The Gentle Barn
“And here we stand, at the doorway, to this hallway life brought us. here, to this crossroads of lost hope and undeniable promise. where we choose between paths, beyond rightness or wrongness, that will bring us to the brink of the planet’s exhaustion, or the age of compassion, where the meek become strongest, and reinherit the Earth, and redefine progress.” (Alixa García & Naima Penniman)
In southern California, there is a place called the Gentle Barn. Its owners and staff rescue, rehabilitate, and give sanctuary to severely abused animals. They then invite kids who have encountered similar forms of abuse to interact with these animals. For over a decade, those who have encountered the Gentle Barn have come together to further a story which is very special, and all too rare. From what I can gather, their story is about compassion in the most fundamental sense of the world — finding trust, joy, and affection through a mutual recognition of pain, and through a silent but trustworthy promise to never hurt each other. The moments of connection between children and animals at the Gentle Barn seem to affirm, without denial or discomfort, that hurt is a part of life — and that humility and generosity in the face of others’ pain can open up new horizons of healing.
I have never been to the Gentle Barn. But often, when I have felt vulnerable in the face of this tough world, I have navigated over to the Gentle Barn’s website. Scrolling through the pictures and re-reading the organization’s mission statement, I cannot help but believe that, as challenging as their work is, it is through this kind of empathy that we will be able to find the solutions to the crises of sustainability, justice and peace that we face.
To say that I am not fully acquainted with the Gentle Barn is an understatement. The truth is that I did not grow up even remotely in the vicinity of any barn. My childhood was divided between a tourist district in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a suburban town on the outskirts of Washington, DC. San Juan’s coastlines are places of almost incomprehensible beauty. Each day transforms the ocean into a different kind of canvas. Sunlight and clouds play on the water to create new palettes every morning, afternoon, and evening. The varying intensity of the tides produces a broad array of symphonies, and when one looks directly north or east, the ocean seems to stretch quite literally to the edge of the earth. This is the tropics, where biodiversity is rich and, historically at least, both culture and economy have been fundamentally informed by ecological realities.
But my childhood in San Juan was not the telluric, at-one-with-the-Earth experience that many might have in mind when they think about tropical islands. Though there is a fierce and resilient network of environmentalists in Puerto Rico, I was surrounded in large measure by franchised hotels, overpriced boutiques, and one too many new (and shadily funded) construction projects each year. These are the built manifestations of both conventional tourism and local elitism. I also experienced a car culture that has successfully taken some of the best aspects of Caribbean life — music, family, friendship — and packed them into enormous vehicles that congest the air and scare the birds. Empathy runs deep in Puerto Rico — compassion and humor are acknowledged as life’s most important staples. However, in the face of the temptations that are designed and ferociously marketed by the world’s unsustainable industries, this empathy does not have the reach that it could have.
In Puerto Rico, as in scores of other countries, a general tendency towards humanity is threatened by powerful forces that tell us that ‘stuff’ will make us stronger, and will somehow protect us from the ups and downs, the joys and the pains, the hopes and the fears, of being human in an uncertain world.
My experiences as a student and professional in the United States have given me a more intimate (for lack of a better word) understanding of the ‘success’ culture that we are encouraged to be a part of. In such a world, productivity on the job matters more than the nature of the work we do. Independence is prized over emotional intelligence. Work is all too often dictated by narrow goals and/or large egos. And vulnerability and empathy can only bring ill health and failure.
It is true that in a society that does not operate like a Gentle Barn, vulnerability and empathy can generate an extraordinary amount of pain. Perhaps women and children (not to mention our plant and animal friends) suffer disproportionately from this denial of sensitivity. We are taught and encouraged to love, and to feel, only to be later confronted by a social landscape that, more often than not, exploits rather than respects these qualities. Indeed, any person who feels life with sensitivity is hurt by a world that pretends not to care.
Without question, global climate change is an issue that demands our empathy. Time and time again, we will be challenged to care deeply about the lives of people whom we’ve never met. We will be asked to re-evaluate our contemporary religion of self-aggrandizement through wealth and prestige. And hopefully, we will defer to those who know the most about compassion and loss.
For my part, I am quite addicted to the practice of finding intimacy with the natural world. For me, that connection often comes through the arts — music in particular. Through my own lifelong practice as a singer and my experiences as an arts organizer in the past year or so, I’ve realized that art is about finding points of relation, connection and empathy — and staying there. In other words, it is about finding the vulnerability at the heart of a composition or instrument, and engaging with it long enough to be able to honor it by rendering it anew. The most extraordinary artists are able to harness that purity, humility, honesty and empathy with ease. And one of the reasons why I love art so much is because it will never thrive on insensitivity. And nor will the climate movement.
Being a part of the climate movement thus far has helped me see that loneliness and fear do not have to be barriers to the joys of being human. On the contrary, sharing loneliness, and fear, and sadness, and hope with others might be the only way to see how beautiful humanity really can be.
And even though so much of the climate activist’s agenda is about protecting non-human life, recovering our own humanity is absolutely essential if we are to succeed in this struggle. And the healthiest human beings do not delight in disparities of wealth and power. They do not thrive on stereotypes, nor do they measure success by their ability to be ‘the best’ (whatever that means). For too long, we have fancied ourselves strong precisely because we have numbed ourselves to the most precious parts of human existence. But many inspirational voices from the present and past remind us that the reverse of that profound nihilism is the glorious realization that we are all alive, together, and that we can make life easier for each other.
For too long we have defined our personal loyalties by tribes. Perhaps many of us have now reached the ultimate crisis point, where the only loyalty that we consistently feel is to wealth- and status-related ambitions. The world, with its confusing and criss-crossing allegiances and persistent poverty of information, cannot accommodate selective empathy as effectively as perhaps it used to. Perhaps now we have nowhere to go but towards a better paradigm, grounded in an awareness that coexistence and harmony can be as much of a discipline, and a practice, as the ‘realist’ frameworks of war and security that often inform our relationships with each other. At the risk of sounding overly ambitious or optimistic, I’d like to end by saying that a paradigm shift is possible. And perhaps it is by looking at the small things, the gentle things, the most innocent and healing of encounters, that we will learn the most.