humanity finds itself at the
center of an enormous converging crisis. A wide variety of
global-scale problems in ecology, energy and economics are joining
forces before our eyes to threaten a massive disruption of the human
experience. Inevitably we ask ourselves the question, “How on
did this happen to us?”
metaphors to be very
helpful in thinking about our predicament. In this article I present a
metaphor that I think has strong similarities to our current
situation. It may help to
how this state of affairs came to be, and why we are having such a hard
getting ourselves out of it.
itself is unfortunately all too common in our culture – it’s the story
of an abusive husband and his abused wife.
in our story is not evil.
He’s not a sociopath, he doesn’t beat his wife for pleasure, and he
doesn’t lock his kids in closets to hear them scream. He’s just
average self-centered, culturally programmed Everyman. As
an Everyman he has some fairly common attitudes. He believes that
man’s home is his castle; that a man has a right and duty to be the
head of his household; that the household resources are his to direct;
that a wife’s role is to serve and nurture her husband; and that
children should be seen but not heard.
The wife in
this little play is kind,
generous and generally quiet. She accepts her husband’s
control without much protest. She sees her role as being the
helpmate. Whether it’s for her husband, her children, her home or
community, she is always making sure that everyone has what they
She has a job as a nursing assistant at a local hospital. In her
time she gardens, does a lot of community volunteer work, cooks for her
family and maintains her home.
For quite a
while after they get
married they have an idyllic relationship. Her husband works hard and
gets promotions. She enjoys her job and loves being a
children thrive under her care and everyone seems quite happy. Oh
sure, the husband prefers to drink beer or go fishing on the weekends
rather than do housework, but that’s not a big problem. His wife
to see him happy, so she does the housework without complaint. He
sometimes objects when the kids get underfoot, and occasionally gets
mad at them when they bother him after work. Sometimes he has to
them a smack to quiet them down, but it’s nothing serious.
As time goes
on, the wife begins to
notice little things. Her husband has always liked to go fishing
drinking with his buddies on the weekends, and she notices that money
has started disappearing from her purse on Fridays. When she asks
husband about it he dismisses her concern with the explanation that he
was a bit short of beer money, and after all they are a family and the
money all comes out of one big pot, right?
One day she
notices some bruises on the
kids. Her husband explains that they had been playing with some of his
stuff, and he gave them a smack to teach them to stay out of it.
They’re tough, he says, they’ll heal just fine, and they needed to
learn to stay out of his stuff. A man has a right to say what
in his own home, right?
later she notices that he
didn’t make a mortgage payment. He tells her that he needed to
payment on his new bass boat instead. He says he talked to the
manager and promised to make up the missing payment over the next
few months. He gets a little annoyed at her questions. He
that he’s in charge of things and that as the head of the household
it’s his right to make decisions about how the family resources get
She asks him
for money for the kids’
school supplies and lunches. He tells her they can’t afford it
now, that he needs to put some money aside for a new car. He
that nobody ever died from skipping the occasional lunch, and he made
it through school without fancy supplies so what makes them think
they’re so special? To drive the point home he gives her a bit of
push, and she falls and breaks her ankle. At the hospital she
his buddies over for a
barbecue in the fall, and they eat most of the vegetables from the
garden she’s tended all summer. When she complains, he explodes
rage and destroys the rest of the garden.
A month later
she sees a notice from
the gas company on the hall table. It talks about arrears and
threatens to cut off their gas supply. Remembering his
reaction over the mortgage payment, she says nothing.
She asks him
for a new winter coat
because her old one is threadbare. He’s now taking her entire pay
check to spend on himself, so she can’t afford one on her own. He
up again at her request, saying his banker is still after him about
that missing mortgage payment. He gives her a black eye and cuts
straw comes when she catches
him abusing the children, beating and taunting them, threatening to
throw them out or even kill them if they don’t start contributing to
meet his needs. With that, the wife finally snaps. She
baseball bat and lets him have it, gashing his face, breaking his arm
and a couple of ribs in the process.
is completely taken aback –
as far as he can tell he’s just been exercising his natural rights as a
father, husband and head of the household. Things had been going
as they were supposed to! Why, after all this time, is this
he’s injured, so he goes to
the hospital where a very good, kind and clever doctor sutures his
wounds, sets his broken bones and gives him antibiotics to prevent
infection. When the doctor asks if he needs any other help he
and insists that there’s nothing wrong. In the face of this
doctor’s hands are tied. He’s only trained to repair physical
and that has now been done, so the doctor has no choice but to send the
husband home to his long-suffering wife.
From Metaphor to Meaning
In the story
that no matter how good the doctor is this situation will not improve,
even if the husband’s injuries heal perfectly. Unless the
underlying attitudes and beliefs change, his behaviour is extremely
unlikely to improve.
clear that a crucial player
is missing from this little drama. There is no marriage
relationship coach. In this play nobody has any responsibility
teasing out the underlying dysfunctions of the marriage, making them
clear to the participants, and helping the husband work on changing the
patterns of attitude and belief that have brought things to this sorry
an intervention, it’s very
unlikely that things will change. The cultural messages the
getting only reinforce his conviction that his thoughts and actions are
perfectly normal. He certainly sees no need to change the beliefs
he’s held since he was a child.
change the identities of the players in our story and see what that
change reveals about the bigger picture.
Into the role
of the husband we cast
modern industrial humanity. As the long-suffering wife we cast
Nature. The children represent all the other life that shares our
planet. The part of the doctor is played by all the fixers of our
culture – the environmentalists, the policy analysts, the city
planners, the alternative-energy engineers.
retrace the story line with these new players in their roles, a
broader message appears.
assumed the position of
lord and master of the world, with the consequent conclusion that all
the world’s resources are ours to do with as we please. Like the
wife and children in the story, the rest of
the world is there either to do our bidding or to stay out of our way.
our belief in our special
position as “head of the household of life” we have come to feel that
domination is the “proper” or inevitable model for our relationship
with Mother Nature. What’s worse, like the husband we feel that
the very idea of
establishing an equal partnership with her, granting her rights equal
to our own, is unnecessary and even demeaning to our status. Like
the wife, Nature's needs
are to be forever subordinate to ours.
those beliefs have led
humanity as husband to gradually increase our share of the resources of
of the Earth community. We use those resources for our own
when they are desperately needed by other members of the family of life
their own survival. Even when we make resource withdrawals that
should be paid back, we don’t do it. We deprive others of their
needs in order to satisfy our own needs. Just as the husband
punishes his children if
they invade his stuff, we exclude, punish or kill animals that
try to eat “our” food.
all this time together, the
marriage of Man and Nature has soured. The dysfunction and damage
gotten too big to ignore. Mother Nature has finally begun to push
against our depredations, using such baseball bats as climate chaos,
oil depletion, food scarcity, rising prices and financial
a very literal way, the banker is demanding repayment and threatening
to foreclose, and the gas may be turned off any day.
In the face
of all these injuries,
humanity has gone to see the doctor – that cadre of trained
professionals whose job it is to fix our scrapes and set our broken
bones. They can re-plan our transportation, clean up our streams
rivers, propose new means of generating the energy we need, re-regulate
our financial system, develop less intrusive forms of agriculture and
advise us on conservation and recycling.
do is address the underlying cause of our situation. As with the
husband in the parable, the root cause of humanity’s trouble lies with
the attitudes and beliefs that tell us our behaviour is perfectly
normal, justifiable and inevitable. Exploitation is only natural,
after all. If it causes some damage, well, we’ll certainly try to
exploit a little less – the world is full of fixers who can tell us how
to do that!
As in the
parable, the missing
character is the marriage counsellor, the relationship coach, the
teacher or guide who can dive beneath the scummy layer of our behaviour
and bring to the surface our hidden attitudes and beliefs. Those
beliefs – about who and what we are; about the nature of the world we
live in and our relationship with it – are the reasons we cannot change
our behaviour, even when we recognize the damage that is occurring
husband in the story we are in
serious denial about the state of affairs. In fact we do subconsciously
suspect what the problem really is, and as a result are very afraid of
the wholesale change that any self-examination implies. Instead
walking that painful path, we prefer to simply visit the doctor yet
again, perhaps for some anti-depressant medications or a new diet plan
this time. They are such smart doctors after all – surely one of their
treatments is bound to work.
of the parable is that
while such treatments are necessary (nobody can function long with a
broken leg after all, just as our civilization can’t function without
energy), ultimately this approach will not, indeed cannot, work because
it simply doesn’t address the cause of the malaise. There is no
suture that can fix a case of disrespect.
is that there are very few
good relationship counsellors, especially for our
relationship with Nature. When those few that do exist speak out
they are disregarded or ridiculed, because their suggestions are seen
radical – they run counter to our cultural narrative and therefore
simply must be wrong.
Ecologists, the shamans, the
Gaia-worshippers, the spiritual teachers of non-dualist Taoism – all
those who recognize that the core problem of our age is the separation
from Nature – these are humanity’s relationship coaches. Their
prescription is radical change, not of financial systems, energy
sources or gardening techniques, but of the human heart. We can
our world, but only if we start by healing ourselves.
November 25, 2008