Throughout recorded human history, empires have risen and fallen. So have villages, tribes, families, and individuals. Rising and falling is simply what we humans do. **We were not built solely for stasis.** We were built to grow and change.
Growth potential has limits, though. It’s in the natural order of things for growth — of everything — to peak and then to decline.
Admittedly, the decline part can often be challenging. It can feel messy. Painful. Sad.
However, it’s only when we do not remember how to inhabit the journey of decline that we suffer. Decline and its subsequent pain and grief are not necessarily optional. But suffering is.
Suffering, in this regard, happens when we don’t have a context within which to hold the pain and grief — an objective awareness that accepts the natural order of things and does not begrudge nor bemoan the decline of anything.
The great thinker and deep ecologist Joanna Macy calls this time in history in which we are alive the Great Turning. She sees it as a time to turn away from the Industrial Growth Society and to turn towards creating a just and sustainable world. Even if we have no idea how or if we will get there, she obliges us to turn.
Because our individual lives exist for such a brief time in the arc of human history — and, specifically, this particular turning — some of us don’t, can’t, or won’t see it. Many are still chasing the peak, invigorating growth, captivated by the fantasy of endless progress.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
What if we took the time to consider what Macy and many others are saying?*What if we made time to study history, to note patterns, and to look carefully at what’s transpiring in this moment in our world and in our personal lives. Ongoing catastrophic climate events and Covid-19 are two very clear signs that radical change is necessary if we are to survive and thrive as a species.
It helps to remember …
In every ending there is also a beginning. Something dies as something else is born. Life never stops living — as far as we know. Life holds all of the rises and falls, the births and deaths, the growths and the declines. There is never a rise without a fall. A fall without a rise. And the great web of life depends on this virtuous cycle.
So, ultimately all is well. Or rather all is functioning properly within the natural order of things. Even if we don’t like it. Which many of us don’t.
And even for those of us who don’t care whether we like it or not and are intentionally leaning into the turn …
Despite our awareness of the nature of these times, none of us has a grasp on whether our efforts toward creating a just and sustainable world are working. No one is able to predict how this will all go down or what will be on the other side of the great unraveling.
What to do?
The first thing is to open to listening — to the earth, to your heart, to each other. Then take a deep breath.
We really are capable of remembering how to be with decline and death. This knowing is actually built right into our DNA — for we ourselves will eventually decline and die. Even still, we have a tendency to turn away from this truth and instead chase after eternal life — after all, that longing to survive at all costs is in our DNA as well!
How to manage such opposing drives?
As it turns out, in the end, our personal drive to survive is more likely Life’s desire to keep on going. It is not me the individual that is granted such an eternal living. It is Life itself that is granted this eternity … through our living and dying.
What to do after the deep breath?
Once convinced the great turning is upon us, we can reorient ourselves and our lives to respond to the times we are living in rather than the times we’d prefer to be living in**. We can seek to remember how to be skillful with the declines, and attend to death rather than to only resist it. We can stop pretending, hoping, wishing, imagining that the indomitable growth of the postmodern era is not over yet. We can stop pretending that we can surely squeeze out another x years of oil, lumber, water, or food.
Simultaneously, we can begin to attend to the endings that are happening in our personal lives and, equally importantly, in ourselves.
Our western culture is incredibly death-phobic and devoid of helpful rituals for grief and loss. Society’s essential message is that growth is best — and that the growth be unlimited. Death is simply something we must deal with, an annoying counterpart to living that we have not yet discovered how to avoid or prevent.
When we take a moment to pause and reflect on this, slowly but surely we can awaken ourselves from the trance of believing this lie.
The pandemic and climate change are not only giving us clear signs that a great turning is afoot, they are giving us tons of opportunities to attend to the dying and to the declinings, and to recover a humane way of attending to them.
We do not have to go back in time and copy what our ancestors did, or take rituals from indigenous cultures that we learn from books. Though these are not necessarily bad options — **depending on our intent**.
Another, perhaps more useful, option is that we take the opportunity to harvest from those rememberings, creating rituals and providing support and counseling ways that are reflective of these times and the tools, techniques, and technologies that we have at our disposal. This approach honors the conglomerate of lineages we all come from and share.
In other words …
We can upcycle the ways of our ancestors and show up for this very moment and what is right in front of us. We can unpack the philosophy and wisdom behind our ancestors’ ways and allow them to penetrate our psyches and somas. We can trust the inevitable goodness and wisdom of our own humanity to do what is ours to do in the midst of this epic moment in our human story.
We can grow ourselves into the kind of human who is ready to respond to the moment, prepared to water and nourish what life is presenting us. We can help the decline and the dying unravel and fall away with more ease and beauty, as we, together, remember to trust in the natural way of things.
Living and dying, birth and death, growth and decline … all feed the greater web of Life.
As you read this and consider your own circumstances, take some time to ponder what is in decline and what is wanting to be watered in you. What values, what dreams, what relationships, and what beliefs? Attend to them. Keep listening. Trust your innate human wisdom … as you grow yourself into the kind of human who is no longer addicted to growth or deluded by the promise of its lack of limits.
I know it can be challenging to discern what needs to be supported to die and what needs to be encouraged to live. This is where Selfistry can help.
As more of us learn how to inhabit this Great Turning with calm and clarity and confidence, together we will see to it that, **though we personally will not see the results of our actions**, we just may hear the whispers from our descendants when they turn to us in memory, thanking us for all that we did so that they could be.