My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (extract)
by Chellis Glendinning
…The emergence of this infirmity had been a long time coming, in slow and continual evolution ever since the initiation of a psychic and ecological development some ten thousand years before. This historic development, the launching of the neolithic, was an occurrence that began penetrating the human mind the moment we purposefully isolated domestic plants from natural ones, the moment we captured beasts from their homes in the wild and corralled them into human-built enclosures. Previous to this event humans had indeed participated in the evolution of the natural world carrying seeds, through the wilderness, dropping, scattering, or planting them, returning later to harvest them; hunting animals by building branch and rock obstructions; catching fish and insects; constructing temporary shelters out of rock, trees, and ice. But this development was something different, something unprecedented. This was the purposeful separation of human existence from the rest of life: the domestication of the human species. To Paul Shepard’s mind, the original dualism - the tame/wild dichotomy - came into being, and with it, the elliptical wholeness of the world was clipped.
The fence was the ultimate symbol of this development. What came to reside within its confines domesticated cereals, cultivated flowers, oxen, permanent housing structures was said to be tame; to be valued, controlled, and identified with. What existed outside was wild "weeds," weather, wind, the woods perennially threatening human survival; to be feared, scorned, and kept at bay. This dichotomy has since crystallized and come to define our lives with the myriads of fences separating us from the wild world and the myriads of fencelike artifacts and practices we have come to accept as "the way things are": economic individualism, private property, exclusive rights, nation-states, resource wars, nuclear missiles until today our civilization has nearly succeeded at domesticating the entire planet and is looking, in the near future, to enclose both the outer space of other planets and the inner space of our own minds, genes, and molecules.
"Separation," writes feminist philosopher Susan Griffin of this phenomenon. "The clean from the unclean. The decaying, the putrid, the polluted, the fetid, the eroded, waste, defecation, from the unchanging. The errant from the city. The ghetto. The ghetto of Jews. The ghetto of Moors. The quarter of prostitutes. The ghetto of blacks. The neighborhood of lesbians. The prison. The witch house. The underworld. The underground. The sewer. Space divided. The inch. The foot. The mile. The boundary. The border. The nation. The promised land. The chosen ones. The prophets, the elect, the vanguard, the sanctified, the canonized, and the canonizers."
In the psychotherapeutic process, one assumption mental-health professionals consistently make is that whatever behavior, feeling, or state of consciousness a person experiences, expresses, or presents exists for a reason. A good reason. If you and I were given the task of acting as psychotherapists for this domesticated world, we would immediately focus our attention on the "presenting symptom" of separation and divisiveness. We might wonder if the overwhelming success of linear perspective as the sole definition of visual reality isn’t a symptom of some deeper condition seeking expression. And we might ask: why did some humans create and then rationalize with elaborate devices, ideologies, and defenses an unprecedented way of seeing the world that is based on distancing and detachment?
For a clue, we might look to survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder: Vietnam veterans, rape victims and survivors of childhood abuse, sufferers of both natural and technology-induced disasters. One of the most common symptoms to manifest itself after the experience of trauma is the neurophysiological response of disembodiment "leaving one’s body" to escape from pain that is literally too overwhelming to bear. Some people who have endured traumatic events, in describing the experience, tell of a sensation of "lifting out of their bodies," of watching the event from a vantage point slightly above, a vantage point not unlike that of linear perspective. Others tell of escaping into a post-trauma state of mental activity devoid of feeling or body awareness, a state not unlike that considered "normal" in today’s dominant culture and taught in our schools and universities.
As psychotherapists, we might eventually wonder and ask: could it be that our very culture splits mind from body, intellect from feeling, because we as individuals are suffering from post-traumatic stress?
Could it be that we as individuals are dissociated because we inhabit a culture that is founded on and perpetrates traumatic stress?
Could it be that the linear perspective that infuses our vision from our glorification of intellectual distancing to our debunking of the earthier realms of feeling and intuition; to our relentless "lifting" upward with skyscrapers and space shuttles; to the ultimate techno-utopian vision of "downloading" human knowledge into self-perpetuating computers to make embodied life obsolete that such a perception is the result of some traumatic violation that happened in our human past?
Mythologies describing pre-agricultural times from cultures as divergent as African, Native American, and Hebraic tell of human beings at one time living in balance on the Earth. The western world claims at least five traditions that describe an earlier, better period: the Hebrew Garden of Eden, the Sumerian Dilum, the Iranian Garden of Yima, the Egyptian Tep Zepi, and the Greek Golden Age. Ovid’s words in Metamorphoses are among the most cited and most revealing.
Penalties and fears there were none, nor were threatening words inscribed on unchanging bronze; nor did the suppliant crowd fear the words of its judge, but they were safe without protectors. Not yet did the pine cut from its mountain tops descend into the flowing waters to visit foreign lands, nor did deep trenches gird the town, nor were there straight trumpets, nor horns of twisted brass, nor helmets, nor swords. Without the use of soldiers the peoples in safety enjoyed their sweet repose. Earth herself, unburdened and untouched by the hoe and unwounded by the ploughshare, gave all things freely.
Most of these mythic legends go on to tell of a "fall" consistently depicted as a lowering of the quality of human character and culture. In recent decades such stories may have appeared to us as quaint allegories, bedtime stories, or the stuff of a good film. But today, from our situs within the psychological and ecological crises of western civilization, these stories become dreams so transparent we barely need to interpret them. According to myths of the Bantu of southern Africa, God was driven away from the Earth by humanity’s insensitivity to nature. The Yurok of northern California say that at a certain point in history, people disrupted nature’s balance with their greed. The Biblical story of Eden tells of a great Fall when Adam and Eve removed themselves from "the Garden" and came to know evil.
In his work with survivors of post-traumatic stress, psychotherapist and author Terry Kellogg emphasizes the fact that abusive behaviors whether we direct them toward ourselves, other people, or other species are not natural to human beings. People enact such behaviors because something unnatural has happened to them and they have become damaged. With this important insight in mind, we might consider that the "fall" described in myths around the world was not a preordained event destined to occur in the unfoldment of human consciousness, as some linear-progressive New Age thinkers posit; nor was it the result of what the Bible terms "original sin," which carries with it the onus of fault and blame. We might consider that this historic alteration in our nature, or at least in how we express our nature, came about as the result of something unnatural that happened to us.
What could this "something" be?
Because we are creatures who were born to live in vital participation with the natural world, the violation of this participation forms the basis of our original trauma. This is the systemic removal of our lives from our previously assumed elliptical participation in nature’s world from the tendrils of earthy textures, the seasons of sun and stars, carrying our babies across rivers, hunting the sacred game, the power of the life force. It is a severance that in the western world was initiated slowly and subtly at first with the domestication of plants and animals, grew in intensity with the emergence of large-scale civilizations, and has developed to pathological proportion with mass technological society until today you and I can actually live for a week or a month without smelling a tree, witnessing the passage of the moon, or meeting an animal in the wild, much less knowing the spirits of these beings or fathoming the interconnections between their destinies and our own. Original trauma is the disorientation we experience, however consciously or unconsciously, because we do not live in the natural world. It is the psychic displacement, the exile, that is inherent in civilized life. It is our homelessness.