Adapted from a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Santa Cruz, Oct. 9, 2022
Introduction. Evolutionary theory postulates that any species may face an existential crisis if its relation to its environment becomes untenable for any reason. Our species, homo erectus, has been unique in several ways. We are proud of two traits, our high intelligence and our capacity for loving, which have enabled us to adapt to many different environments and therefore to populate most of our planet and thrive.
However, while rapidly overpopulating the lands, human aggressiveness, once adaptive for competing with animal predators, has emerged as humanity’s single most dangerous trait. After killing or confining every other predator our pursuit of increasing wealth, power and domination over most of the world’s territory has also exploited and threatened the existence of many other species of both animals and plants, as well as the mineral resources beneath the earth and the oceans. Our runaway building of cities, towns and mineral extraction factories has trashed much of our natural environment and polluted the soils, waters, oceans and skies.
Our planet has responded to three centuries of human overgrowth, overuse and environmental degradation with catastrophic extremes of weather, wildfires, sea level rise and species extinctions. The balance of nature has been severely compromised and tilted towards biosphere destruction, in which our excess population, consumption and intergroup and international conflict play a central role. Therefore, we must change our own habits and desires in order to rescue our biosphere from ourselves.
We’ll begin with Men
Our greatest threat to planetary sustainability comes from a predatory class of men who seek wealth and power at the expense of all other species, as well as most women, children and seniors. These predators are a small subset of offspring of patriarchal families. Let’s face it men: We have a lot of changing to do to make society sustainable, and it will take both persistence and courage to do it. But it’s not outward courage, it’s inward.
So let’s begin with the dawn of a baby’s consciousness. Face-to-face gazing at 14-18 inches with its caregiver while sharing emotionally harmonious expressions provides an infant with its first mirror image for self-awareness. Before “I think, therefore I am” comes “I see and am seen with love, so I’m alive.” This experience of interest and attunement expanding into excitement ignites the infant’s energy towards intimate relations and gradually towards the entire living world around.
But if interest, curiosity and excitement are the fuel that powers us through life in the world, we still need brakes to help us slow our travel down and stop or even change direction towards something else. That braking emotion guiding us is shame. But since emotions are normally unconscious until they become conscious, most of us are unaware of most moments of shame. Instead we’ll need to withdraw from a scene and either feel helpless and bad or blame somebody else.
Shame scenes are called “negative” because we don’t want to face them; we’re too uncomfortable. But if we’re curious too, that pleasing feeling balances out the discomfort so we can explore our experience on a level playing field. Our urge to either blame somebody else or ourselves can relax. For the fault is neither just ours nor the other person’s. There’s a fault zone between us in our relationship.
Some of the greatest words that songwriter Leonard Cohen ever wrote address this fault zone: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” One sort of this inner light is the dawning of shame consciousness. And shame moments are signals of danger to valued relationships.
In 1975 the still-face experiment began to study what happens when early infant-caregiver attunement is interrupted. After establishing harmonious communication of faces, eyes and sounds with their baby the caregiver would disrupt it by turning their head away and then turn back with no sound or facial expression at all. The infants responded with dismay, confusion and then escalating separation distress.
Further research has shown that even in adult intimate relationships two people are constantly breaking connections and later reconnecting. At best close partners are in harmonious communion 30% of the time and separate and immersed in their own consciousness for the other 70%. Thus all human relating is an endless stream of “goodbyes” and “hellos” or of connections with ourselves and of connections with both ourselves and another. Yet being immersed in ourselves makes it harder to tune in to another and being conscious of both another and ourselves makes it harder to tune in to ourselves. The most difficult task in relationships is to develop the art of repairing them when they’re normally interrupted and sometimes damaged by misunderstandings or neglect.
People can practice relationship repair by taking some time each week to talk about what’s satisfying and what’s uncomfortable for them. Since women do more talking about relationships, they are more prepared for relationship repair. So for us men to begin repairing relations we need to cultivate solitary reflection on uncomfortable moments of dismay, confusion or discord we’ve experienced.
So imagine now that you have discovered a pricklypear moment in a relationship; how do you begin repair? If you’re standing on the edge of speaking without words for a script, you may feel echoes of the times you stifled this moment in childhood, and perhaps even felt too small for the task, like you’d have to crawl back and beg for forgiveness. But if you trust the person you’re with to help out, you might begin by saying “I’m uncomfortable.”
Or if you can view yourself through the positive lens of curiosity, then you can speak more easily. You can’t be sure of success in advance, but you can establish guidelines for regular encounters that include acceptance and commitment. That means each person’s words and feelings are human and therefore accepted, and everyone is seeking comfortable relations and respect. It takes a lot of courage for men to use words in the unfamiliar realm of emotions and relationships. But if we commit to acceptance and respect for each other we can expect to steadily improve our relationships and also develop our emotional fluence in the process.
What can Women do?
The challenge for women is not so much in the repair of relationships because we are already practiced at that—or more practiced than men. But women need to take more power and responsibility in the public arena. This requires of us that we come to terms with the emotion of anger. While men are more comfortable with contempt and anger than women and typically avoid fear, sorrow and shame, women are more comfortable than men with distress, sorrow, joy and fear, and typically avoid contempt and anger, especially anger. Every society discourages intense expressions of anger, probably because of its association with violence, although anger and aggression are not necessarily the same. An angry response might not be an aggressive response.
The association of anger with violence in the habits of a great many men leads many societies to strongly discourage it for women. Women hear that their anger is frightening, unattractive, or unjustified. But mostly women’s anger is dangerous to them because it can serve as a trigger for male violence. In American culture the response to women’s anger is rarely positive, and women often feel ashamed of their anger. After all, shame is the gatekeeper of all socially undesirable emotions, as an instinctive braking system for avoiding social risks. Intense anger is undesirable for women because it demands attention, and a good woman is not supposed to seek such attention. When witnessing a woman’s anger men may feel either anger or fear—perhaps of their own violence, even when her anger is not about him. Thus, in the process of bringing anger into her repertoire of fluency, women need to be willing to feel their shame in order to move through that discomfort zone.
Many women have learned to repress their anger, sometimes to the point of making it disappear. Some time ago I knew a woman who claimed to have never felt anger, ever. She came from a family of Lutheran ministers and so deeply believed that expressing anger was wrong that she repressed all awareness of it. Anger was totally outside of her conscious experience.
I wonder how many of us women have had difficulty at times embracing and identifying our own anger. Perhaps because we are afraid or uncomfortable with the power the anger allows us to feel? Perhaps because we are afraid of physical reprisal? Perhaps we were taught, like my friend, that it is wrong? I suggest the problem is lack of awareness of our anger and therefore a lack of familiarity and comfort with the power of that emotion. We women need to take up the work of learning to understand and manage all our emotions, most especially anger, so that they can serve us and not blindly drive us.
Now take a minute, or a half a minute, to pause and reflect on when you last experienced anger. Be sure to pay attention to your experience in the public arena as well as in your close relationships. What were the circumstances? How did you express what you felt? Or did you keep it to yourself.
Chances are your recalled anger was due to one or two causes: the “mother bear” anger that occurs when a vulnerable person, usually a child, is under threat and needs your protection, or when something has been done to you that is unfair. The second is the anger from injustice. This covers a lot of ground and can happen in both the private and public arena. Privately in the realm of relationship it can happen when a promise is broken, a boundary is breached, a lie is told, or a betrayal is committed. In the public arena the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate Roe v. Wade outraged many, as does the continued extraction of oil, the intentional distortion of news events, the hoarding of billions, the unequal treatment of people of color, and the list goes on an on. What is worth noticing about all these injustices is that our anger gives us energy and urges us to action. We move to repair the damage done to our relationships and to take action in the cause of equal rights for all and to protect the planet from degradation.
This is the wonderful quality of anger: it brings injustice to our attention and brings with that a powerful energy to do something about it. Anger is the harbinger and creator of change. It invites us to respond to the cries of injustice, change what is wrong and put in place what is right. In our near future this requires that women as well as men take up positions of leadership in our communities and in legislatures. And this in turn requires that we exercise assertiveness instead of continuing if past safe and subordinate roles. Being assertive will take courage, but all humankind will benefit if there are more women with the power to affect national and international policy.
Furthermore, because we are women, chances are we will be more collaborative in the way we lead and less dependent on the male hierarchical model of leadership. This commitment by women to the process of improving humanity’s behavior vis-à-vis the earth will ultimately contribute to the replacement of patriarchy with an egalitarian system of leadership.
This work is the cultivation of emotional maturity. It is the vision of many that we, women and men both, can develop more mature management of our emotions in our biosphere. Then we will not be unconsciously driven to compensate with excessive need for wealth and power that results in the degradation of animals, plants, earth and sky. Indeed, this new emotional maturity can become a Gold Standard for human nature as well as a more egalitarian government and society.
We have explored two emotional themes: For men it is awareness of shame as a key to engaging in relationship repair and thus expanding their breadth of emotional fluency. For women it is understanding the power of anger to strengthen their voice in public arenas in order to share equal leadership with men in government and society.
An even bigger leap in improving human nature is to apply the loving we develop in close relations to the whole planet around us. When we can perceive all of nature as alive and ensouled, as many indigenous peoples do, we can stop enslaving people, animals and plants who work for, house and feed us and stop treating all waters and earthen materials with unconscious contempt as objects we can exploit any way we want.
Healthy stewardship of the earth is already well planned and technically possible. We need only to control the greedy predators blocking it through good government. If we also lower our birthrates by equalizing female and male agency and leadership in public life and increase our conscious cultivation of mature emotions we can restore our ability to live sustainably with all other indigenous species and exercise conscientious planetary stewardship by living in peace and mutual nourishment with all of the earth’s environments.