People often ask me how we are supposed to cope with the tragedy of the cliff of climate change and the fact that humanity seems ready to charge straight off it. How do you live in the face of that?
One time, I went to a spiritual workshop at the Esalen Institute. The man in charge, some sort of teacher, said we must train ourselves to see the good in the bad and the bad in the good. He talked about the rainbow colors you can see in an oil spill–the beautiful in the ugly.
When Isabella, my four-year-old little girl sees a puddle with gasoline in it, she calls it “rainbow water.” We’ll be crossing the street and step over some dirty puddle cuddling against the curb. I see pollution, but Isabella smiles and says happily, “Look at the rainbow water, Daddy.”
In “Figuring out how to live,” my post from the other day, I wrote about a mom with an autistic child who tried to figure out how juggle the difficulties of her particular life situation with a desire to live environmentally.
Doesn’t it all seem too much sometimes?
That’s why people, I think, get so mad at environmentalists. I’ve lost my job. I can’t pay my mortgage. I’ve worked so hard. And people like you are saying that my way of life is wrecking the planet?! Why don’t you just shut up?
It all seems too much sometimes.
I was speaking at a college in Virginia. A young woman told me she lived in a house with no electricity. She ate only local food (much of which she grew herself). She worked in environmental education. “What more should I do?” she asked me earnestly.
I was confused. “It sounds like you’re doing so much, maybe too much. Why do you need to do more?”
“Because people still don’t listen. How can I get people to listen?”
Then she started crying and I hugged her.
There is a story by Tim O’Brien called “How to Tell a True War Story.” You can search it. You can read it here. Here’s a little part of it, set in Vietnam during the war:
We crossed that river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, my friend Curt Lemon stepped on a boobytrapped artillery round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff.
Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know – no farms, no paddies – but we chased it down and, got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set up for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.
He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested.
He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week Rat would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now, it was simply a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away -chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth and greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby water buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a little bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay very still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb.
Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but them cradled his rifle and went off by himself.
The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a long time no one spoke. We had witnessed some- thing essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a word for it.
Somebody kicked the baby buffalo.
It was still alive, though just barely, just in the eyes. “Amazing,” Dave Jensen said. “My whole life, I never seen anything like it.”
“Not hardly. Not once.”
Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders picked up the baby buffalo. They hauled it across the open square, hoisted it up, and dumped it in the village well.
Afterward, we sat waiting for Rat to get himself together.
“Amazing,” Dave Jensen kept saying. “A new wrinkle. I never seen it before.”
Mitchell Sanders took out his yo-yo. “Well, that’s Nam,’ he said. “Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin’s real fresh and original.”
I remember first reading this story on the subway. I tried not to cry but failed. I wept and quickly wiped the tears away. It had to do with the senselessness of the slaughter of the buffalo. I kept wondering, Why? Why did this happen?
Am I supposed to see rainbow water in this particular puddle? Would even Isabella be able to see rainbow water in it? What would the teacher at Esalen say? Where is the good in this story? For a war story to be true, Tim O’Brien writes, it cannot be moral. I can see no rainbow.
Over a long time, I realized that the question of Why? is a trick. It’s a trick of the mind that keeps me paralyzed and stuck and stops me from responding.
Because the question is not so much Why does it happen? but, knowing that it happened, What should I do, knowing that it happened? Is there some way, in other words, I can help?
A rabbi friend told me that “The truly righteous do not complain about what is wrong. They just add to the goodness.”
The sad thing is that sometimes, like in the case of the water buffalo, the only goodness I know how to add may be to cry. That, and, perhaps, to pray.