Deep listening will serve us better than building walls

Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written over 100 books on mindfulness and peace, says we need to really listen to those whom we fear to reach a compromise. (Photo: upliftconnect.com)

Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written over 100 books on mindfulness and peace, says we need to really listen to those whom we fear to reach a compromise. (Photo: upliftconnect.com)

I’ve got a friend who has tried killing herself a couple of times and is severely depressed because the world doesn’t have a future. How can she plan her own future when the planet doesn’t have one?

She has a point. We all know we’re going to die, but the prospect of an apocalypse caused by global warming, with the accompanying collapse of the monetary system and general rule of law, is far more terrifying and depressing to me — and her — than just our own, individual small deaths.

Are the survivalists right? Should we start stocking up on needles and tins of baked beans? I spoke to someone recently who had just bought a solar-powered water pump; it should prove handy when there’s no electricity in the wall sockets or water in the taps.

This slide into dystopia won’t happen all at once, I don’t think, although some parts of the decay may be more spectacular than others, for instance, when Brexit finally takes place.
Certain sections of our society are already collapsing: imagine a quilt that’s holding fast in some places and unravelling in others. South Africa’s a great example: there are areas in and around the average dorp where no crops are growing, where infrastructure is dysfunctional or disappearing, where it’s madness to walk alone after dark.

The second threat to our existence, directly linked to the first, is the rise of a predatory elite. In the last century there were decent newspapers that helped humanism to flourish. There were communism and unions to protect working class rights. There was a thriving middle class; there were pensions and medical aids. Then along came neoliberalism and fake news and deregulation, and now there’s the 1%, an aristocracy that’s left the rest of us with a shattered ecosystem and mere financial crumbs.

Former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi called it a cult: the unending acquisition of money and goods; the insatiable need for more power. It could also be called an addiction. Some South Africans feel they just have to acquire a Porsche when 14 million of their fellow citizens are going to sleep hungry each night, when only one in 24 school leavers is going to get a job.

Thousands of businesses are closing; millions have lost their jobs. Just in my immediate circle, financial stress is causing huge strain: musicians who can’t land gigs, artists who can’t sell their works. An acquaintance recently committed suicide because his business was going further and further into debt. He left his wife with nothing and she had to move back in with her folks.

You’d think that as we feel the increasing pinch of shrinking resources, we’d stop producing so many offspring, but nobody seems too keen to tackle this issue. We keep right on making babies, as if it’s everybody’s divine right. Only China ever managed to control its population, which led to all sorts of unintended consequences, among them 100 million “missing women”and, oddly enough, a lessening of the disparity between the sexes. But, had it not been for the one-child policy, there would be another 500 million of us around today, and probably a billion by 2060.

As rational creatures, shouldn’t we be able to figure out how to get ourselves out of this fix? Director Stanley Kubrick said that we humans fancy ourselves to be governed by our intellect and knowledge, education and ability to think analytically — but he believed that when it really comes to the crunch, we are governed by our emotions. I tend to agree with him: no matter what the evidence presented by scientists and, lately, by extreme weather events, we keep right on mining coal, using oil and producing plastic.

Humanity is a headless chicken, a ship with no one at the wheel. We seem unable to recognise the crisis of global warming and are not uniting to take the necessary steps to slow or prevent it. In fact, the rise of nationalism is causing the exact opposite.

Much of this is due to our leadership crisis. We don’t trust surgeons to operate on us until they’ve studied for years, and pilots aren’t allowed to fly passengers without rigorous training and selection processes, but we elect charismatic politicians with no qualifications for the job whatsoever, who prey on our fears, who happily lead countries into wars, who decimate the Amazon and build walls to keep “others” out.

In the documentary Jane about Jane Goodall, she describes how paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey sent her to study chimpanzees to get a glimpse of how we may have behaved as early humans. The chimps seemed wonderfully loving to Goodall, until a matriarch died and the group she was studying split. Former family members quickly became “others” and the larger group viciously annihilated the smaller one. This made Goodall and Leakey wonder if we still have this murderous bent. When I look around me, I think we do.

For those who hope that scientists will save us from the impending ecological disaster, think about what US environmental lawyer Gus Speth said: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that community building is the most important act of the 21st century. He says we live in a time when there many sophisticated means for communication, yet it is extremely difficult for individuals, groups and nations to communicate with each other. How do we restore communication? Nhat Hanh says it happens through compassion and deep listening: really listening to what other people or parties are saying. This way we can correct our misperceptions about “them” and, if they do the same, about us.

Generally, it’s suffering yourself that prompts compassion for others. Just 16 years after they were forced to walk what became known as the “Trail of Tears” in a forced relocation in which thousands of them died, the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans managed to scrape together $170 to donate towards alleviating the Irish Famine. In 1850 this was the equivalent of several thousand dollars, and their gesture is remembered and commemorated to this day.

Much of this kind of compassion will be needed soon: when cities run out of water, when floods flatten coastal regions, when barefoot refugees cross borders bereft of possessions. How much compassion will there be for the elite 1%, I wonder, when their lofty fortresses finally crumble?

Derek Davey is a musician and a Mail & Guardian subeditor

Derek Davey

Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches. Read more from Derek Davey

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