On a routine Saturday morning earlier this year, I opened my L.A. Times and began my ritual of absorbing the news along with my breakfast. Most of what I read was far less digestible than my eggs and toast: Egypt’s Mubarak was refusing to step down; a suicide bomber had killed a deputy governor in Kandahar; desperate Haitians were storming food distribution sites, and – this just in! (don’t forget I live in L.A.)  – Chris Brown had decided not to attend the Grammys, having assaulted Rhianna on the eve of the previous year’s awards show.

But it was page A12 that finally wrecked my appetite, making my food taste more like bile. The acid-churner was a story about a female bear who’d had to swim for nine days across the Beaufort Sea before reaching an ice floe. She’d lost her young cub on the journey, as well as 22% of her own body weight. There was little food available for her on the other end when she arrived.

Image via the Los Angeles Times

Now, I’m a sucker for living creatures. I’ve developed a fondness for much-maligned crows and have been known to save worms trying to cross the sidewalk from the ravages of the midday sun. I’ve got three cats at home, one of whom has a bizarre shoe fetish that makes him try to mark every boot, slipper, and slide in my closet as if all nine of his lives depended on it. And, in case you’ve ever tried removing cat spray from carpeting, it’s a little like trying to pull something apart that’s been stuck together with Krazy Glue, only it stinks about as badly as skunk on a humid day.

Though the smell is satanic, I presume it’s not the devil that makes Hobbes do what he does, but old-fashioned jealousy – jealousy of Buster, who usurped Hobbes’ position as alpha cat by circling the house for three straight days, crying to be adopted as pitifully as a Panther-esque stray could without entirely betraying his feline dignity. But the destructiveness of my otherwise sweet friend Hobbes is small change compared to what we humans are doing to our planet.

In my introduction to a special issue of Psychological Perspectives (The Child Within/The Child Without), I commented, “We are at risk of collectively suiciding by not seeing the very ground on which we stand.” That was in 1989. Heads far brighter than mine have been sounding the alarm for decades that we’re poisoning our earth and sky and waters, threatening our children’s lungs and nervous systems, and approaching a climate change tipping point. With our political leaders behaving like zombies on the deck of a tilting Titanic, what are we to do?

Over the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to acquire a tribe of Facebook friends who are speaking up for our common environment. Carolyn Raffensperger, Alison Rose Levy, David Eisenberg, and Renee Lertzman are environmental advocates whom I quote in my upcoming article A Jungian Alice in Social Media Land (to be published by the University of California Press in the Spring, 2012 issue of Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche). These fierce guardians of our common future have each attempted to address the understandable avoidance and denial that we use to counter the nearly unbearable dread and despair– what Glenn Albrecht has called solastalgia – that dogs us all.

There’s a good reason why denial ain’t just a river. We are living in bleak times. But no matter how dark our era, it is just not possible to go on without some sort of comic relief and daily doses of pleasure, if not joy. Well, we might go on without them, but it would be a pretty thin gruel of a life. Which is, I believe, where consciousness of our interwoven reality comes in. In the film Avatar, the Pandoran Na’vi are privvy to a wisdom that’s elusive to the humans who want to exploit their planet’s riches. Like indigenous people the world over, they revere the ground that supports them, the plants that offer them sustenance, the creatures with whom they share a common home. In Cameron’s film, after suffering the depredations of greed, the Pandoran natives are left with little but the treasure at the bottom of the chest of plagues opened by their mythological namesake. They are left with one another and with hope.

Whether it’s in Greek mythology or contemporary film, something in the human psyche knows that both hope and community are essential. Which brings me to Father Gregory Boyle, whom I heard speak a few weeks ago at my second home, the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. He was plugging his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. And he was offering that rarest of commodities: a testimony to the power of hope from someone who has played an active role in turning thousands of lives around.

If you live in southern California, you’ve probably heard of Father Boyle. He’s the charismatic Jesuit founder of Homeboy Industries, since 1992 a growing group of businesses (including Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Café & Catering) that employ recovering gang members. Services offered to the homies include free tattoo removal and training in anger management, yoga, parenting, substance abuse, budgeting, and art. Homeboy Bakery’s famous Mexican wedding cookies and cranberry Merlot bread are not just delicious – they’re baked with huge helpings of patience, determination, and a willingness to bumble in the dark to break through walls of terror and mistrust, rage and despair.

Father Boyle had all of us laughing, crying, and marveling at the possibility of transforming the most entrenched of personal hells. But what grabbed me most about his stories about the vatos who’ve enriched his life was his observation that what makes us vulnerable to turning to violence to solve problems is a woundedness in our capacity for attachment.  

Attachment is pretty much what our earth is about: gravity, interconnection and interdependence. Nature is, after all, an ecosystem, all about linking, just as our bodies’ muscles and nerves and bones work together as one. Emotional attachment involves a circular loop of taking in the living, vibrating reality of another while the other takes in the reality of who we are. Carl Jung was quick to point out that we can’t individuate, or develop fully into who we were born to be, without being in some sort of relationship; it’s relationship that mirrors us back to ourselves, with our warts as well as our beauty marks; it’s relationship that stretches us beyond our comfort zones; it’s relationship that makes us know we’re neither the center of the universe nor alone.

In my novel The History of My Body, young Fleur Robins looks to attach herself to whatever sources of sustenance she can. Unclaimed by the woman who birthed her and betrayed by the man whose seed helped give her life, she sniffs her way into connecting with birds, flowers, a cat, a weed, a tree. Fleur would hardly be surprised to learn that scientists are discovering that trees do, in fact, communicate amongst themselves; far from following the Darwinian model, they actually work to ensure the survival of one another. It’s what we misbehaving humans need to learn to do. But how?  

Real relationship and reality itself are rife with paradox. I come from a long line of lovely, caring, passionate humanists who were quite capable of despising those who didn’t agree with them. I may not want to be looking at stranded penguins, polar bears with no home, fish stuffed to the gills with mini-particles of plastic, let alone a body politic wracked by failures of empathy, breathtaking dishonesty, and fear of change, but if I’m going to have a positive impact on any of it, I’m going to have to keep at least one eye on my own warts, including my tendency to self-righteousness. How can I open my heart more fully to those I rub elbows with at the supermarket, at the bank, or at the polling place, where some folks aim just as hopefully toward that other party’s primary booth as I do toward my own? I’m down with the vatos, but what of the climate change deniers?  How do I expand my consciousness so as not to demonize those whose views strike me as callous or wrong-headed or just plain ignorant? I have way too many questions for someone who can sound off as if she had all the answers.

I probably need to take a leaf out of the late May Sarton’s poem The Invocation to Kali, in which she wrote: “For a long time, we shall have only to listen, Not argue or defend, But listen to each other.” Think about it. It’s as revolutionary as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Can we do it? Can I do it? I don’t know…but if we’re to use the polar bears as our incentive and the trees as our teachers, we might want to try. 


  1. Jennifer Karson Engum-August 8, 2011 at 12:58 PM
    • Again, I need to read these posts at home…or bring more tissue to work. Thank you for your words auntie. xoxo. Love, one of the angry humanists.
  2. Marguaritte-August 10, 2011 at 3:20 PM
    • Sharon, one of my great pleasures in life is reading your writings. I count it as a rare find when I can read pieces that get me asking my own questions, includes cats : ) and is connected with the seriousness of these times that we live in, as well as the joy. A beauteous cake of layers, meanings and questions and lovely anecdotes. Thank you. We are lucky that the muses visit you on a regular basis. I eagerly await October and the History of My Body. Margo