know sorrow, find joy

You who love this miraculous Earth, will you allow yourself to grieve?

It’s a Friday morning and I’m at another workshop, hungry for insights and skills that I can integrate into my life-coaching practice. I tell myself that I’m only here because I may learn something that could help my clients. I don’t really need a workshop on Grieving and Healing Loss. Or so I think.

It’s been a while since I have lost anyone close to me. So when we’re asked to explain what brought us to the workshop, it’s not the loss of a person that comes to mind. Instead, I find myself speaking about the Earth. So many losses … the daily erosion of wild places and people’s traditions, the whittling away of diversity, the poisoning of air and water, the fraying of nature’s web. The group listens quietly and attentively. I begin to cry.

Others also describe their losses – of loved ones, long careers, self-respect, and more. Our vulnerability sanctifies the space and allows us to face emotions we can’t even remember having buried.

Experiencing loss can be traumatic. And often in modern society we experience this trauma alone, without family, community or rituals to support us. So we do the best we can – we stiffen the upper lip, dissociate, rage, blame, justify, numb – anything to save ourselves from drowning in the fullness of our grief.

I realise that I have reacted in many ways to avoid falling into the pit of environmental grief. I have intellectualised environmental issues and sought rational solutions. I have resorted to feverish effort, which certainly helped to distract me from the pain of loss. I have experienced anxiety, frustration and anger at our apparent reluctance to live simply on a finite planet. And having seen, felt and reasoned too much, I have also withdrawn. Seeking the safety of bland emotions, I have experienced the numbness of depression. In truth, until this workshop, I have not felt ready to face and honour my grief about the Earth. But I am ready now, prepared by many quiet hours alone in nature, and by practices that have brought my attention back to my heart.

The facilitator asks us to write a letter to that which we have lost. After writing, we read our letters to the group. In expressing how important my relationship with the Earth is to me, how much I value it, and how much I miss what is being lost, I finally recognise that beneath all the fear, anger, rationalising, activity and numbness lies a deep pit of grief.

I fall into that pit. I fill it with my tears. But I do not drown. Instead, I float in a pool of compassion – in the shared humanity of all of us in that group who have known loss, who have done what we could to survive, and who now experience the unexpected gifts of grief – the experience of our own courage, and an expanded capacity for joy.

Many years ago, my mother shared with me a quote from Kahlil Gibran. It comes back to me now: The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. So this is what she was talking about. We don’t experience joy by avoiding pain. We can’t numb our emotions selectively. If we want to fully identify with this Earth, then our hearts need to open wide to both the grief and the joy of belonging.

I feel that I have had a taste of what Joanna Macy writes about in her book Coming back to life – practices to reconnect our lives, our world. She points to the profound existential changes that occur when we own and use, rather than repress, our pain for the world.

For years I was not able to face my grief about the despoliation of the Earth. I retreated into my head where it felt safer. I thought that I could work things out rationally. But it was not enough. I am one with the Earth. This is a relationship of love – and like any deep love it will both fill my heart with joy, and devastate it with sorrow.

There is a stirring in my heart. Such is the mystery of love.




A letter to the Earth

Dear Mother Earth

You mean everything to me. You are my home, the source of my life, my hope for the future, my muse. The picture of you hanging in the emptiness of space enchants me. That paper-thin atmosphere, held close by the attraction of your gravity, is my breath, my food. I love you, I value you, I thank you.

Your body is infinitely complex and beautiful – and I am part of that – a unique piece of that fractal experience. Being part of the community of life is an exquisite experience of liveliness. Oh, how I love you!

Yet I fear that our collective life is under threat. I see your beauty overtaken by dullness and ugliness; your diversity reduced to banality; opportunity and possibility diminished as innumerable connections are severed.

I grieve that children are no longer able to enjoy nature, playtime, creaturely friends and imagination outside their back doors. I fear that we are becoming an indoor species, no longer able to access the wisdom of the wind, the water, the soil creatures, the birds; no longer aware of the changing tides, the cycles of the moon, the seasons, or how day transmutes into night.

You, oh Earth, are part of me and I am part of you. We are one. When you are depleted, desecrated, disrespected, so am I. And yet, you are mighty. It is we who are puny … these tiny bodies scratching around on your surface, invisible to the gaze of satellites. We are here by your grace, and one day, we may be gone.

But you, oh Earth, will remain. Your resilience is miraculous. Life will flourish once again, as after all previous mass extinctions. You have your great cycles – your long breaths, in and out. We see traces of other civilisations that built proud monuments before learning humility … and returning to the soil. Their bones, their ashes, their ancient exhalations are within us now. The eternal cycle turns.

Death is certain. Rebirth is certain. When my bones, my ashes, my final exhalation, have been given up into the care of your warm lap, may you receive me and embody me once more in the Great Web of Being.

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