Last night, I had another nightmare. Sweating and shaking, I woke up believing I was trapped in a country-sized version of the Calais jungle camp, patrolled by giant men with guns. It took me at least two minutes to realize I was in my quiet bedroom, and that I’d taken my anxieties to bed with me.
I subdued the panic with breathing exercises, drank a glass of water, and returned to bed. The memory of the men with guns haunted me. They were faceless except for their eyes, which projected hatred, contempt and glared with intensity. Everyone around them cowered, shoved each other in front of them as human shields, or tried to slip away unnoticed. I crouched behind a bush and watched it all. It reminded me of Yeats’s famous lines –
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Unable to sleep, I pulled a notebook off the bedside table and started to write. I tried to reconnect with the heart of my humanity, my human spirituality. I knew my nightmare was reflecting a fear that the world I lived in was melting away and that old ways of dealing with crisis no longer worked. Even spiritual remedies felt out of reach. It’s hard to remain spiritual in a world that seems to be veering into a nightmare, surrounded by systemic, institutional selfishness and acts of political and economic sabotage so monumental that it leaves me breathless, crouching in my own helplessness.
By spiritual, I don’t mean religious, or New Agey, or sentimental. I don’t mean the feel-good memes circulating on Facebook, or their opposite, the eternal judgement of a wrecked environment and a boiling planet. 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. That looks at an 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 loathe, 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. To welcome an engagement that is both physical and emotional.
I am a hypocrite, I’m lazy, I distract myself from the fear, the cruelty, the poverty of others. I avert my eyes in pain or embarrassment, while complaining. I point my finger: your fault! I curl up on the sofa in front of a gas fire 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 see on the news waves of people crossing the sea to reach the European shores of the Mediterranean, some barely alive, some dead, all of them 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 indignation. 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 exploited. In Gibraltar, not two hours by car from where I’ve been writing this, you see both types of refugees – contrasted, yet interdependent. 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, too much methane, too much plastic, a shortage of sweet waters, the rising of salt waters like floods of tears. The sixth mass extinction. The Anthropocene. Everywhere, living things and habitats squeezed and stressed. Seas dying, species vanishing, nature gasping. 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 come – from Africa, from the Middle East, and from within Europe too, because drought and climate catastrophes are borderless. I feel as helpless 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. I observe some of its effects. But like most people, like you perhaps, I don’t believe it will change my way of life, my basic level of comfort. I don’t feel the breaking point approaching. My subconscious knows otherwise, hence the nightmares.
I know I must give a spiritual response to all this, because it’s the catalyst for action. I need to engage. 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 like Sister Emmanuelle among the poor of Egypt? 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, indifferent, focussed on surviving? A reader, an observer, a frother-at-the-mouth? Are you like me? Or are you better, or at least, more effective? Perhaps you have more answers, or better questions. The kids in the street every Friday at least have some idea that we’re facing many emergencies. So far, the only response they seem to be getting from adults – including those in a position to take economic and political decisions – is naive enthusiasm or sneers.
In the absence of an adequate spiritual response, rooted in the world, I grab at an instrument I have always depended on – more than a tool, a lifeboat: I read and I write poetry. Perhaps that was Baudelaire’s deeper reason for writing poetry, 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.
One or several of the looming catastrophes of our age will happen. Environmental catastrophe, triumphant fascism and hatred, breakdown of civil order, vigilantism. They will force all of us into a response. Adrift on a raft, surrounded by other refugees from our collective hubris, I hope I’ll still be writing poetry, in blood if I must, on my own skin, offering it up as a final act of love.