The picture I took for last week’s post about the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves reminded me of something I did about this time each fall in my nature and culture class at the university. I was always forthright with my students, spending a good part of our first class talking about the current state of affairs, and warning them it would be depressing. But as I walked them through what they could expect from the course, I showed how I structured it so that the final third of the semester would emphasize signs of hope. And I told them it is impossible to have genuine hope without facing reality; blind optimism that “somehow *they* will figure things out” before it’s too late is a form of denial that can actually make disaster more likely.
Of course, facing the reality of the immense damage being done to our world, such as deepening shortages of fresh water, crop failures, extreme weather, massive loss of biodiversity, an extinction crisis and the grave threat of what climate change will do to the next hundred generations, is not easy. It is painful, and the more we open ourselves in empathy the more painful it gets. But this is the only way to become fully human, healthy and whole.
During our third class, I would talk about persistent organic pollutants (POPs). I would begin by reading excerpts from a conference paper by a former student of mine who was doing graduate work in biology. Her paper was called “These Facts Break My Heart,” and indeed as I read the excerpts a number of my students would start crying. So would I. At one point, she wrote about nursing her baby while reading an EPA document that said the following: “The toxicants cross the placenta and are also concentrated in milk so that the fetus and newborn can be exposed by a contaminated mother both through the placenta and through her milk…children’s exposure to PCBs and dioxins can be 10 to 40 times greater than the daily exposure of an adult.” These chemicals, linked to immune system problems and other serious developmental issues and cancer, are found pretty much everywhere these days.
Continuing on, I would read another section my former student wrote about other EPA research listing the chemicals found in the breast milk of the average woman in the U.S. and Canada: 135 chemicals, including common crop pesticides, DDT, 65 kinds of PCBs, plasticizers, refrigerants from our air conditioners, and dry-cleaning chemicals. More than a dozen were known encodcrine system disruptors. Most of them have probably never even been tested for their toxicity (only a tiny fraction of the 84,000 or so chemicals in use have been tested).
The worst part, for my former student, was learning that by breastfeeding she was passing toxins on to her baby. While further investigation convinced her that the benefits still outweighed the risks, it continued to make her sad. Initially, though, she felt grief, guilt and fear:
My body [as everyone’s] lacks the enzymes to break many synthetic toxins down, so they store in my fatty tissues, including my breast milk. Toxins I was exposed to as a child may still be in my breast milk. Toxins that my mother was exposed to as a child may also be in my breast milk.
Breast feeding is one of the only ways I can rid my body of toxins. A study that tested the toxins in a woman’s milk before her baby was born and then six months later found that the woman had given a significant portion of the toxins she had built up in her lifetime to her newborn baby….
It struck me as a tragic twist that I, like most mothers, was doing everything I possibly could to ensure the well-being of my daughter, yet at the same time was feeding her toxins every few hours via my own milk. I was shedding toxins from my body, and giving them to my child. It was like passing a hot potato: my breast cancer risk went down, and hers went up. I considered pumping my milk out into a bottle and dumping it down the drain.
My daughter now has my toxins in her little body. When or if she nurses a baby, she will pass many of them down to her child in addition to those she accumulates herself.
These facts break my heart.
It was the part about considering dumping her own breast milk that especially got to my students. That is when the tears would turn into sobs. Their hearts, too, were beginning to break.
Then I would tell them about my meeting Tom Goldtooth, a Diné and Dakota elder and the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Tom spoke about POPs and indigenous peoples. For example, among Mohawks living in the northeast, breast milk samples contained 10,000 ppm PCBs; the FDA legal limit for it in food is 3 ppm. Tom also spoke about the Penobscot Nation in Maine, living on an island with seven paper mills around them disposing dioxin into the river. They are dying at three times the state and national rate of cancer.
It was from Tom, I told my students, that I first learned about the indigenous prophets who arose in the 1970s and traveled around the world to the various indigenous peoples with the message that at some point in the future Mother Earth was going to cleanse herself and put things to rights. It would be a difficult time, especially for all of us two-leggeds. They believe this time of cleansing began in the early 1990s, and is on its way to fulfillment. One only has to read the signs of the times to watch it unfolding around us.
I told my students I was glad to hear them cry. I was glad to see their tears! Because that meant they were still alive, still had empathy, and were still open to facing reality. We NEED sadness right now. We need more people grieving over what is happening to creation. Grief is necessary, and can be a cleansing process. We need the kind of sadness that breaks open our hearts!
Sadness, though, is not enough, for if we wallow in it we may retreat into yet another form of denial. We need healthy ways to help us deal with our sadness. One is to look for humor–the comedy of entertainment, but also the simple humor of everyday life and the joy of being silly. We also need regular contact with the natural world, for whether we know it or not, we are connected to it, and as we become more aware of those connections we both weep AND laugh more easily, because we are more alive.
And as I talked about various ways to FEEL more deeply and become more alive and healthy, I would move a little closer to them, the coffee cup shown above in one hand, and a “helicopter” seed of a maple tree in the other. I would take a pretend sip from the cup, and talk about how as a child I loved to throw the helicopters and watch them spin. Still do! I would throw the one I was holding, and they would chuckle. And then I would give the lesson, the lesson of the maple seed and the cup of hope. Here’s what I would say:
Maple seeds leave the trees and are carried by the wind and sometimes by animals and birds. Some of them land on hard ground, some of them land on streets and sidewalks (and classroom floors!). Some of them are eaten, or rot before they can grow. But some seeds land on good ground, and they grow, and they survive the storms of life and become these incredibly beautiful trees. They hide some of their inner beauty behind chlorophyll for much of the year, but every autumn they let it all shine.
And then I would take my cup full of helicopter seeds, and with a rapid swish of my arm would project the whole bunch into the air of the classroom. Students right in front of me would duck, thinking they were about to get soaked with coffee. Others would gasp. Then everyone would laugh, and finally I would continue:
You, too, are like maple seeds. You leave your homes and are carried by the winds of life to new places and adventures. Sometimes it feels like you’ve landed on hard ground, and you need to find a way back to good soil. And you’ll experience plenty of storms along the way. But if you sink your roots deep into good soil you will stay hopeful and weather the storms. And then you may reach a point where you feel grounded enough, and comfortable enough with who you are, that you will be able to let your barriers down and show your true colors.
This is your task. This is my task, too. And if we do this we WILL make a difference. And the more of us who do it, the more beautiful the human landscape will become, and the earth as well.
And then I would take them outside, where we could sit on the grass and listen to the wind in the trees, keeping our hearts open in empathy to all the suffering of this world while remaining connected to its beauty, its wonder, and its constantly available gifts of healing and hope.