Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Like many of you, I have spent the past two years in the grip of fear—of the unknown and the worst possible scenarios and real threats—while also managing my desire to control things that are beyond my control. All of this fear and control has been rooted in an inability to accept what is, right now. These years may have been the most capitalist period of my adulthood, and I am just realizing it.
I have cultivated, for my whole adult life, a place in myself that intentionally seeks to understand each person’s choices as their own life learning. I strive to not take things personally and to invite people to learn and think, with me or not. I have held a wide space for the divergence of beliefs that shapes the future and worked to grow my compassion to be as big as the world and all its inhabitants. And I have been on the socialist–communist end of the economic spectrum, believing there is some cooperative and collective way of approaching our lives and resources.
Almost two years ago, I set my vast cultivated compassion on the altar of my normal life, which I’d surely be coming back to soon. I found a hole with an ocean view to hide in, and I bought three months of groceries and all the toilet paper I could see.
I apparently also picked up a narrow compassion, just wide enough for me and mine, my family and friends and people who thought like me. The space I could hold for our human unfolding wasn’t prepared for COVID-19. I couldn’t extend my love, my care, my understanding and respect, or even just basic well wishes to those who crossed my 6-foot boundary, or who were unmasked, then unvaccinated, then gathering in groups, then unboosted. An “other,” an enemy, was unleashed in my consciousness: Those are them. They hate the planet and Black people and freedom and the collective good. They deserve the consequences of their own dumb choices.
Even when I started noticing that they included people I loved, I didn’t really soften. Even when respected comrades reached out like, “Hey, you seem to be out of alignment with your own beliefs of big diversity and being with difference,” I defended myself and called it collectivism. I let my love stay narrow. I couldn’t spare my grace for people who didn’t even believe in science! I couldn’t cast my generous love and compassion on, on … them.
At moments, I felt twinges of doubt, but mostly, they got swallowed up in quick righteousness. I am grieving people taken by COVID, I am fighting to protect my loved ones from those who would risk their lives, I have an autoimmune condition and don’t trust that my body can survive exposure, and so on.
I know denying that which is is a waste of precious and possibly connecting energy. But I was so scared and so angry.
Then Thich Nhat Hanh died.
And I remembered his teachings. I reimmersed myself in the sound of his voice, surrounded myself with his books, let his vast wisdom nudge my tiny balled-up heart.
I remembered that he told us that happiness is in the present moment. And compassion is a necessary component of being present; compassion allows you to gently and honestly understand and love the self, and everyone else, in a state of interbeing. We don’t have to try to be connected, we have to become mindful to the truth of our existing and constant oneness.
The night I learned of his ascendance, I wept with gratitude for his big heart and generous offers, and I wept at how narrow my heart has become. I wept at how tightly I was gripping onto life with miserly hands that looked for reasons to draw a boundary.
I am not interested in, nor can I sustain, the binary right–wrong tension of this moment. I don’t want to put my energy into these judgments. I am particularly disinterested in the way my fear shapes my judgment to be sharp and dismissive of anyone who casts doubt on my choices.
I choose Earth.
I choose the practice of interdependence.
I choose to figure out living on this Earth with the beings who are here, finding the boundaries that allow my love to flow, in the spirit of Prentis Hemphill’s wisdom that “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and myself simultaneously.”
I choose to root into compassion.
My choices are all rooted in my values of compassion, liberation, community, and pleasure for all. What I have come to understand as an adult is that the values we hold most dear always carry an economic component.
Movement Generation teaches us that economy simply means the management of home. This planet is our home, and our economy is how we manage the resources and needs of our home, including ourselves both as resources in the stewardship of land, labor, and creativity and as beings with common and distinct needs.
We are living through an age of immense fear—or, more precisely, we are in a postcolonial age in which fear is the most consistent and lingering quality of colonization. We know that this country exists because one European man got lost and others felt persecuted, and that the founding of the United States was a dance between slaughtering so many of the people indigenous to this land and then working enslaved people to death to pull a fortune from it. We have an economy based in terror.
And yes, it exists in a true and persistent precarity. At any moment, millions of people on this land could justifiably rise up and declare a war of revenge for oppression. In those moments when we do temporarily rise up against injustice, the economy, in the form of property, is usually the first entity the state moves to protect. Property, in the United States, is more valuable than people, as are corporations, the right to purchase guns that can kill 17 schoolchildren or nine parishioners, and the ability to evade taxes more easily as you accumulate wealth.
What I know for certain is that humans act from need and belief, most of the time to protect what they love. That knowing always fills me with compassion, even for those I know to be wrong, to be inhumane and planet-harming. They speak from a wound as much as I speak from a terror. We live in an economy of wound and terror, of collateral damage, of greed and stubbornness.
Not to mention that so many of us are still lost, are or feel persecuted, and are still working to encroach on land and labor in ways that are violent and unjust. Since the founding of the United States, fear has shaped the budget and priorities of our nation and shaped our collective response to any new challenge. The bulk of our budget consistently goes to military and police budgets instead of health care and education, or climate-responsive adaptations.
Fear makes it hard to adapt well, because adaptation requires the release of the familiar in order to change. Fear can be demoralizing and distorting, or it can be wisdom that is trying to keep us safe. We have not been able to appropriately adapt our collective fear to the wise kind, the kind that quickly turns us to face the true threats of our species in both the current moment and the immediate future: climate catastrophe, violence at the border of supremacy and oppression exhaustion, and pandemics that expose how interconnected we are in spite of all that cultivated and resourced hate.
A compassionate economic approach would care not just for the safety of people on earth right now, but also for the generations we hope to bring into a world we are simultaneously attacking and depleting.
What fascinates me, even in ideating about a compassionate economy, is how quickly it becomes clear that what would serve the Earth would also serve us. We are one, as Michaela Harrison reminds us.
If we had significantly cut down on air travel a decade or two ago (or at any of the many times the climate-oriented scientific community advised us to do so, because the pollution is so damaging), we would not have been so susceptible to a global airborne pandemic. Conversely, when we stopped traveling and committed (much too briefly) to a local and often quarantined life, the Earth rejoiced in her way, took a deep breath into the spaciousness our absence created.
We don’t want to show the Earth she is better without us. So we must make a shift in our management of home that is both personal and systemic.
For me to imagine how we pivot from a competitive economy to a compassionate one—from capitalism to something in the realm of socialism, collectives, and cooperative economics—I have to look at how I let capitalist behavior patterns root so deeply into my own heart, into shaping me.
When I feared for my life and that of my loved ones in the bloom of COVID, I became a microcosm of the capitalist system: competing to survive, trying to decide in my mind whose lives were most valuable, hoarding resources for myself and those I think of as my people, shopping at places I am not aligned with for the sake of speed and access. I became ungenerous, tight, scarcity-based, narrow, grasping. I even let myself touch into a superiority complex when I read that COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers comprised most of the dead, self-righteously thinking, “We told you so! What did you expect? That you could believe yourself into surviving a virus that is killing everyone?”
I am so sorry. I feel so ashamed. Capitalism benefits from this divisiveness; it allows us to perpetuate a system in which we have to sustain an “other” that we hope to dominate, oppress, deny, steal from, displace, or kill.
We are all at the same edge. We are all on a planet under our attack, stuck in a set of norms that cause harm, trying to survive an overwhelming number of challenges, mostly without the spiritual and interpersonal tools we need. As a species, we have not cultivated enough of a sense of “we,” a “we” that is strong enough for this moment. From business to government to movement, we have not been ready to let go of capitalism and move toward each other.
That is what is right now.
And I don’t know the way forward from what is. I have ideas, theories, practices. But I don’t know how enough of us become a “we” that can truly be compatible with our planet and each other before we go extinct.
Neither do you, I suspect.
All of this unknown has me scared.
And if I remember that you are also scared, and that being scared makes sense right now, it quiets my petty, defensive, and capitalist-trained self. It allows room for something other than My Way to be The Way forward. It allows a collective, interbeing, compassionate self to emerge.
With enough of those, enough of us, a new economy becomes inevitable. An economy that allows us to do as Thây taught us, to move softly, and with love, on this home. What you change in yourself and your own life matters: It ripples out through authentic relationships to form a web that can meet the future. I feel us all in this web, I feel us growing it.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. She is a YES! contributing editor.