“Fixing” The World Standing in the Tragic Gap

I’ve been grieving about the state of my country, and the state of my fellow Americans with some level of ongoing heartbreak. I’ve had a low level of chronic grief the past four years for the state of the country and my fellow citizens who support and continue to spread fear, hate, and lies. I’ve experienced a deeper grief lately from the results of ten months of world pandemic combined with anxiety about my family’s health.

Heaped upon that now is the grief and worry over the ever-pervasive narcissism, unfettered greed, hate, and violence unleashed that resulted in an attempted coup on our government. An attempted coup incited by our own sitting president and his followers.

I realized this morning that if I’m honest with myself I’ve had a low level of grief bubbling below the surface ever since I began to understand the science of climate change. I was a high school student at the time. It was during my junior year (1984-85) when I had the idea to look into global warming for my class project. My learning continued as an undergraduate and then graduate student taking in the science of ecology and gaining a language for understanding the world from that perspective.

I began to identify with something Aldo Leopold wrote in his posthumously published Round River essay that, 

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”  

Aldo Leopold, Round River Essays, 1953

I recall something one my ecology professors, Peter Wasser, predicted in 1992 lecturing on peak oil and ecosystem depletion when one of my classmates asked, “how much time do we have?”. He predicted things would unravel systemically around the year 2020. Almost thirty years seemed like enough time to turn things around.

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of me asking questions about why there are children all over the world who don’t have enough to eat, who are sick, and are dying because of this. I didn’t really accept that there wasn’t anything that could be done about it – that it’s just the way things are. Although not much has changed and I’m not sure my few actions here and there have helped all that much, I’ve tried to never let myself become co-opted by cynicism.

Yet, at one point I had become exhausted and exasperated by academia and the lack of ability to truly address the root of so many of our vexing problems like climate change, water and air pollution, soil degradation and erosion, and, world hunger. I think I was recognizing that although science and the knowledge it produces is critical to address these problems, to pursue knowledge alone won’t ever solve any of these problems.

It seemed to me that what was missing was an acknowledgement of the need for a deeper and intimately grounded connection with the earth. My intuition was that it was through these kinds of connections that wisdom would be generated. I had a sense that it was through indigenous populations all over the world that had lived into deep, intimately connected ways of life for many generations held embodied a wisdom understanding of sacred earth and our rightful relationship with all of life.

From where I stand, the wisdom teachings of indigenous peoples have much in common with the early Jewish and Christian mystics and their wisdom teachings. One example is the first creation story in Genesis where as ‘namers’ we are instructed to be caretakers of creation.

Based on these intuitions and a strong pull to find “answers”, I attempted to leave modern civilization and live in the least destructive manner I could discover. I wanted to find a way to live in harmony with creation. I lived for a few years as what some have called a neo-aboriginal lifestyle, relearning, and even at times ‘remembering’ the ancient skills of living “natively”. Still, in the end, this too was eventually an exasperating and exhausting pursuit to find ‘The Answer’ that could “fix” the world, when the world had little interest in being “fixed”.

I’ve at times begun to understand a little bit more that there are not so much ready and complete “answers” as there are deeper questions that as Rilke says must be lived into gradually until one day we realize we are living the answers. Because, that’s the whole point. To live everything fully. Looking back on 2020 it is clear that on most days I haven’t been able to do that.

My grieving all these years has not been devoid of beauty, laughter, joy, or love, or hope. It has been a faith in these that there is a deeper ground to my being, and that there are things greater than myself to connect with. My family, community, nature and spirit.

Four years ago, I had a sense of shared hope with many others that our country might be on the cusp of pursuing policies that would begin to seek justice for many of the problems that plagued my heart and kept me up at night. But that was not to come to pass. On that fateful night in November, 2015, my own spirit prickled with a knowing of the coming strife for our country.

The story that has played out the last four years has been a continuation of destruction at an increasingly fevered pace. Everything has been turned upside down. Lies have become “truth” for so many people. Fear, and hate, and lies have ruled the day, every day of the last four years. Not even a world-wide pandemic was enough to bring us together as a people to fully care for each other. I’m exhausted and exasperated, and grieving, and feeling lost like so many others are during this time.

Recently, I was reminded of a wisdom teaching from Quaker and spiritual elder Parker Palmer that has helped me begin to put into context my grieving and worry about problems of the world that I wish we could work together to “fix”. Palmer talked about “standing in the tragic gap”, that place where you begin to learn and understand and even embody the gap between the world that one wishes would come into fruition and the world that actually exists. The hard realities of the world as it is (greed, hate, violence, fear, lack of access to health care or food, racial discrimination, etc.)and the world that is possible, not wishful fantastical dreams, but things you know to be true and possible because you’ve seen examples of them (peace, generosity, kindness, love, sharing the surplus, equity and common good, etc.). The gap between what one can do personally to make a difference, while knowing that the deep problems in our world may not ever fully be solved no matter how much we work on them.

And, yet, to remain standing with courage inside the tragic gap where you are not pulled to one side or the other. Where you resist being pulled to the side of corrosive cynicism where you make a deal with ‘this is the way the world is and I can’t change it, so I might as well get mine’, nor to the other extreme that is irrelevant idealism. Either extreme takes you ‘out of the action’ of striving for a better world. This is the tragic gap.

It is tragic not only because it’s sad (it is), but also because it is simply part of the human condition. We can’t achieve perfection. To be able to stand unwaveringly in that place of the tragic gap, Parker shows that one must practice the powers of opening the heart, opening the mind, and inviting the soul into being. One’s heart must be broken wide-open to hold in paradox the heartbreak of the world together with the joy of the world. We need to do this both on a personal level through a self-examined life (as Socrates said) yet also in community with others. In community with others because it can be so easy to fall into self-deception…and we can’t do it alone. This is a lesson I must take to heart.

Palmer also made a reference to our country’s Founders in calling for all of us to strive together for “a more perfect union”, yet the Founders realized that we needed a government in which to operate inside the reality of imperfections.

I’m seeking and attempting to be open to such wisdom that might lead me to hold these things in tension. The grieving and the work necessary to begin to address the serious problems, and the need to also seek beauty, joy, love, and hope. And, yet still grow the courage and faith to remain standing in the tragic gap where I might be able to share real beauty, love, hope, and joy where grief and poorness of spirit are all woven together into the fabric of a full life.

Last night I had a relevant dream. This one seems hopeful and contained some wisdom. A sacred formula, even! In the dream I was sitting at a table along a street at an outdoor café. A friend and colleague of mine at the university who is a mathematician and data scientist came up to the table with a large chart. He was very happy and excited exclaiming that he had just created this problem set for his students to learn from. We looked at the equations and problems. I’m not a math person, but in the dream, I focused on one part of an equation and could “see” that it represented at its root something of ‘Silence minus Quietness yields Stillness’. Then the entire problem set seemed to come into view that the “answer” derived into ‘Stillness in Solitude is the key to enter into Contemplative Prayer to Communicate with God’.

Contemplative state of meditative prayer isn’t something I’ve been able to do very well. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t seemed to work for me. This morning I decided to listen to this dream and try again. This stream of consciousness writing is what has resulted. I’ll continue to learn and get better at contemplative prayer. It seems that such a contemplative practice combined with engaging in the world in a way that produces more beauty is a direction and way forward that makes sense to me.

Today, I’m reminded of another wisdom teacher, Carry Newcomer, a Quaker singer-song writer who embodies the courage of standing in the tragic gap emanating beauty and love. It was at her concert a few years ago when she first gave this teaching, and then she reminded me at another concert that took place right at the beginning edge of the pandemic hitting in early March of 2020:

“You might not be able to fix the world’s problems, but you can make a difference to everyone and everything within three feet around you.”

Carrie Newcomer, Concert, Delphi Opera House, March 2020

That way of being where a three-foot circle around me is where everyone and everything I come into contact with I have a choice to make a difference to and for and with them. That seems like a good way forward and a really good way to live life.

[Brent Thomas Ladd, January 13, 2020. Photo and digital rendering by the author, West Union Bridge over Sugar Creek in Parke County, Indiana]

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