These days humanity finds itself at the center of an enormous converging crisis. A wide variety of global-scale problems in ecology, energy and economics are joining forces before our eyes to threaten a massive disruption of the human experience. Inevitably we ask ourselves the question, "How on earth did this happen to us?"
I find metaphors to be very helpful in thinking about this situation. In this article I present a metaphor that I think has strong similarities to the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. It may help to clarify how this situation came to be, and why we are having such a hard time getting ourselves out of it.
The metaphor itself is unfortunately all too common in our culture – it's the story of an abusive husband and his abused wife.
The husband in our story is not evil. He's not a sociopath, he doesn't beat his wife for pleasure, and he doesn't lock his kids in closets to hear them scream. He's just your average self-centred, culturally programmed Everyman. As an Everyman he has some fairly common attitudes. He believes that a man's home is his castle; that a man has a right and duty to be the head of his household; that the household resources are his to direct; that a wife's role is to serve and nurture her husband; and that children should be seen but not heard.
The wife in this little play is kind, generous and generally quiet. She accepts he husband's leadership and control without much protest. She sees her role as being the nurturing helpmate. Whether it's for her husband, her children, her home or her community, she is always making sure that everyone has what they need. She has a job as a nursing assistant at a local hospital. In her spare time she gardens, does a lot of community volunteer work, cooks for her family and maintains her home.
For quite a while after they get married they have an idyllic relationship. Her husband works hard and gets promotions. She enjoys her job and loves being a mother. The children thrive under her care and everyone seems quite happy. Oh sure, the husband prefers to drink beer or go fishing on the weekends rather than do housework, but that's not a big problem. His wife likes to see him happy, so she does the housework without complaint. He sometimes objects when the kids get underfoot, and occasionally gets mad at them when they bother him after work. Sometimes he has to give them a smack to quiet them down, but it's nothing serious.
As time goes on, the wife begins to notice little things. Her husband has always liked to go fishing and drinking with his buddies on the weekends, and she notices that money has started disappearing from her purse on Fridays. When she asks her husband about it he dismisses her concern with the explanation that he was a bit short of beer money, and after all they are a family and the money all comes out of one big pot, right?
One day she notices some bruises on the kids. Her husband explains that they had been playing with some of his stuff, and he gave them a smack to teach them to stay out of it. They're tough, he says, they'll heal just fine, and they needed to learn to stay out of his stuff. A man has a right to say what goes on in his own home, right?
A little later she notices that he didn't make a mortgage payment. He tells her that he needed to make a payment on his new bass boat instead. He says he's talked to the bank manager and has promised to make up the missing payment over the next few months. He gets a little annoyed at her questions. He tells her that he's in charge of things and that as the head of the household it's his right to make decisions about how the family resources get used, right?
She asks him for money for the kids' school supplies and lunches. He tells her they can't afford it right now, that he needs to put some money aside for a new car. He tells her that nobody ever died from skipping the occasional lunch, and he made it through school without fancy supplies so what made them think they're so special? To drive the point home he gives her a bit of a push, and she falls and breaks her ankle. At the hospital she says she tripped.
He invites his buddies over for a barbeque in the fall, and they eat most of the vegetables from the garden she's tended all summer. When she complains, he explodes in rage and destroys the rest of the garden.
A month later she sees a notice from the gas company on the hall table. It talks about arrears and threatens to cut off their gas supply. Mindful of her husband's reaction over the mortgage payment, she says nothing.
She asks him for a new winter coat because her old one is threadbare. He's now taking her entire pay check to spend on himself, so she can't afford one herself. He blows up again at her request, saying his banker is still after him about that missing mortgage payment. He gives her a black eye and cuts off her allowance.
The final straw comes when she catches him abusing the children, beating and taunting them, threatening to throw them out or even kill them if they don't start contributing to meet his needs. With that, the wife finally snaps. She grabs a baseball bat and lets him have it, gashing his face, breaking his arm and a couple of ribs in the process.
The husband is completely taken aback – as far as he can tell he's just been exercising his natural rights as a father, husband and head of the household. Things had been going just as they were supposed to! Why, after all this time, is this happening to him?
Of course he's injured, so he goes to the hospital where a very good, kind and clever doctor sutures his wounds, sets his broken bones and gives him antibiotics to prevent infection. When the doctor asks if he needs any other help he says no, and insists that there's nothing wrong. In the face of this denial the doctor's hands are tied. He's only trained to repair physical injuries and that has now been done, so the doctor has no choice but to send the husband home.
From Metaphor to Meaning
In the story it's obvious that no matter how good the doctor is this situation will not improve, even if the husband's injuries heal perfectly. Unless the husband's underlying attitudes and beliefs change, his behaviour is extremely unlikely to improve.
It's also clear that a crucial player is missing from this little drama. There is no marriage counsellor, no relationship coach. In this play nobody has any responsibility for teasing out the underlying dysfunctions of the marriage, making them clear to the participants, and helping the husband work on changing the patterns of attitude and belief that have brought things to this sorry pass.
Without such an intervention, it's very unlikely that things will change. The cultural messages the husband is getting only reinforce his conviction that his thoughts and actions are perfectly normal. He certainly sees no need to change the beliefs that he's held since he was a child.
Now let's change the identities of the players in our story and see what that change reveals about the bigger picture.
Into the role of the husband we cast modern industrial humanity. As the long-suffering wife we cast Mother Nature. The children represent all the other life that shares our planet. The part of the doctor is played by all the fixers of our culture – the environmentalists, the policy analysts, the city planners, the alternative-energy engineers.
When you retrace the story line with these new players in their roles, the broader message appears:
Humanity has assumed the position of lord and master of the world, with the consequent conclusion that all the world's resources are ours to do with as we please. Like the wife and children in the story, the rest of the world is there either to do our bidding or to stay out of our way.
Because of our belief in our special position as "head of the household of life" we have come to feel that domination is the "proper" or inevitable model for our relationship with Mother Nature. What's worse, like the husband we feel that the very idea of establishing an equal partnership with her, granting her rights equal to our own, is unnecessary and even demeaning to our status. Like the wife, Nature's needs are to be forever subordinate to ours.
Over time, those beliefs have led humanity as husband to gradually increase our share of the resources of of the Earth community. We use those resources for our own purposes even when they are desperately needed by other members of the family of life for their own survival. Even when we make resource withdrawals that we know should be paid back, we don't do it. We deprive others of their needs in order to satisfy our own needs. Just as the husband punishes his children if they invade his stuff, we exclude, punish or kill animals that try to eat "our" food.
Now, after all this time together, the marriage of Man and Nature has soured. The dysfunction and damage have gotten too big to ignore. Mother Nature has finally begun to push back against our depredations, using such baseball bats as climate chaos, oil depletion, food scarcity, rising prices and financial collapse. In a very literal way, the banker is demanding repayment and threatening to foreclose, and the gas may be turned off any day.
In the face of all these injuries, humanity has gone to see the doctor – that cadre of trained professionals whose job it is to fix our scrapes and set our broken bones. They can re-plan our transportation, clean up our streams and rivers, propose new means of generating the energy we need, re-regulate our financial system, develop less intrusive forms of agriculture and advise us on conservation and recycling.
What they cannot do is address the underlying cause of our situation. As with the husband in the parable, the root cause of humanity's trouble lies with the attitudes and beliefs that tell us our behaviour is perfectly normal, justifiable and inevitable. Exploitation is only natural, after all. If it causes some damage, well, we'll certainly try to exploit a little less – the world is full of fixers who can tell us how to do that!
As in the parable, the missing character is the marriage counsellor, the relationship coach, the teacher or guide who can dive beneath the scummy layer of our behaviour and bring to the surface our hidden attitudes and beliefs. Those beliefs – about who and what we are; about the nature of the world we live in and our relationship with it – are the reasons we cannot change our behaviour, even when we recognize the damage that is occurring around us.
Like the husband in the story we are in serious denial about the state of affairs. In fact we do subconsciously suspect what the problem really is, and as a result are very afraid of the wholesale change that any self-examination implies. Instead of walking that painful path, we prefer to simply visit the doctor yet again, perhaps for some anti-depressant medications or a new diet plan this time. They are such smart doctors after all – surely one of their treatments is bound to work.
The message of the parable is that while such treatments are necessary (nobody can function long with a broken leg, after all, just as our civilization can't function without energy), ultimately this approach will not, indeed cannot, work because it simply doesn't address the cause of the malaise. There is no clever suture that can fix a case of disrespect.
The problem is that there are very few good relationship counsellors, either for marriages or for our relationship with nature. If those few there are do speak out they get disregarded or ridiculed, because their suggestions are seen as too radical – they run counter to our cultural narrative and therefore simply must be wrong.
The Deep Ecologists, the shamans, the Gaia-worshippers, the spiritual teachers of non-dualist Taoism – all those who see the core problem of our age to be the separation of Man from Nature – these are humanity's relationship coaches. Their prescription is radical change, not of financial systems, energy sources or gardening techniques, but of the human heart. We can heal our world, but only if we start by healing ourselves.