We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and the stars. We have broken the great conversations. By breaking the great conversations we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of our spiritual “autism.”
~Thomas Berry (Catholic priest and eco-theologian)
This is not a diatribe on wearing or not wearing a mask in the face of a pandemic. It’s about masks but not the kind we wear to shield ourselves and each other from a virus. It’s about the metaphorical masks we wear to shield ourselves from authenticity and the experience of being human. We have, over the course of just a few centuries walked away from “eco”, a Greek root, meaning home, a place of relationship and the bigger self and walked toward “ego” the small self; separated, individual, disconnected and isolated. This is about ecotherapy.
We are part of a vast system whether we ascribe to it or not. In ecopsychology systems theory, we can think of a person within their “place.” Consider the emotion and belief within an individual, within the culture, within the environment, within the world. Concentric circles of attachment. Would it not make sense to view our inner world a reflection of our outer world? When one is toxic, it will reflect in the other. If the environment is sick the individual will be sick. If the individual is sick, the environment will be sick. Our natural environment is very ill and through the pandemic and feeling isolated in general, so are we.
Why are we masking in the metaphorical sense? Many people are finding that their heads are currently a horrible place to be. We have fostered these feelings long before the pandemic through our use of social media, gender role expectations, struggles with values clarification, loss of cultural tribes reconstituted into political tribes, and the metaphorical wearing of masks in order to survive an unforgiving society. The pandemic is only a symptom of a larger type of dis-ease. According to the World Health Organization in 2017, depression is the leading cause of disability around the world with 322 million people or 4.4% of the world population being affected by it. The National Alliance on Mental Health reported that over 40 million adults in the US or 19.1% have an anxiety disorder. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry finds the rate of alcohol use disorder rose by 49% in the first decade of the 2000’s. Almost 13% of the US population now meets diagnostic criteria for alcoholism. The CDC reported that from 1999 to 2018, the total suicide rate in the US increased by 35%. I provide these statistics not to overwhelm but to provide clarity. We are not losing our minds but we are losing our connection to the “eco” or ecology of our experience as human beings. We have lost our sense of well-being, of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, to the things that bring us awe. We have created coping mechanisms to mask our experience of being fragile humans in a world that is increasingly disconnected. We are no longer functionally attached to nature or the earth or each other.
How are we metaphorically masking? Behavioral and substance addictions are frequently the answer for people struggling with being stuck in their heads, feeling alone and irrelevant. For example, some might argue that the internet provides more connection than ever before. However, there is an electronic media paradox – we benefit from technology but it often betrays us. Increased internet usage coincides with increased loneliness. Mobile devices can not only support but disrupt human bonding and intimacy. Commercial media feeds our materialism and drive to want more. Online porn addiction and sexual compulsivity may effect sexual development, create low libido and erectile disfunction as well as block intimacy between individuals. Drugs and alcohol keep the head and the body separate. If we can numb our bodies and brains we can disconnect our thoughts and feelings from our bodily sensations. We have taken the child out of the natural environment and restricted their ability to move their bodies. Reductions in PE, recess and down time to explore the outdoors can lead to developmental deficits. Granted, the pandemic hasn’t helped but we were on this trajectory long before Covid. As within so without. Our environment is yelling at us through the language of climate change, fire, mass migration, war over resources and yes, a pandemic that can maim and kill . It’s ironic that our worldwide population is having to wear masks to cover the majority of our faces, the major part of our bodies that signal how we are feeling.
How do we remove the metaphorical mask? Consider how loyal you have become to your dis-ease. Breaking the ties might mean stepping outside of your comfort zone. Find meaning and mission by looking at what you value. Let people see you for who you are which might be scary but could save considerable energy expended to be who you are not. Live. Get outside and put your hands in the dirt. Seriously. There are promising studies that indicate a bacteria, mycobacterium vaccae increases serotonin in the brains of mice like Prozac and other medications. While it is not known if this could have the same effect on humans, getting out in nature according to research can make people healthier. Walk and sit in open, outdoor spaces. Look for the unexpected complexity in a rock, feather or leaf. This is not meant to make light of psychological diagnosis but it can address the “nature deficit disorder” coined by author Richard Louv which many of us feel. Connecting to other forms of life, be it people, animals or plants can remind us of our connection to the larger ecosystem vs the smallness of the ego system. Find things that bring you awe. Something bigger than yourself. There are health benefits in awe including a reduction in stress hormones like cortisol. If you see a therapist and if privacy permits, spend time outside during your session. Nature can be a support to talk therapy.
Have you looked at the night sky lately? We are made of stardust – yes, really. Ask an astrophysicist. Now that’s a good shot of awe. Maybe it is reason enough to take off the metaphorical mask and acknowledge you are part of the ecosystem. Given that, keep the other mask on for the time being. Afterall, you are part of the ecosystem and we need to heal it.
Woodstock – By Joni Mitchell
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden
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