facing discouraging times, feelings of hopelessness and making change happen through activism in a deep red state.
Dealing with denial, working with conservatives on climate change and fighting the Keystone XL pipeline,
How we're living in what could be called a psychotic state, as a culture.
The trauma to transcendance cycle
Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey, sponsored by Opednews.com.
My guest tonight is Mary Pipher. She's a psychologist, an activist, an author, most notably of Reviving Ophelia
, which opened up an important discussion about the challenges adolescent girls face in today's world. I had Mary on as a guest on my show a few years ago to talk about her book, Writing to Change the World
. Now, her newest book is The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
MP: Thank you, it's good to be back Rob.
Rob: So in Writing to Change the World, you say, "Good writing facilitates the making of connections in a way that inspires open heartedness, thinking, talking, and action. Good writing connects people to one another, to other living creatures, to stories and ideas and to action. It allows readers to see the world from a new perspective." And I think what you've done with this new book, The Green Boat, is you've walked your talk.
MP: Thank you very much. I'm honored to hear that and you know my goal when I write is always to achieve something. You know Pete Seeger one time was asked something about did he like music. And he said, "Well what is music for?" and I'm a very applied person. I like...when I was a therapist I liked applied psychology. I didn't want academic psychology. When I was in anthropology, I liked applied anthropology, working with real people and the same thing with a book.
I really want that book to inspire people to think in new ways and have some new connections emotionally to the material and then to act and to know how to act. You know, the world is full of people with really good intentions that don't have an idea about what they could possibly do to be useful. So one of the things I've tried to do,from Reviving Ophelia on, is to really say, "If you agree with me about this and if you understand my thinking and are with me on my conceptual ideas about this problem, here are the implications for you in terms of actions." So, I'm real happy that you like The Green Boat in that sense, Rob.
Rob: I think the way you start the book is to talk about denial and some pretty negative stuff really in terms of the way people are dealing with our current situation and as a publisher of a progressive website, I am very aware of just how hopeless people are feeling. So it was really useful to just read your thoughts and ideas on that. Could you talk a little bit about that area, that aspect?
MP: I sure could. And one thing I want to say before I talk to your listeners and readers is when I wrote this book and when I make speeches on The Green Boat, I always caveat my remarks by saying, "I'm going to say some things that are kind of dark and depressing, but stick with me, there'll be a turning," because people just can't face much darkness. So, whenever I talk about these issues, I always feel the need to say that, otherwise people won't even come along for a few minutes in an interview or reading a book or in a speech, they'll just...they'll go numb. They'll go dead on me. So anyway I...that's the caveat for this conversation and then we're going to move into more positive material.
But one of the things, by the way, I don't think that despair is just about climate change. I was just talking to some of my friends recently and we all have been news junkies and political people and we all realize we never discuss politics anymore. I notice I usually listen to NPR. I'm not even turning it on right now because when I wake up in the morning I have a choice of listening to meadow larks and looking out at a beautiful lake and maybe walking with my friends, or listening to the news of Iraq and Israel and I just can't do it to myself, you know. So I think to despair, it's not just our climate that's failing us, it's almost all of our major systems from government and the whole idea of the nation-state all the way to banking and education and the court system and the prison system and so on and so on.
But specifically, about climate change, what I want to say is these problems are so frightening that people cannot...they're not emotionally equipped to deal with them we, are not emotionally equipped to deal with them. And the best psychological research on this is a study in a book written by a guy named Stanley Cohen called, States of Denial. It's very useful to me in thinking through the issues in The Green Boat around our denial of climate change. And he did research on Nazi Germany and people saying they could be living within the smoke of a crematorium, a camp and they would say they were unaware of what happened. And he used a really good term to describe that, which is "willful ignorance," where you both know and don't know something is happening. And it's too enormous and frightening to totally deny, but at the same time it's too frightening and horrible to take in. And I really think that's how we are about climate change. We just can't absorb it. Our systems aren't equipped cognitively and emotionally and communally to quite absorb it.
So there's an enormous amount of denial. Here's one example of it. If you think about the topic of climate change, try to think of when it is appropriate to talk about it. You don't talk about it at parties because it's a downer. You don't talk about it at church or at group meetings as a general rule because it's too political. You don't talk about it with your friends because they don't want to hear about it. There's just almost no place you can talk about it and that's one of the...Kari Norgaard wrote really good research on the whole politics of denial and one of the lines she used is, "Our national policy toward the devastation we face is "don't ask don't tell." So it's really...as a psychologist who has worked with trauma and denial my whole life as a clinician, this is a really interesting psychological, social problem.
Here's another example. We talk about, do people or don't people believe in climate change? That is just the oddest darn question when you think about it. We don't talk about do we believe in the law of aerodynamics. We don't talk about do we believe in the DNA code or far away galaxies. But with climate change, for the last 20 years, the whole question has been basically put aside for a meaningless debate on who does and doesn't believe in climate change. So it's just a very hard topic and for me to deal with it, first I had to break through my own denial and deal with the trauma of coming to terms with it, which is very, very difficult personally. And then I had to figure out a way to help readers break through their own trauma and denial and deal with it. And that also was a long process. This was, by far, the hardest book I've written in terms of figuring out the psychological work necessary to make this book good for people and something they could count on and learn from.
Rob: You say in the beginning of the book that people are denying it and this is what the beginning of the book is about. It's this denial and you say ""anytime we humans disconnect from reality, we enter individually and collectively what could be called a psychotic state." That's pretty severe.
MP: Well, when you think about it, we are at a kind of a psychotic state as a culture. You know individually, most of us are able to lead sane lives with people we love and paying our bills and enjoying our communities and participating in meaningful work around us. But collectively, we're teetering toward the edge of a cliff without discussing where we're going. And that is really psychotic behavior. You know, Bateson said, "The unit of survival is the organism and its environment." And for us to deal with this, realistically and openly and collectively in conversation, is a survival strategy. It's a moral issue in that the basic moral issue is, if we do not expand our moral imaginations so that we include the whole web of life in our circle of caring, we will destroy ourselves. But the survival issue is simply we cannot survive as organisms without an environment that's hospitable to us. So yeah, I think it's really a psychotic state that we're in as a world and as a country, in particular, because I think the United States has great power to do good and has for the most part not acted as leaders in this particular area.
Rob: Okay, you...I just want to throw a couple of things at you.
Rob: There are a couple of things that I cover a lot in my radio show. I call it the Bottom-Up Radio Show because I believe we're transitioning from a top-down to a bottom-up world. And I think your book...and I'm writing a book called Bottom-Up: The Connection Revolution. And you talk a lot about"
MP: That's nice.
Rob: ...and you talk so much about really grassroots ways people are connecting and what I love about your book is it's really a story about your experience and your thinking going through the process of caring about climate change and then facing the fact you're in Nebraska, a relatively conservative state, where progressive messages don't really resonate that well and you describe in detail your experience and your process and the emotions involved in spending a number of years fighting Keystone XL.
MP: I'm still fighting that. We're still fighting that. But if you don't mind Rob, let's back up and kind of share with the readers that process just a little bit. And"
MP: I read Bill McKibben's book, Earth, and that book just basically lays out the facts about the effects of climate change on everything, you know, on the economy, on sea coastal areas, on plants and animals and food supply and so on. And it's just a devastating factual book and after I read that book, I just could hardly talk for 2 or 3 days. And I had my little grandkids over here picking raspberries and I just wanted to cry. I was just so aware of how fragile our world seemed. Well now that state of hopelessness and despair is a very uncomfortable state, not only for me, but for everybody and I couldn't stay in it long. And when you're in that state of despair, you sort of have two choices: you can go numb and just not be in despair anymore because you've killed all the emotion in yourself, or you can figure out some way to move to a different state and the only way to do it is really by some kind of transcendent experience, where you decide, "I'm going to turn all this pain and anguish into something bigger than myself."
Rob: And you talk about the trauma to transcendence cycle.
MP: Right. Basically we all are really familiar with this. We've all seen people who got cancer that rose to the occasion and had the best, most loving relationships of their lives. And we've seen people in a disaster give away everything they own to other people. It's not uncommon. As Barbara Solnit says...Rebecca Solnit, I'm sorry, "Transcendence sneaks in everywhere as a survival response." We all see this in friends around us and ourselves, but there's basically, in my opinion, three standard ways that people achieve transcendence. One of them is through action. You hear this in the news or read it in the paper that somebody whose child is killed by gun violence and decides to devote their life to fighting guns. That's a transcendent response to pain.
Another is increasing one's moral imagination so that life isn't just about me and my family and my pain, it's about the pain of the world and the pain of the trees in the Amazon, the pain of the animals and the great grandchildren of the animals to come if we don't do a better job.
And then the other thing that's very important in transcendence is if you're going to make a decision to deal directly with pain, you have to figure out a way to counterbalance those kinds of painful experiences with bliss so that you can be happy. It doesn't make any sense to be unhappy. We all get one life and we all have a right to be happy. And there's a lovely quote, Anna Tennant Moore, which is, "It took me a long time to learn that being miserable doesn't alleviate the world's misery." And I very much feel that way that one of my goals in my own life is to be happy and to be happy every single minute of my life if I can.
But one of the really great ways to be happy is to be an activist, and to be involved in a community of people that love what you love and care about what you love and will go to the very end with you on working to save what you love in this case. So what happened was, I had a friend who was an organic gardener named Brad. He's a young guy, 30 years younger than me and he was over here helping me prune trees and we started talking about the planet. And Brad actually said, "Well let's do something. Let's get a group together and figure out what we can do in Lincoln." And I go, "Well that's great! Let's make it fun."
So the first group was here at my house and I made a really nice dinner and I brought a couple of bottles of French wine and we invited 2 or 3 people and we just talked about, well what is in Nebraska that we can all try to work on together? It was very good timing because that was just when the Keystone XL pipeline was getting ready to come over our Ogallala aquifer, which is the source of 40% of the fresh water in this country, and through our very fragile Sandhills ecosystem, which is porous.
So immediately all agree. Let's work on that Keystone pipeline. And we met again in a week or two and we had another potluck and other people brought the wine and pretty soon we had a group of 20 people who really cared about this issue, who educated themselves, who had different connections that could do different things. We had a lawyer. We had a PR guy. I'm a pretty good leader and conceptual person for a group like this and we just had a lot of stuff going on. We had a fundraiser. We had a guy who lobbied for the legislature that understood the process of how that legislature worked.
So we really started to figure out stuff quick and we started to educate each other. We started to educate our community. We started out with educational forums, but before we knew it, we had allies and our most unusual allies -- and this is really amazing -- were the conservative ranchers and farmers in the West. Because they don't agree with urban progressives like me on hardly anything, but one thing we can all agree about is we need fresh water in this state. We need good water. They make their living on water. They make their living farming and raising cattle that need good water. And as one old farmer said, "You can't feed a cow bottled water. It just doesn't work economically." So the ranchers started coming in and working with us and that was amazing and it was really transformative.
Like one place in the book I talk about...me and my friends in Nebraska, we have always been the royalty of lost causes. We're never on the winning side of anything. And I haven't been on the winning side of an issue in this state for the 40 years I've lived here. And all of a sudden, I was working on an issue that actually had a lot of popular support. And at first we didn't know what to do with that, but we leveraged that support and we kept working, and Nebraska has kept that pipeline out of our state and out of this country for 4 years now. And so our little group...we didn't think we had a chance to do anything. But you know, if you believe you're powerless, you're not. To believe you are powerless is to cede all of your power to other people. And the same is true in the opposite direction: if you act as if you have power, you create power from thin air. And this experiences of fighting the Keystone XL, big international corporation, great big PR firms, bought and paid for our legislature, we'd been fighting this 4 years now and it has taught me so much about how things work in this country. In fact, if you want to see how things work in this country, try to change it and especially if you're change involves dealing with international corporate oil companies. It's really been a learning experience. But so far, we're still on the victory side of all this. It's just really been wonderful and we're sane people, we're tight, we love each other and it's been a really positive and joyous experience.
Rob: So, okay. So I want to get into some of the details because I really think that what you've done in this book is think through some of the process, some of the experience, the psychology, that could be very, very helpful to activists and people who want to make a change and people who are frustrated with the way things are and don't see a way...because I think that's one of the things that's really great that you do so let's start off. You talk about...you have a different opinion about Maslow and his hierarchy. Can you talk about that?
MP: Yeah, well first of all I have tremendous respect for Maslow and he was one of the great humanist psychologists. But I think because he came out of a science background, he thought about the hierarchy of needs in a very biological way. You know, first we need food and water and rest and so on and then we can move on to other goals. And it's my experience that actually isn't the hierarchy: the first thing we need in our lives is hope, the first thing. Hope, and the second thing is probably connection. And the third is a sense of meaning. You know, you can have a child in an orphanage that's very well-fed that dies because there isn't enough connection and hope to keep that child alive. And what I found with our group is that we were dispirited people, we were pretty depressed actually, about the world, but that when we started to have hope our lives changed immediately, including people actually got healthier.
You know one of the odd things I do in this book is I argue, I make a mental health argument for activism. I say that we know that the brain functions best when it feels hopeful. And I say if you don't want to be depressed, if you don't want to be addicted to various products, the best way to keep yourself mentally healthy is to be a connected activist where you have a big circle of friends.
Another thing that's been a big mistake, I think, in terms of how activists have been organized in this country is...a lot of times it's seen as sort of a radical business or a grim business. We were polite, we had fun. This is not a state that tolerates any kind of radical behavior. This is a state of very polite, conservative people. So we've had things, like the Grandmother's Apple Pie Brigade, that presents awards to people who act in behalf of the citizens of this state. And we told our governor if he would step up and act right, we would bring him an apple pie. And we've used the apple pies as a big source of rewards. We've had tractor pulls. We've had poetry readings. We had a water festival. Everything we do tends to be about joy and connection and bringing people together around core values and that part has really been very important.
The other thing is we waste almost no time talking about climate change. If someone doesn't believe in climate change, we just move right around them quick. You cannot reason someone into/out of a position they didn't reason themselves into and we just don't waste time with them. We try instead...we assume that almost everyone that shows up at our rallies, or an educational forum, is there because they already believe in climate change and they want to know how they can connect with other people and what they can do. And they want help dealing with their despair. So that's what we really try to do, is give people very actionable intelligence about what they can do and how they can form a group and what they can do with us. And that's been real successful.
You know, I ended up making a distinction in The Green Boat between what I called "actionable" and "distractionable" intelligence. And distractionable intelligence is what I was talking about when I said I don't listen to NPR. When I turn on the radio and hear about the devastation in Iraq, what can I do about that? A private citizen in Lincoln, Nebraska -- what on earth can I do about Iraq? So that is just...makes me feel bad, makes me feel powerless, makes me feel gloomy, makes me feel low. But on the other hand, actionable intelligence is, if I want to influence this particular process, here are the 3 things I could do to have an impact. And that really makes me feel optimistic and hopeful and organized and I have a behavior in mind. Antidote-my action has always been my antidote to despair.
And so I try to give other people action ideas as an antidote to despair. For example, next week I'm going to a city council meeting with another woman and our city council has been very supportive of alternative energies and they've budgeted to help our electorate system have more wind and solar and geothermal energy. So my friend Nancy and I, we're showing up with apple pies to thank our city council for what they've done. Now you wouldn't think an apple pie would be a very big activist project, but we bake a couple pies and show up with carefully chosen words.It'll be in the newspapers. The city council members will never forget us. There'll be TV people there taking our pictures and these simple little things can make a real big difference in public opinion. Furthermore, how are you going to dislike somebody that shows up and gives you an apple pie? It's just not something that's going to incite a lot of hate, from anyone, and a lot of blowback, you know.
Rob: So you talk about the "transcendence response," about the trauma to transcendence cycle. I didn't want to leave that behind because I want to be clear. Can you talk about what transcendence is?
MP: Sure. Well, the word transcendence comes from...the root word is crossing over, the root verb is crossing over. But from my point of view the simplest way to describe transcendence is if your problems are too big for you, you need to get bigger. There's no way if you're problems are too big for you that you can cope with your problems without growth. And what you do with your problems, if you don't grow, is bury your problems. And so there are a lot of different ways to say this. I mean, if you remember in the Jaws movie, there's that very famous oft repeated scene of the sheriff is out in the boat with his friends looking for that shark and they see it, and he goes "We need to get a bigger boat."
That's what transcendence is -- it's getting a bigger boat. And for example, one way people often experience transcendence is after a terrible experience, like the death of a loved one or being involved in a war or something like that, they become religious.They have a spiritual experience and become a very religious person because they need to connect to meaning much deeper than their own little life. And a lot of people, who've been through terrible things, they want to do more than make a living. They want to do something reparative for the world. They want to figure out a way to take all that devastation and turn it into meaning and purpose. So that's one meaning for transcendence.
Another meaning, for me, of transcendence is to feel a deep sense of inner connection with all living beings. And that's what Thich Nhat Hanh talks about when he talks about inner being or we enter our...that's what Loren Eiseley talks about, that's what Thomas Merton talked about, is the sense that we're deeply connected to all living beings.
Now, I had this experience just in a beautiful way. I had been at a spiritual retreat, a silent meditation at Spirit Rock, north of San Francisco. And I got off that retreat and I had to get through San Francisco into the airport and then fly a couple flights across the country to get back home. Now, when I was thinking about that flight home, before I went into the retreat, I was thinking, "That is really going to be hard," because I'm going to be so used to quiet and peace and beauty and then I'm going to be in these loud, crowded airports and in little commuter planes and it's just really going to be hard to go from a beautiful retreat to an airport and airplanes. But' you know, I didn't count on transcendence. And what happened in that retreat is the sense of beauty and peace and inner connection that comes from a week of silence in a beautiful place. And when I got to the airport, I had a totally different experience than I expected. What I experienced was looking at people and thinking, 'My God, does this person realize how beautiful they are?' I literally wanted to hug people. I wanted to tell them, "You have no idea how beautiful you really are and how perfect you really are just as you are." And then, when I got on the plane, I was flying over the Rockies and then the great plains, and I just...I looked down at the rivers and the mountains and the valleys and I was just in a state of wonder. I just could not believe how beautiful it was.
That's a transcendence experience too because it's saying my ego is not what I'm preoccupied with right now; I've connected to something vaster and larger and more beautiful than anything I could imagine. And that could come with activism.
You know, Martin Luther talked about the beloved community. And he was talking about the bliss people feel when they're connected with other people doing something for the common good. So there are different ways to have it, but I've had that transcendence experience both in my group and I have it a lot in the natural world. I really love the"
Rob: Now, you talk about group transcendence. Can you discuss that a little bit?
part two of the transcript will be available Tuesday morning.
To watch Rob having a lively conversation with John Conyers, then Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click here. Watch Rob speaking on Bottom up economics at the Occupy G8 Economic Summit, here.