Do you remember when there were shootings in Paris? You probably do, it wasn’t all that long ago, and the world watched as the city of light went into lockdown and mourning. Do you remember when a high school in a Colorado town gasped in astonishment when one of their own kids turned on his peers? You probably do, because the world watched as the school went into lockdown and the community into mourning. Do you remember all of the other tragic, rage-filled violent events that filled in the years between then and what has once again happened, this time in Orlando? You probably do, at least vaguely, unless you were directly affected, in which case, you probably think about it more than you want to. It’s not easy to forget things that are so far outside of normal life that they just seem like movies or bad dreams.
But back to the present: This week the world has witnessed once again an act of violence and terror that is hard to fathom. Lives were lost, fear is rampant, and hate seems to drive the violent act as well as our response. The world seems further from peace than ever before. In the last 20 years acts of unthinkable violence against myriad groups across the world have become, as much as I hate to type the words, normal. It will, of course, never be “normal” to inflict harm on another living creature, but it has somehow become common. My four year old will never know a world where September 11 didn’t happen and she will probably always have to take her shoes off to fly on a commercial airplane and walk through a metal detector to enter a school. She will never know a world where the word “terrorist” and “refugee” and “mass shooting” weren’t once a regular part of dinner conversation. It feels like she will never know a world that doesn’t respond to hate and violence with more hate and violence.
The world events that we hear about via all forms of media, and those events that even sometimes personally affect us, still seem unthinkable. But I’ve noticed that I’m no longer surprised by them. In fact, just last week I caught myself thinking, “huh, there hasn’t been a rage-filled/terrorist/shooting style tragedy in awhile.”
Environmental activist Derrick Jensen would describe this as a declining baseline.
This phenomenon is something we all encounter daily, even if some of us rarely notice it. It happens often enough to have a name: declining baselines. The phrase describes the process of becoming accustomed to and accepting as normal worsening conditions. Along with normalization can come a forgetting that things were not always this way. And this can lead to further acceptance and further normalization, which leads to further amnesia, and so on.
I can only hope that by allowing love to dictate our actions and response to the actions of others, we won’t let ourselves get swept into thinking that this type of situation is business as usual. That we won’t be swept into the patterns of answering hate with more hate and violence with more violence. I can only hope that by refusing to let our baselines decline any further, we can somehow be present in a way that will help this very broken world to start to heal.
Baselines can be slippery. We best hold onto the ones that remind us what being human is supposed to feel like. And it’s not supposed to feel full of rage and violence and mourning.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, has a response that I like to re-read when things like this take place. I hope it helps you, too.
My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope.
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
Let us all set sail in the ways in which we are called, in order to spread the light that is still here in the world. See you on the high seas, friends. Be the calm in the storm.