I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
~“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.
Three weeks after I turned 10, a military coup took power of my home country overnight. Only those following politic and social issues closely knew it was coming, it wasn’t much a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”…the “how” would remain uncertain and nobody could have predicted the horrors that ensued.
After months of sleeping in different people’s houses and being transported overnight in the back of trucks, heads covered, waking up in unknown places all the time; seeing my mom change into an unrecognizable and much older woman and what has been my world, sink away (home, family, friends, school, clothes, books, photographs, toys, all gone), I was finally put in a train…
Neither the 17-year-old boy who was my just-met companion nor I knew where we were going or who was waiting on the other side.
At that time, climate change was not even an issue: while it had started, there was nothing in the media. My mom, ant and uncle’s activism was all about social justice. Still, the world as we knew it broke into pieces, people were persecuted and tortured, the rule of law changed overnight, people lost homes, family members, things they have bought and collected with love, friends, connections, jobs and for some, their lives, fates and identities were lost forever. They remain as the “desaparecidos” (those who disappeared).
Nobody could have anticipated the horrors human beings can do to others when power and the sense of control are into play. Nobody could have planned or prepared, there was no time for mitigation and no way to “adapt” to that chaos: there are certain collapses where nothing known works, and those are the moments when we can lose our sanity.
Those are also the moments when we show who we really are, our true values and beliefs, our real skills. Those are the moments when life fights back with all she has.
There is a book called “The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes and why” by Amanda Ripley that talks about how people who have rehearsed certain scenarios in their minds, seem to have more chances to do “the right thing”, survive and support others when something unexpected happens.
Those skills (some physical or cognitive skills about how to do something) are great when something is sudden and unexpected and there is a realistic expectation that things would become “normal” again after the chaos, suffering and loss pass or diminish.
There are other scenarios where things deteriorate slowly, sometimes rapidly, but there’s no visible way out. We all know stories and books of individuals and communities who have survived through wars, genocides, famines, etc. and most of the skills they highlight have not so much to do with the basics of life (food, water, shelter, etc.) as with spiritual, psychological and relational/social skills.
This has been one of the topics I have explored the most, maybe because it is true that our gifts do come from our wounds: for decades and since very young, I have had a real and never ending curiosity (which in some cases has become a passion where I became an “expert” and started giving back those skills through workshops) for survivalism, primitive and wilderness skills, homesteading, first aid, emergency and disaster preparation and permaculture design.
But with time, and as some very real challenges prevent me from fully applying some of these skills, I have slowly moved into the more spiritual/psychological/relational skills: maybe is the way of elders, to leave the more physical and practical to the young, while we adopt a wider perspective or “wisdom”, maybe is just the normal development of life as it evolves in us.
With the recent sharing of the Deep Adaptation paper (which I highly suggest you read or listen to), all this has re-surfaced: for a while, it stayed dormant as I explored ecopsychology, wilderness connection, the Art of Hosting, holding space, life coaching, regenerative livelihood design, the Work that Reconnects and so on.
What has always amazed me is how people respond to things that cause fear, anxiety or pain: there is paralysis, there is obsession, there is withdrawal, denial, delusion, bargaining, running around in circles, blaming, becoming nihilist and skeptical or lashing out at the minor provocation (or perceived provocation) and there are the emergent and overnight experts who have all the solutions and answers. There are those who call to action. In all these responses (all natural responses to fear, pain, anxiety), there are also behaviours: some would research and read, torturing themselves and others with information (they are trying to proof right, sometimes wrong that this is really happening); others will try to approach everyone and talk about it and their feelings (they usually come back wounded and feeling isolated and misunderstood by a family or community who “doesn’t get it”); others will become curious and open and will get into forums and groups, take courses and buy books, trying to prepare themselves but not necessarily acting upon what they hear, read and learn; yet others will jump to action, some with long planning and thinking, others without much, trusting they’ll learn as they go.
None of the above is right or wrong: they are phases of a non-linear process. Our brains are systems (as everything else in this universe is), when a system is disrupted, it tries different approaches to regain balance. When going back to what was known is not possible, sometimes parts, sometimes the entire system structure changes and we find a “new normal”…but because it is a process, we are never “there”, and it can feel as if we will never get to where we would like to be.
Because we have been living a global-scale delusion for 100+ years (the story that we can have it all and that we can control life), the anguish about things not being this way going forward is very valid and real.
We have no idea of what’s coming. But we want to control the outcome: we want to “fix” things and find solutions.
Make no mistake: I have experienced all the phases above within myself, and I have observed them in others. I come back to some of them sometimes, but the awareness of what they are (processes, phases, responses from my mind to very scary potential future scenarios, so it feels “safe”) helps me to dance with them instead of feeling stuck forever.
As I shared at the beginning, there is really no “right” way to prepare for the uncertain. There is no precedent to what’s coming: as humankind and for some of us at the personal level, we have lived through wars, famines, genocides, torture, displacement, natural disasters, financial and societal collapse, even collapse of empires and ecosystems, but all these things have been localized, never at global scale, and never with the potential of “all together”.
Whatever we decide to do, some things will work, and others won’t: some resources and tools, skills and choices will come very handy, others may become a burden or be completely useless.
So, what is the response? We just come back to our jobs, schools, relationships and entertainment until the SHTF?
I would suggest that there are a few things that seem to be present in all the stories of survival and thriving, in all stories of life evolution and across species, times, cultures and beliefs:
While you’ll see more “practical” tools in some of my posts (and I used to have two blogs that I closed and deleted in 2018, one on permaculture and another on disaster preparedness), if you can take anything from me, I wish this is it:
Your best choice is (paraphrasing Mary Oliver’s poem above), to love with all your heart and to learn to let go when the time of letting go comes
“When your worries are louder than howling winds
and your strength is growing, but growing thin,
and things are breaking more than they bend,
that is when you have reached the end: the perfect place to start again.”
~Morgan Harper Nichols