put, when we are struggling to survive, we don’t make it a priority to try to change the world and save the environment, as we are just trying to make it through the winter and feed our families.
This is the way the cards are stacked for us now. And yet, out there in reality beyond the conceptual and self-interested structures of the human mind, life keeps on living. Nature continues to respond to cause and effect in the same ways she always has: by attempting to maintain dynamic equilibrium through the best means available. And yet, just like a human body that has been pushed too far by lifestyle choices that cause harm, systems eventually begin to fail. We see this now in so many ways. Climate change. Increasing extinction of species of animals, insects, plants, and more. Living systems of interdependence are all struggling to survive now, more than ever before in our history. And when evidence is presented, we have the opportunity to make choices: identify the problems, understand how they operate, and make necessary changes to bring health and balance back into the system, or don’t and let things unfold as they will.
It seems that while we have become more advanced in our technologies, and more informed in our understanding of the innerworkings of life and the systems that sustain it, we have lost touch with the fundamental wisdom that was the law by which our ancestors lived. Have we truly become such foolish, greedy, and self-interested creatures that all we care about is the success of our monetary systems, the capitalist machine, our perceived needs, diversions, and entertainment? Have we truly forgotten that we are not above Nature, nor separate from Nature, but simply one of many living forces of Nature? Has our collective perspective become so foolishly human-centric that we are ultimately willing to sacrifice the rest of life on Earth? Ultimately, if that is true, we will be sacrificing ourselves as well. With the spread of Christianity around the world, have humans taken the words from Genesis so seriously that they believe that they can dominate and destroy the whole Earth for their own preferences and jollies? I can’t believe that was the fundamental intention of those words:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28
Will we humans awaken beyond the ignorance that persists at this time? Will we come to claim responsibility for the foolish choices we have collectively made on this planet, causing unprecedented destruction in the past 100 years? Will we awaken to the truth of cause and effect, and acknowledge that we can either continue as the ignorant and greedy force of destruction, or we can see from the larger mind, understanding that we can still be a presence of transformation and healing? As we continue to consider the path forward, I share the wisdom of our Iroquois brothers and sisters, who understood the responsibility of wise leadership and environmental stewardship:
“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, writes: “We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come… What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”