It’s hard to remain spiritual in a world that seems to be veering once more into a nightmare, surrounded by systemic, institutional selfishness and acts of political and economic sabotage so monumental that it leaves me breathless, unable to sleep properly, crouching in my own helplessness. By spiritual, I don’t mean religious, or New Agey, or simpering sentimentally in the sunset. I don’t mean the feel-good memes circulating on Facebook, or their opposite, fire and brimstone and eternal judgement. I mean a total, open, vulnerable engagement with all – humans, animals, landscapes, rivers and rocks, trees and plants, insects and bacteria, the infinitely small, and the infinitely large – space, galaxies, nascent and dying stars, stars that are so far away, we see their birth while they are dying. An engagement that goes beyond the skin, into the heart, into the soul of people, of beings. That looks at an ostensible enemy – say, a white supremacist, an armed jihadist, an industrial polluter, a kleptocrat, a bully – and sees not a devil, but a lost sibling. A lost sibling I might have to fight, oppose with all my will, whose ideology I must denounce and defeat, but still, a person of my flesh and kind. Yes, that’s the hardest of all. To reject hate, to reject indifference, to reject separation, to reject othering. An engagement that is both physical and emotional, because a spirituality that is not rooted is no more than pious candy floss.
I am a hypocrite, I am lazy, I distract myself from the fear, the cruelty, the poverty of others, I avert my eyes in pain or embarrassment, while bemoaning what I have turned away from. I point my finger: your fault! I curl up on the sofa in front of a gas fire, modest but warm, and erase, by deliberate action – a book, a hat I am knitting, a game I play – the shivers of my fellow humans sleeping outdoors. I watch on the news, and sometimes with my own eyes, waves of people crossing the sea to reach this Spanish shore, some barely alive, some dead, many ravenous and desperate for a better life, or life of any kind. I call them refugees, but in my heart, in my home, there is little refuge, only the indignation that circumstances they didn’t cause should drive them here. I sit and demand that someone in charge do something, something human, something right, somehow. All the while, other refugees, the gilded few, accumulate their rentier riches in small tax havens, refuges from a world they have both seduced and looted. In Gibraltar, not two hours by car from where I write, you see both types of refugees; the contrast and the interdependence between the two are striking. Gibraltar, the pillars of Hercules, a shield against Africa, a glorified casino, the last refuge of the Neanderthal. Is that an omen for our times, or a tragedy warmed up as satire?
I swipe a page, and the news is of global warming, accelerated climate change, too much methane, a shortage of sweet waters, the rising of salt waters like so many floods of tears. Everywhere living things and habitats are squeezed and stressed. Seas die, species vanish, nature gasps. I see it here. The reservoirs are catastrophically low, a serious drought is underway. Some of those refugees are fleeing not war, but drought and climactic disasters. More will arise, and arrive – from Africa, from the Middle East, and from within Europe too, because drought and climate catastrophes are borderless. I am as blind and deaf to all this as our politicians, whose leadership on this and other great issues of the day is so inadequate as to be a lampoon of itself. Oh, I know it’s happening, in theory. I even observe some of its effects. But like most people, like you perhaps, I don’t truly believe it will change my way of life, my basic level of comfort. I don’t feel the breaking point approaching.
I know I must give a spiritual response to all this. I am nothing if not a spiritual being, I need to engage fully. But what response is that? Anger? Shame? Pity? Detachment? Or more attachment? Is it political? Apolitical but humanitarian? Misanthropic? Or on the contrary, humanist? Do I pray? Do I meditate? Do I strip myself of everything and become a Sister Emmanuelle? My energies feel frittered, fragmented. There is too much to do, to feel, to change, to engage. I am being changed by it all, moulded into – what? A hedgehog, folded in on myself, prickly on the outside, soft and defenceless on the belly? A cat, supreme, indifferent, focussed on hunting for myself and mine? A reader, an observer, a frother-at-the-mouth, perhaps like you – hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère – or perhaps not. Perhaps you are greater than I am, or at least, more effective. Perhaps you have more answers, or better questions.
In the absence of a grand, or even an adequate, spiritual response, rooted in the world, both immanent and able to see beyond it – that is, transcendent – I fall back on the spiritual instrument I have always wielded, more than a tool, a lifeboat: I read and I write poetry. Perhaps that was Baudelaire’s own reason halfway through the turbulent French 19th century, though he called it ‘art for art’s sake’. I don’t believe him. Poetry was to him art for sanity’s sake, art for the sake of remaining human, engaged, able to keep up a dialogue with his fellows, even a sardonic and self-mocking one.
I might be worrying for nothing. One or several of the looming catastrophes of our age will happen. They will force all of us but the most tone deaf into a spiritual response, because at the heart of tragedy, that’s all that remains, and all that’s necessary. Adrift on that raft, surrounded by other refugees from our collective hubris, I’ll be writing poetry in blood, on my own skin if I must, offering it up as a final act of love.