by LaUra Schmidt | Founding Director of the Good Grief Network
TW: Suicide, Mental Health Struggles, Systems Collapse
“There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” ― Adrienne Rich
“People say we’re all seeking a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I believe we’re seeking an experience of being alive.” ― Joseph Campbell
“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti
My Rite of Passage
It’s 2014 and I’m wrapping up thesis work at the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program. I’m searching for ways to live in this world as systems collapse creeps up on the horizon. My intentions for the three (and a half) day solo experience in the mountains have been building inside me. It’s time to let go of other peoples’ unrealistic expectations of me, my impossible expectations of myself, my complacency with the problems of the world, and my clinging to the comfortable falsehoods about the state of the planet. I’m participating in this wilderness rite of passage, yearning for clarity and wisdom. I’m seeking courage to live in integrity with what I understand to be true and the humility to live by new, emergent truths.
I am at a ranch in northern Utah, where the ritual starts with two days consisting of an opening ceremony, group discussions, and preparation for our solo journeys. Bear Lake is in my periphery. The guide, Kinde Nebeker, is calling on the spirits of the south; my attention is focused on the mountain only 50 yards away. I spot an animal weaving through the sagebrush and stop listening to the chant. The animal is bigger than a dog, brown, has agility like my house cats, and a long tail with a ring at the end; no doubt in my mind that it’s a cougar. She is quick and smaller than I’d imagined a cougar to be. In excitement, I grab the arm of another participant and point to the animal. We sigh with awe. I reach for my camera, trying to make permanent an ephemeral gift, and as my gaze returns to the mountain, the animal is gone. I once heard that a cougar is seen only if she wants you to see her. I also later read once that “If cougar has shown up in your life, it’s time to learn about power. Test your own…. Now it is time to assert.”
On the second day of my solo, four days after the cougar sighting, I am sitting under my “thinking tree” in a valley next to a small stream. The grove of aspens provides shelter from the elements. The days of the ritual have been filled with rain, intense sun, and rain again. Green vegetation juxtaposes the red of the two mountains I’m stationed between. August in northern Utah is a cold autumn. My body alternates between being chilled to the bone and snug in my hoodie and raincoat. I page through a book I brought along for company. A quote by Edward Abbey catches my eye, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” I try to meditate on the notion of what action looks like in a time of crisis. An ant crawls up my leg and startles me into my body. I flick him off and feel immediate guilt and offer my apologies to him. I am in his space. I stand to stretch. My eye catches the neurotic, fast movement of an animal and I concentrate on a chipmunk feeding on a flower. We meet eyes; she’s assessing my danger potential. I don’t move; I’m an aspen. She relaxes and resumes her activity, moving a bit closer to me, until she is only a foot away. I whisper, “My kind isn’t always destructive.”
Later, I’m atop my sleeping bag in my tent. Somewhere between awake and asleep, I dream that I’m talking to an unnamed, unshaped (presumably human) figure outside of a grocery store. The entity tells me to stop trying to know things before they happen; stop planning. Not getting it, I ask, “What are you going to buy in the store?” There was no response. I can feel the agitation of the entity. I press further, “Well, should we plan for global climate change? If we wait, the result will be the decimation of the world as we know it.” With no words, the figure clarified in a way that only dreams allow: I needed to stop being anxious and stop trying to control things. I awaken to a wind gust against my tent.
As the sun tucks itself behind the western mountain, I focus my energies on creating a large circle of alternating stones and nearby fallen branches. I place my tarp and sleeping bag in the center and sit down, calculating the time by the sun’s position in the sky. This is where I’ll spend the night. To the north, coyotes sing to each other. Three solo nights; three coyote serenades. The songs end and I wait. With no timepiece, each moment is elastic. Then I hear it. The sound of a drum reverberates off of the mountain walls and finds me in the valley. Kinde reminds me that I’ve made it through another day.
I step into my circle and pray that those I love, my ancestors, and the ancestors of the land will protect me through the night. I pray for a message of how to live in this world with reverence, connection, and meaning. The night comes fast and there are unending stars in the sky. Dampness envelopes this world and I can see my breath on my exhales. I crawl into my sleeping bag and stare at the sky until sleep takes me. For the remainder of the night, my mind alternates between awake and asleep. I’m startled by the sound of a small animal digging near my head and by my loud stomach gurgle that sounds like an angry animal. One of the times I’m awakened, I see a meteor burning up across the entire sky; its tail, a yellowish-green streak, is visible for at least five seconds. Five full seconds of an illuminated sky. A beautiful reminder that permanence is an illusion.
Dawn’s first glow of sunlight greets me on the last morning of the solo journey; the mountain to the east is beginning to show an outline. I pack up my camp and am discouraged — I have no clear message. At least I completed the solo, I think. After three days of not eating, weakness sets in; my hiking backpack is heavy and I’m easily dizzied. After offering gratitude to my spot, I hike out of the valley and return to the group.
Back at the ranch, after a bowl of rice pudding, I reflect on the dream. It tells me to let go of trying to plan for, and control, the future. Life, whether we face collapse or not, is about the process and not the outcome. I question, what matters in this moment? What is reality? The cougar, the chipmunk, the stream, the green, the ant, and the meteor show me the answer: beauty, connection, and impermanence.
“I’m so not alone anymore,” said activist Michael C. Ruppert in a 2014 VICE special, Apocalypse, Man: Michael C. Ruppert on World’s End. (Note: VICE has since taken down this special, but it can still be seen here.) Ruppert, who spent most of his years as a whistle blower, activist, and author, expressed his relief to feel that other people were beginning to see the severity of issues plaguing humankind. He had finally found community.
Often labeled as an extremist or a conspiracy theorist, Ruppert worked hard to bring what he believed to be the truth to anyone who would listen. He wanted to expose, and to have us see both the corruption of power in the United States and how badly we’re destroying the planet. Ruppert’s community came in the form of friends, Facebook friends, his spiritual companions with whom he did sweat lodges and Ayahuasca, and listeners of his radio show, The Lifeboat Hour. Unfortunately, his community wasn’t enough; after recording his last show, on April 13, 2014, Ruppert died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Wesley Miller, Ruppert’s attorney, issued a statement; “He absorbed the pain of the world on a daily basis until he could not take it any longer.”
Ruppert wore his planetary grief on his face. An image from a video recording of Ruppert’s radio show haunts me. He lip-syncs to “The World I Know” by Collective Soul, as he plays the song for his listeners. The cameraman focuses in on his red face, through his glasses and into his eyes. Eyes filled with pain. Eyes tightening shut as we hear the words, “And I laugh at myself/While the tears roll down./‘Cause it’s the world I know./It’s the world I know.”
Since I was young, I’ve been drawn to the melancholic nature of the song. Its repetition, soulful violin-use, the singer’s course, almost lamenting voice, and guitar rift, combine to cut right to the listener’s emotionality. Collective Soul asks if we can see that “love is gathering.” Love is here, but we just don’t see it. So, the subject of the song steps up to a high edge to see the world below. It’s ambiguous as to whether he will jump from the edge or if he’s there for a new perspective. I’m led to believe that he’s meant to make a choice once he has awakened and has seen the truths of the world we know. There’s a lot of bad, but he can overcome, if he’s willing to. Beauty and love are still alive.
The song holds the tension of despair and hope. The song is not just Ruppert, but it’s every person who has felt that there is something terribly wrong with the world we know and love. It’s everyone who has allowed the crises we’re facing to enter into our being. The world I know is destructive, fragmented, competitive and cold. It’s apathetic and egocentric. But the world I know is also forgiving, beautiful, and full of connection.
While Mike Ruppert’s work as an activist is admirable in a number of ways, his story is the antithesis of my seeking. By completing suicide, Ruppert became an example of how the weight of truth is sometimes too much to bear. Does everyone who pursues truth eventually either take their own life or fall back into denial? Will truth’s weight take me too? There is no doubt that Mike Ruppert was worn down to the core and gave up. Yet, despite having significant suicidal ideation through much of his life, he somehow found a way to sustain himself as an activist for more than 30 years. This man worked so hard, for so long, with such intensity weighing on his soul. He left a suicide note that states, “There is no hope.” When hope disappears, from activists, from me, how do we make it through the day?
Ruppert’s friend, Carolyn Baker, often teaches on the importance of doing inner work and of finding peace and love as collapse continues to unfold. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ruppert had to have done serious inner work throughout his years of activism. What is heartbreaking is that it, like community, wasn’t enough. Upon further investigation, it was suggested that Ruppert suffered undiagnosed mental health issues that plagued him throughout much of his life. The difficult truths of this time compounded by mental health issues create a weight difficult to contain within one body, one soul, one mind. Grief, despair, anger, and sadness wear you down. They crush your spirit. How can we learn to sustain ourselves in a world that is consistently breaking our hearts?
Ruppert’s story is tragic and it hit me in a very visceral way. He and I aren’t so different. Throughout our lives, he and I have suffered from mental illness, we both see collapse in the near future, we seek truth, and we find comfort in a spiritual connection to the planet and its inhabitants.
We have choices about the way we interact with the world. We make these choices, daily. We can choose to own our baggage, heal from the past, fall in love with a broken world, and seek meaning and beauty. Or, we can choose to perpetuate the destruction and fragmentation of the world. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, conveyed that we have choices about how we live. He said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Our daily choice matters. We have only one planet; we have only one life.
The Present Moment
It is 2020 and I am sitting at my desk writing these words with the weight of grief pulling my body down into my chair. I’m not fighting it; grief is running its course through me. I sense the warmth behind my eyes as tears well, my chest tightens, and I weep. I weep for what could have been, for the pain and suffering that is so prevalent in the world, and for the suffering yet to come. I mourn for those who are in constant anguish from living open-heartedly, the many lives lost to systemic racism, and the agony caused by coronavirus. I’m calculating how many species have gone extinct since I woke up this morning, while grappling with the fact that billionaires earned billions more during this pandemic as so many lost their businesses, health care, and homes. The problems seem so big, so impenetrable. I feel so small, so fragile.
I’ve helped develop a 10-Step approach to encourage people to lean into the painful realities of the present moment and heal in community. I cycle through the series of steps that teach me how to reinvest my energy in meaningful ways, but I’m not perfect. Learning how to live in a world full of crises is a constant challenge; a challenge complicated by my tendency for depression and anxiety. Opening to these painful feelings and truths are acts of courage. I’ve come to see that any solutions to the myriad of problems facing us, if they are to be meaningful, will come from those of us who have been brave enough to take the time and energy to feel these scary and disorienting feelings. Through processing our griefs and facing reality, we open to new solutions that were previously unavailable to us. Additionally, when we do this processing in community, our collective understanding and accountability for these crises allow us to share responsibility for birthing emergent solutions.
I can see tipping points at the edge of the horizon; I’m reminded every day. We are in a time of great transition and transformation; our species is undergoing a collective rite of passage. Whether or not collapse occurs in the ways I’ve envisioned is beyond the point. What matters is the present moment, the instances that add up to create a lifetime. Clarissa Pinkola Estés reminds us that “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” Once I let go of the idea that I, individually, am responsible for saving the world, I’m free to live right here, right now. I tend to my internal world, knowing it directly changes how I view and respond to the external world. My body becomes an anchor to the present. The world is born anew with each invitation to slow down and absorb the enchantment of my cat’s meow, the sun setting over the Oquirrh Mountains, or the warm voice of a beloved.
To be alive in a time of crisis, to be fully alive at all, is to embrace the paradox that love, joy, grief, and rage exist simultaneously in my one animal body, moving with a fluidity beyond my comprehension. Like a meteor, I see the darkness all around me and I’m here for merely a blimp of time. Yet, I’m committed to leaning into my painful and heavy feelings and showing up in ways that promote connectivity and courage. This is the work begging to be expressed in these tumultuous times.