This week, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Jane Goodall, the famous and compassionate scientist/environmentalist, commented wistfully during an appearance on the PBS NewsHour: “We are all interconnected, and if we don’t get that lesson from this pandemic, maybe we never will.” Her obvious implication is that failure to embrace the central truth of humanity’s existence — interconnectedness — could result in, well, no existence. That getting through this current planetary crisis only to return to life as we knew it might be the greatest squandering of an opportunity for course-correction that humankind has ever experienced.
I sit here in my privileged location on Martha’s Vineyard, watching the bees penetrate the early flowers while sucking out precious sweetness. That activity sustains the little insect, but also promotes life generally as it pollinates each flower it touches. There is a web of interconnectedness that supports both the flourishing of life for the bee and for the flower. In contrast, humans have increasingly become more focused on our own immediate needs to the exclusion of other life forms, even other humans. Today, as a species, our instinct to “pollinate” life is shrinking and, to the contrary, there is quite a bit of long-term destruction.
At one time in our earliest history, when continued existence was touch and go, it made sense for us to primarily focus on the urgency of survival. Paleontologists speculate that at our beginnings, more than two hundred thousand years ago, we unconsciously rejected the reality of interdependency as a way of gaining short-term leverage in our quest to become the dominant strain of homo sapiens. Forged in competitive advantage, our “story” then and now gives us permission to take without giving back, while all other life forms continue to live out of a story underscored by cooperation and replenishment. This is perhaps most notable in our relationship to the earth where we think of its resources as there for our taking, indefinitely.
But that very same relationship to all of life which successfully produced more than 7 billion humans roaming the earth today will, without a major shift in direction, lead to our undoing. And to much of life on planet earth. Furthermore, we haven’t got the luxury of another few hundred thousand years to rework our behavioral circuitry. In fact, most scientists say we are dangerously close to being out of time.
So, how can the pandemic help? Stepping for a moment outside of the severe suffering that we are experiencing — the sickness, death, loss of jobs, food, and even human connection — it potentially offers us a view, if we’re open to seeing it, of just how interconnected we are with all other life forms on planet earth. And, of equal importance, the consequences of ignoring that central truth.
Surely you, too, have felt your heart burst open over the past few weeks watching all the families out for a walk in nature. Or how the reaching out among us, even in a virtual manner, has led to deeper and more rewarding connections. Just the other day while on a walk around Blackstone Pond, I passed an unknown-to-me masked woman whose eyes greeted mine in a way that said, warmly, “Oh, hello fellow human, how delightful to make your acquaintance. I honor the light within you.” Yes, my heart received that unfamiliar gesture of connectedness with a stranger, and my head took note of how we all need each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Outside the human sphere, I’ve hugged more trees in the past two months out of gratitude for their tireless contribution to my existence than maybe in my entire existence. And prayed for the health of those spring bees. You, too?
And then the other side — the facts about how this virus got traction in humans. Whatever the final details show, it seems clear, at least to Jane Goodall, that our questionable interactions with animals and with the environment generally is the root cause.
We need a new “Overstory,” one where we trade in our self-imposed separation from the rest of creation for a life-model that celebrates our dependency with all of life. Where we “are” only in relation to others, human and otherwise. And where all perspective is understood as relative to the whole.
Now is the time for our species to evolve to a higher level of consciousness, one that supports the flourishing of life; one that rejects the zero-sum game of dualism and instead lives out of a definition of life that is grounded in interdependency. Nothing to tax; nothing to lobby for; no politicians to boot out of office. It will all fall into place when we redefine our understanding of who we think we are in relation to all there is. And, perhaps, in an odd quirk of fate, both the gruesome (and joy-filled) realities of the pandemic may wake us up sufficiently in order to rejoin the rest of the community of life on earth — as one — before it is too late.
Ed Merck has been a full-time resident of West Tisbury since 2013. Prior to that, he worked in higher education as a strategic planning/finance executive. Ed is a certified yoga instructor, Reiki master, meditation teacher, and performing classical musician.