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Crisis as opportunity: the choice of no-choice

Our unprecedented crisis is also an equally unprecedented opportunity to get our act together, to finally get things right, to live in the life-valuing ways that make life worth living

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and author of Resilience and Resistance: Building Sustainable Communities for a Post Oil Age (2015, Green Writers Press).

Athens

Ironically, what is potentially most promising about our situation today is that the same circumstances that confront us with social collapse also conspire to present us with an opportunity to finally create and live the values-informed existence we have been searching for all along, and that we now require more than ever, as a condition of our very survival.

As the Chinese ideograms for the word suggest, crisis is a time not only of great danger, but of singular opportunity, as well. The origin of “crisis” is Greek, designating a decisive moment when life is on the tip of imminent and profound change, when matters could go one way or another.

While there is no question that our situation is fraught with peril that points to the demise of our civilization in the not-too-distant future, it is because of this very condition — our lives on the line, social collapse pending, time running out — that our civilization is also pregnant with transformative possibilities.

But — and this is critical — if the latter are to be realized, they require us to be awake to their presence in our lives, and to then act on them as if our lives depended upon it. Because of course they do.

* * *

Everything is in flux. We have entered what Joanna Macy calls “the great unraveling.” That which we thought was certain is now in doubt. The old normal is coming apart; it is no longer dependable and predictable. We can’t count on that which, just the day before, we took for granted, and assumed would be here forever.

What we assumed was factual turns out to be fake, and lies are routinely consumed as truth. “Common decency” would be added to the endangered species list ... if there was any common decency to do so. We elect gangsters to be our leaders and then are surprised when they behave as gangsters.

Though “the man’s” rules are completely discredited, so many of us continue to play by them as if they will eventually work for us if we just try harder.

The empire is collapsing. Always a charade for the vast majority of citizens — among them, people of color and women — the American dream is increasingly exposed to the rest of us for the nightmare it is. At this time of pending social collapse, the rich continue to profit big time at the expense of the poor, who suffer more than ever.

The same civilization, whose alleged triumph over nature we’ve been so thoroughly schooled in, is displaying cracks; its warp and woof is coming apart, throwing into serious question our increasingly discredited belief that we’re in control.

We discover that Mother does indeed bat last.

* * *

Despite how frightening the demise of the old faiths and certitudes, nevertheless this same chaos is also the creative ground for the transformative possibilities we seek. It does so, quire simply, because of its potential to awaken us to the basic law of life — the impermanent nature that informs our every moment.

Life is incessant change. It’s not that we don’t “know” this, at least cerebrally; it’s that despite our “knowing,” we don’t live our lives with the mindfulness in the moment that a true awareness of our temporary existence would exhibit. We don’t live as if each moment counts and that life cannot be fully lived that is postponed to tomorrow.

Instead, we struggle to construct a governable, submissive way of life that has guaranteed outcomes, imposing our will upon reality to make it conform to our expectations of the way life should be, rather than living it as it is.

This is the paradigm of the “old normal.” Rather than approach each day — each moment — with the wisdom that arises when we accept life for what it is, we try to control life, instead: to freeze the moment of perpetual change into a static representation.

* * *

Crisis removes these illusions about life. Though it does so through exceptionally dramatic expressions, it nevertheless demonstrates in bold relief what is true about life all the time, including the most routine and mundane moments.

Change is always happening. Civilization is nothing more than human’s feeble attempt to impose order upon this inherently disorderly energy — this life force — of which we are momentary examples, here one moment, gone the next.

As present circumstances vividly demonstrate — a new global pandemic, an accelerating climate apocalypse, the supplanting of democracy by fascism, the imminent collapse of our economy, and so forth — we cannot hope to return to what we wishful-think to have been some golden age in the past, not only because what we imagine is pure fantasy, but also because this same past is where the present state of serial crises originated. They didn’t just drop out of the sky one day.

Recognizing this situation for what it is, we are left with the choice of no-choice. We come home to what is truly important in life and are thus able to respond to our circumstances appropriately, to do the right thing. When we truly appreciate life for the momentary affair that it is, we value life in heartfelt ways. We live life completely.

In so doing, our intrinsic moral center that has been largely in the shadow of our civilized existence emerges, as do our efforts to be in control.

The good news is that we are not starting from square one; we are by birth the good people we need to be. We are values-centered people who can potentially be true to ourselves and our values in our everyday lives anytime we choose.

This is the choice of no-choice. Otherwise, we are left with only the “choice” of the barbarism that our civilization was founded and built upon as it completes its life-negating descent into absolute nihilism.

* * *

The possibility of transformation can be realized only if we seize this opportunity to live a moral existence that is based upon a reverence for life in the midst of the unavoidable chaos that is increasingly enveloping us. We can only succeed, that is, by being our best at a time when we are facing the worst.

The additional good news is that people have demonstrated a tendency to exhibit the exemplary beings we potentially are at those moments when circumstances are seemingly the least propitious for doing so. It is precisely when things are coming unstuck, and what we have counted on to get us through our days has turned upside down, that transformative possibilities emerge, and are acted upon.

This is when imagination and creativity, integrity and courage, and loving kindness and compassion are more likely to surface in our everyday lives.

Unleashed from their civilized constraints, our hearts are empowered to be who we are. When we instinctively know we no longer have any choice but to finally live our life as a fully-grown human being, we come to recognize that accepting life as it is and living that life with an unconditioned and unconditional heart is the only realistic way to go.

We rise to the occasion.

As challenging as our unprecedented crisis is, it nevertheless is an equally unprecedented opportunity to get our act together, to finally get things right, to live in the life-valuing ways that make life worth living.

In this scenario, existence becomes simplified, reduced to its essentials, stripped of the extraneous matter that we have been carrying around and attached to as the property of “I.”

Unoccupied space opens up to operate in. We become more accepting of and receptive to that which we rejected earlier as outside of our comfort zone. Our heart values, which have been closeted in our efforts to dominate and control, now emerge into the light of day and are acted upon through a consistent moral practice in our daily lives. They become real, not simply politically correct rhetoric, but an active player.

Our hearts open and are more accessible to others as well as to ourselves; our behaviors are increasingly compatible with our values as a person of heart. That is what a life-threatening crisis can do for us; in a moment of existential emergency: we live every moment as if it is our last.

And while there is no guarantee about the outcome, it is also possible that choosing to be the good person we inherently are could well prove to be the midwife of the life we have wanted all along — one that makes sense because it resonates with an unmistakable sense of sanity: of being right.

Being real is the only way this happens.

* * *

Our issue, therefore, becomes not one of returning to some illusory past or saving ourselves for some kind of fantasized future, but of living our lives now, in the present moment, as wholehearted, righteous beings.

In this way, even if we do flame out and go flying over the precipice of no return, at least we do so on our own terms, being true to ourselves, and not selling out as the price for living one more day of an unfree, unjust, unlivable existence.

The times we are living in call on us to exhibit both moral courage and personal integrity, to be true to our heart’s loving essence. We are potentially the people we need to be: we only need to act as these people now.

With that in mind, we close with one final piece of good news: this potential is increasingly being evinced even as I write and you read these words.

There are countless examples of people around the globe, as well as right next door — perhaps you are one of them! — who are engaged in efforts to build resilient, adaptable communities, promote social justice, and work for peace and freedom, each in our own ways.

There is a growing movement of citizens who get it. Who are working for the decent world that most of us want. Who are increasingly practicing the values-informed behaviors that are at the heart of the transformative change we seek.

We are not alone!

In essence, we recognize that we can no longer afford the luxury of putting off our lives to sometime other than now. We are privileged to be living at a time when our situation is one that commands personal and collective excellence. Every moment of life counts.

As “the man” said back in the day, this is the worst of times and the best of times. Most of all, it’s a very special time to be alive.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #562 (Wednesday, May 20, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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