The hollow men and the crisis of spirit

We are the hollow men
 We are the stuffed men
 Leaning together
 Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
(TS Eliot, The Hollow Men)


I wrote this piece partly as a response to Will Falk’s excellent article on The Failure of Ecopsychology, and partly as a way of responding both to breathlessly changing global events, and to more organic changes in my own work and practice. And it has caught me at an interesting time when I’m struggling with global pessimism, but feeling strangely peaceful and grounded in myself.

When Brexit came, as Aleppo was being bombed, when Trump was elected, as the climate changes, the temptation is to sink further into despair or to be wildly indignant on Facebook or Twitter — to join the clamour or to hide. I don’t feel comfortable with either of these positions. Something deeper is going on — on not going on — that needs paying attention to.

Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ poem just came to mind…

Like many of us, however, I have been asking myself, what can I do? One signpost came from my always-wise-friend, Dave Hicks who wrote this about how the work of soulmaking and unpsychology might move forward : “…given all that has changed over the last year I wonder whether our focus should be on living in Challenging Times (the best of times, the worst of times) supported by soulful understanding…”

This is my first attempt to travel down Dave’s path and frame a response. It is uncertain and unfinished …

The crisis — political, ecological, psychological?

I am finding it difficult to respond to the events of the past few months — and the years in which the events have been building. I have been trying to track back and see where all this has come from — a sudden realisation that fascism may actually be growing in the world’s most powerful nation — the place from where so much of the radical thinking and action I admire has emerged. And the wider danger, of course, that this particularly 21st century version of populist, right-wing authoritarianism will spread.

Most analysis sees the crisis as political and economic— and it is both these things, of course — but in responding to these, what has been missing from many responses, has been the awareness of the precedents. Although the US election results seem almost to have come out of nowhere, a closer look at the way we’ve been heading might have given us a clue. Michael Moore, of course, did call it, and like he says “Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now”. For post-election gloom and acuity, I’ve been drawn to Umair Haque’s short essays on how the contemporary global situation can be seen as the early stages of fascism.

Of course there’s also another strong strand of thought that regards this crisis as fundamentally different from other human crises. To some extent this has been building outside the political and cultural mainstream, and also something to say about ‘Trumpland’ — not specifically about the man or the politics, but more about locating these symptoms–Brexit, Trump, Refugees and so on — as part of a wider narrative about the malaise and decline of a civilisation. Because it is broadly focussed on the global cultural denial of the inevitability that worst-case-scenario Climate Change will now occur, we have to see the crisis as fundamentally ecological.

In 2009, when the Dark Mountain Manifesto first emerged, its analysis was condemned as overly pessimistic, even by radical ecological writers like George Monbiot. Now, the mainstream predictions about climate change and global warming are at least as bad as the worst prediction back then — and many commentators are beginning to despair and acknowledge that human civilisation, as we know it, is unlikely to be able to sustain itself within predicted parameters. Monbiot himself reflects this despair, but doesn’t lose his hope, and is still one the writers who is prepared to join the dots when responding to this stuff.

Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
(Dark Mountain Manifesto, 2009)

As well as the above, and as acknowledged by a number of writers for years now, the crisis is also psychological. This strand, combined with the ecological analysis, has been strangely hopeful and positivist: whilst many ecopsychology commentators have started with a pessimistic analysis (we’ve lost our connection with earth and nature; children are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder; our destruction and exploitation of the planet and other lifeforms has meant that we, humans, have also suffered psychologically), many have come up with more optimistic responses (we can turn Climate Change around; we can send our children back into the woods; we can — even at this late stage of industrial capitalism— come up with responses that will put us back in touch with what Frances Moore Lappe calls our ‘Eco-Mind’).

Ecopsychology connects how, collectively and individually, we are feeling and how we are behaving in relation to the earth, but it does has different strands, and it is all too easy for practitioners and thinkers to fall back to cultural mythologies such as locating psychological wellbeing and dysfunction in the individual or, worse, trundling down new-age pathways that might feel good for the person chanting or going back to nature, but can just look like woo-woo hippydom to others — and can therefore be rejected out of hand.

As Will Falk so eloquently and poignantly argued (in an essay recently reposted in this publication), this ecopsychological strand may have failed to do its work in educating people sufficiently to see what is going on and what is being done. He frames it in relation to his little nephew, Thomas, and there’s a plaintive cry of grief in his words: “Even if we succeed in keeping our children physically safe, in this time of ecological collapse we cannot shield their souls from the psychological effects of the destruction”.

Of course, Will was asking specifically why the promise of Ecopsychology has not made a difference: “We live in a hell where our very experience is being destroyed. Ecopsychology was supposed to lead us out of this hell. It was going to do this by bringing together ecology and psychology to attack the illusion that we are fundamentally isolated from each other, the natural world, and ourselves”.

The crisis we are facing that “changes everything” is, as Naomi Klein points out, about all of the above, but is so fundamentally different from previous human cultural and political crises.

I’m one of those who thought that ecologically and socially informed psychological thinking could and would make a difference, but I’m not blind to the magnitude of the problem we now face. The truth is that the psychological scales are now tipped almost entirely the other way. People are not making more connection as the scales fall from their eyes — they are battening down the hatches and going for the short-term fix and the fearful, protective glance at the ‘other’. Arbitrary boundaries are being drawn up between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and — in terms of the ‘us’ now being defined by the likes of Trump, Bannon and their ilk in the US, and Le Pen, Farage and a host of others waiting in the wings on this side of the pond — refugees, migrants, muslims, activists, liberals (including self defined subsets such as feminists, ecopsychologists — even mainstream Conservatives) are all becoming part of the ‘them’.

A crisis of spirit

One of the most perceptive and enlightening pieces I’ve read since the election was one by Kieryn Darkwater on the systematic culture war being waged by what they term “the far-right evangelical conservative (Christofascist) movement” in the USA. It is a frightening read, and says a lot, to me, about the way in which the ordinariness of fascism’s psychology can grows. In short, according to Drinkwater, there is a mainstream culture out there that is hell-bent on creating an American theocracy, and its growth has contributed directly to the election of Trump.

Ironically, this has never seemed to be about religion for me — there is no real basis for the view that this is a ‘culture war’ between Christians and Muslims. Nor is is it true, as populists and the alt-Right argue, that the ‘left’ is being selective in their condemnation of say, Trump’s misogyny and racism, on the one hand, whilst ignoring, say, Saudi Arabia’s brutality, on the other.

These are meaningless words and facile arguments, intended to confuse, divide and obscure. They are delivered by hollow men (mainly men, but some women too), who — regardless of religion — lack any sense of depth, perception, compassion and, yes, spirit. They are empty men stuffed with consumption, self-regard, greed and glib certainties. And over generations they and their kind have fed us — and many of us have swallowed — these partial truths and lies built on anger and fear.

This is madness, of course. As Michael Adzema puts it: “It certainly seems people are quite crazy to be going about their lives as normal … blocking all this out, denying it … while the lives of their children are at stake assuming they don’t even care about their own. It seems people don’t just not care about their lives, they appear actually to want to die”.

And looking at how we are living out this crisis, he concludes that: “It is true. People are fucking nuts. We need an entirely new category in the psychiatrists’ manual, the DSM-5, for this new type of mental disorder.”

It certainly seems people are quite crazy to be going about their lives as normal … blocking all this out, denying it … while the lives of their children are at stake
(Michael Adzema, 2016)

So, the psychological crisis is real, but things might be even worse than we suspected. Our therapy culture tells us that we can cure or heal psychological ills (or mental illness) with talking therapies or drugs. It is a clinical problem. But this crisis cannot be done away with by pills and talking. It can’t be healed one person at a time.

The crisis we are facing — that we have been facing for generations — is a civilisation-wide crisis of spirituality. The destruction we have wrought, the fascism that is growing, the unhappiness many of us live with, the mad normality in which most of us live our lives in the shadow of crisis — are symptoms of mass craziness.

And many of those who have the wisdoms of human history at their fingertips, who could be the ones leading us out of crisis, are the craziest of all — reverting to versions of their religions that are tribal rather than transcending, crazy rather than compassionate.

Yet, at the heart of craziness, we see emptiness.

Our spiritual leaders could have been the ones who help us bring it all together; to say to us, “Hey, here’s what science and psychology and intuition offer us in the 21st century”, and “Look, here’s some ancient wisdoms that help us make some sense of it all!”. Instead, we have found ourselves in a battle between spirit and science, as if they were ever truly separate, as if they didn’t both have something essential to bring to the human condition.

There are some voices like this that are trying to be heard, of course, but the hollow men are louder and have taken religion and deliberately twisted them into fundamental forces of ugliness, violence and disconnection — whilst simultaneously forcing the messages of true spirit (which has something profoundly important to say about ethics) out of the mainstream political arena.

The crisis we are facing — that we have been facing for generations — is a civilisation-wide crisis of spirituality.

We are left with these zealous, hollow men with their unbounded self confidence and desire for power, who are driving us all, and our (and their) children, towards oblivion. Men who have nothing to say that is nuanced or poetic or beautiful or spiritual — or truly important in the grand scheme of things. Men who have built boundaries and walls around our culture so that it that only values consumption, utilisation and acquisition as the measures of human worth and achievement.

This might sound dramatic and overly pessimistic. After all, there are good people marching, practicing, worshiping and researching. Scientists, experts, artist, priests and entrepreneurs whose hearts really and truly are in the right place. But we’ve all been sidestepped and taken for fools. We’ve played their game and accepted their rules, and now half the population (and growing) believes this shit.

Even the poets can’t save us now

This is the way the world ends
 This is the way the world ends
 This is the way the world ends
 Not with a bang but a whimper.
(TS Eliot, The Hollow Men)

Twenty years ago, Richard Reese (who now writes the eco-blog, “What is Sustainable”), wrote an essay from the wilderness entitled, “Only the poets can save us now”. You can still find it, and it’s a disturbing read, not least because, back then, what he wrote might have seemed alarmist and defeatist, and now simply seems inevitable.

It wasn’t a hopeful piece. Reece calmly argues that if we go on the way we are going, we will destroy ourselves and the planetary habitats that sustain our species. The planet itself, will go on, of course, as he points out: “Human beings are among the newest and youngest of all the creatures on Earth. We are so new that we have yet to truly integrate into any of the bioregions on the planet. Not a single ecosystem depends on us. If human beings disappeared tomorrow, no ecosystem would collapse, or even be harmed. Indeed, in most places, the disappearance of humans would be beneficial”.

He writes that what makes human beings human is our stories and that: “Good stories produce cultures that live in balance with the Earth, and bad stories produce cultures like the one you see around you. Stories created our problems, but stories can be changed. Stories must be changed. Only the poets can save us now”.

As a poet, I used to be comforted by this thought. Poets and storytellers (and artists and musicians) are, after all, the witnesses to our cultural ups and downs. They are the ones who can tell it how it is, so that others can see. Perhaps, I used to think, people will begin to read these stories, and wake up. We will, like was done after WW2, come together to agree on a global universal declaration for the Climate; a peacetime campaign of shared passion and commitment that will reverse the crisis.

I was wrong — or if I was right, it all seems to have come too late. What now seems more likely is that we will gradually descend into a dystopia — punctuated by more of the kinds of disasters and tragedies that we have started to see in this century. Waters will rise. Lands will be lost. People will seek refuge. Others will seek to keep them out. There will be conflict and pain and our civilisation will slowly die.

What is there to hope for then — if it is too late even for the poets?

This is where I am unsure. I have no certainties. I only know who I love and what I can do with the people I work with. Broadly speaking I can help — through my teaching and coaching work — individuals and groups to move along their own journey into this uncertain, troubled future. I can love my granddaughters and keep them as safe as I am able — but I know that I may not be able to do anything to prevent their generation from having to face the worst of times to come.

I can still write — my poetry and other stuff — and this may, in the moment, give comfort and joy to those who read my words — and to me in writing them.

Some people are more hopeful than this — or more certain. I certainly hope for things to get better — notwithstanding the odds — and I would be as happy as anyone if a big T — technological solution came along to solve Climate Change. Some people are putting their faith in technology and sustainable business; others in what remains of the international community (minus, it seems, Trump’s Brave New America). Yet others have an intuition that we humans are on the edge of some great spiritual and cultural evolution (though I’m not sure if the Earth will care much about this and start cooling in celebration) and others are just putting their faith in…well faith. Others will march and protest, and maybe something will come of these movements. Many people will just hide out, hoping beyond hope that the flames do not reach them.

I may hit on a more hopeful seam in days to come, so let me explore where it might lead —

As I sit in the here-and-now considering all this, the only way I can see we humans moving forward into whatever future we have in front of us (if we are not to destroy each other or continue the misery) is to get deep; to fill ourselves up spiritually, poetically, creatively, artistically, scientifically, relationally, empathetically and ecologically.

I still have faith (that word again) in a life openly and soulfully lived — and I believe (I think) that a life lived in the pursuit of knowledge, beauty and soul is much less likely to have hate and striving and emptiness in it.

One day, the hollow men may not hold sway — and this may be sooner that I think. There may be a transformation, a reckoning, a reconciliation. There may still be a moment on which the world turns, and we are able to fill ourselves up with all that is best about being human.

One day, perhaps.

Until then you’re welcome to come and sit or walk with me. Maybe we’ll walk along Newgale beach in the springtime, and feel comfort in each others presence. Then we’ll look at the dying sunlight in the sky and feel wonder. We’ll look at each other, see something familiar and smile.

And what will this poet leave you with in the calm aftermath of the storm? A reminder of the only certainty I can hold right now: that there is simple joy in the world, and while we are alive it is open to us all.

“Poets, be cunning. Learn some of the miracles. Survive. Weave your transformations in your life as in your work. Live. Stay alive. Don’t go under, don’t go mad, don’t let them define you, or confine you, or buy your silence”.
(Ben Okri, A way of being free, 1997)