Rewilding Hope, Detaching Cyclically, and Remaining Positive
It's good to work hard, play hard, rest hard, and repeat this cycle often.
Posted Jan 15, 2020
We live in a troubled and wounded world that is in dire need of healing. We all should be troubled and terrified by what we have done and continue to do. Humans are an arrogant lot and we have made huge and horrific global messes that need to be repaired. The overriding sense of turmoil is apparent to anyone who takes the time to pay attention.
Zoe Weil's excellent personal essay, "The Promise and Perils of Detachment," made me think about a lot of issues concerning the unwavering effort it takes to work on behalf of nonhuman animals (animals) and for the planet as a whole during extremely difficult times. She writes:
"I’ve come to the conclusion that detachment should not be our goal. Our goal should be equanimity. Defined as 'mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation,' equanimity doesn’t mean we are detached from suffering, harm, and wrong; it means we do not rage at and judge others when the world needs us to build bridges; that we do not drown in our sorrows when the world needs us to bear them and carry on with compassionate acts."
It's most unfortunate that the Anthropocene, or "the age of humanity," really is "the rage of INhumanity," and many people are struggling to make things better and survive in a world in which destruction and violence toward animals and the Earth are far too common and accepted by far too many as business as usual. They suffer from different sorts of burnout, including compassion and empathy fatigue. (See "Empathy Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Among Animal Rescuers.")
Here are a few thoughts that came to me as I read Zoe's essay and when I thought about it on a long training ride when ideas about detachment—jumping off my bike during really hard efforts and calling it quits—came to the fore more than once. Much of what I write below comes from lessons from my incredibly optimistic and energetic father, and at the time he was saying these things or just doing them, I had no idea they'd so often come back to me many years later and on so many different occasions. Let me also be clear: I don't think what he stressed and what I try to do are necessarily panaceas for everyone, but they've worked for me and many others with whom I've had contact over the years. I always attribute my compassion for nonhuman animals to my mother's warm and compassionate soul. My parents were both very important for my stubbornly keeping my dreams alive.
The 12 P's of rewilding and maintaining hope
One of my first thoughts focused on Zoe's argument against detachment and her ideas about equanimity. They made me think about what I call the "12 P's of rewilding"—being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, passionate, playful, present, principled, and proud. Since I published Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, the P's have grown from 8 to 12 based on discussions with a variety of people. I like to think of them as playing a role in "rewilding hope" and they also directly bear on achieving equanimity and what follows about detaching cyclically when necessary.
Practicing detaching cyclically and not allowing people to waste precious time and energy
Being concerned about the plight of animals and our planet is similar to physical and psychological training for various sorts of activities, and activism can be a costly activity. It's easy to over-train or overdo it in many different venues. On my ride today—after I decided to continue on no matter how tired I was—I also thought about what I call "cyclical detachment." When people tell me that they've burned out or are on a fast track to becoming burned out, I often suggest that they step back from whatever it is that's causing these feelings of fatigue and hopelessness and take some time off to take care of themselves.
Personally, what works for me is to work hard, play hard, rest hard, and repeat this cycle as often as necessary, especially when it feels like there's little or no hope. Playing and resting hard are parts of cyclically detaching from whatever it is that's wearing me down. And practicing the routine can work wonders. What's key is to recognize that when things simply get to be too much and the easy-to-understand tendency is to give up in exhaustion, it's best to stop what you're doing, rest your head, heart, and body, and do something else. Rather than thinking, "Oh no, another ride" or "Oh my, another abusive situation with which to deal," step aside, do something else, rest, rekindle, and get back to what you love to do.
I've found it useful to simply tell myself to go do something else that's fun and exciting and throw in a good deal of rest along the way so that I can rekindle my efforts and energy to work on behalf of other animals and our magnificent planet, both of which need all the help they can get. To this end, when things feel "too much," I'm more likely to go on a bike ride, read a no-brainer book, or watch a movie of a similar ilk. And I never feel that I get less done when I play hard and rest hard before returning to the work that needs to be done. In fact, I usually realize that I get more done with a refreshed and rekindled brain and body.
I also run a group called "Animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation," an international array of people with diverse interests. I post a lot of material to this group on all sides of many issues centering on animal protection and protecting Earth—of course, they're closely related—and on occasion, when the "bad news" outweighs the "good news," I simply don't post anything bad for balance. I feel it helps group members and me, and some have thanked me for caring about their and my well-being and trying to balance the good and the bad, no matter how difficult.
Concerning burnout that can also come from wasting time with people who seem to get paid to waste our time or deflect attention from the work that needs to be done, I simply suggest don't get involved in useless pissing matches; don't waste an ounce of precious and finite time and energy. Be kind to those with whom you disagree and move on. And don't worry about the goals per se—there's no reason to be attached to them as if the tail's wagging the dog, so to speak—but rather, do the work and know that something good will come from your efforts when you're ready to do what has to be done.
Where to from here?
Shut it down when necessary, achieve balance, rewild and rekindle hope, and get on with the work at hand for peaceful coexistence. I'm not meaning to be preachy, but what I've written above has worked for me and others who have devoted many years to issues centering on animal protection and the health of our planet. From a practical point of view, one bottom line is when things get tough and you're feeling challenged, down, and ready to give up, shut it down for a while, rekindle, and get back to the hard work when you're ready. There's no doubt that animal suffering will continue in all corners of the world and the lives of countless other animals are imperiled. However, there also are "good" things happening and these can be used to keep us inspired and engaged when it looks like there's little or no hope.
Zoe Weil writes:
"While the Gita instructs us not to become attached to either outcomes or inaction, it never suggests that we shouldn’t be attached to doing what is right and necessary. To the contrary: The Gitademands that we act, doing so with discipline and building a practice of equanimity."
She's right on the mark.
Sadly, it's true that the work for other animals and Earth is never done, and in an increasingly human-dominated world with other animals experiencing "the rage of inhumanity," it's unlikely that there will be any shortage of work that needs to be done for hapless and innocent animals who globally are on the receiving end of human arrogance, disregard, and disrespect. Simply put, they need us and it's clear that we also need them.
Another bottom line is: Take care of yourself and good things will follow because you'll have the drive, energy, and time to do the work that needs to be done. And we all need to work together to make the Earth a better and more humane place for all beings and for deep and enduring coexistence to become the norm. We're a strong community and we need to harness all the strength we can. A good rule of thumb is, "Put it out there, don't fight with other people, and move on to doing other positive things for animals and Earth."
Balance is key, and practice makes perfect. We need to work hard, play hard, and rest hard—to take care of ourselves—to avoid burnout and long-term or permanent detachment from a world in which violence toward animals and Earth are far too commonplace and doing nothing and stepping aside seem like the most viable options. Clearly, they're not, and they surely won't work to make the world a better place for everyone, nonhuman and human.
Thanks to Zoe for an inspirational and very thoughtful essay.
_____. How to Make the World Better for Nonhuman Animals. (In this essay I asked members of my "Animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation" group, an international array of people with diverse interests, to respond in 12 or fewer words to the question "How can we make the world better for nonhuman animals?" Many of their responses are included in this piece.)
Ma, Lybi. Take a Walk on the Rewild Side.
For more on the Anthropocene being "the rage of inhumanity," click here.