A tale of two environmental lenses
The good / bad lens sees things in terms of righteousness vs. shame. The yin-yang lens sees complexity in all things. Which one are you looking through?
My friend Ethan Maurice wrote these words on his blog:
Understanding we all have a unique lens through which we are each viewing the world lends many awareness-expanding questions…
Questions like, “Do I like the lens I look through?”
Or, “What would the world be like through someone else’s lens?”
Or even, “My God! How do I take this thing off?!”
This idea came alive for me last week, after hanging out with some folks who looked at the world through very different lenses from my own.
I spent a day doing “mutual aid” — giving out diapers and food to the local community. I felt a sense of purpose during the experience. It felt good to help the community directly.
But after I came home, I felt uneasy. As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the people I was with were looking at the world very differently than I did. Many of the people in the group identified as anarchists.
I absorbed many quotes from them during the course of that day. “Capitalism destroys communities” was one thing I heard. “Religion is manipulative,” was another. “The musical Hamilton is nationalist propaganda. It ignores racism and genocide,” was a third.
It dawned on me that the emotion I was experiencing was shame.
What is shame?
A lot of what I know about this emotion comes from the book Discomfortable and conversations with its author, A. J. Bond. Here is what I know about shame, in a nutshell:
Shame is the thought and feeling that you are different, bad, and alone. Shame causes the back muscles to loosen, the abs to tighten, and you to look at the floor.
Healthy shame is short-lived, prosocial and specific to a situation. Toxic shame is long-lasting and pervades your core — infusing you with a sense of “I am bad and not worthy of standing up for my values. I must curl up into a little ball, hide, and keep secrets.”
I think the source of the shame was that I had unconsciously been looking at the world through what I’ll call the "good/bad” lens.
The good/bad lens
I discussed my feelings with my friend Liz, and mentioned the quote about capitalism destroying communities. Liz asked, “Sometimes I wonder, what do people mean by capitalism?”
This question made me pause and think.
At my local bar, I enjoy participating in open mic nights. Every Tuesday, a community of musicians, comedians and writers, all come together to sing, dance, and share their creative work.
If I looked at this bar through the “Capitalism destroys communities” lens, then I would miss the truth that this bar is actually building community.
Ditto for the religion quote. I’ve lately gotten involved in a religious community that has deeply enriched my life, and is not dogmatic or manipulative. If I had been looking at religion through a “religion is manipulative” lens, I wouldn’t have found this vibrant community.
When we put things into categories of good or bad, we run the risk of not seeing when things don’t neatly fit into these categories.
What does all this have to do with environmentalism?
Let’s take this quote, from an article by an ex-member of the environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion:
If advocating for an energy-abundant future where humanity thrives constitutes betrayal, then perhaps I did betray them. My old colleagues want degrowth—for people to have to live with less. They prefer the old environmentalist rhetoric of guilt and self-flagellation. I prefer solutions.
This writer has the perspective that the most sustainable future for humanity involves major use of nuclear energy. Other people may have a different vision for a sustainable future. The point is that each of these visions likely have both a dark and light side side. None are purely good or bad.
The yin-yang lens
The ancient Taoist symbol of a yin-yang encapsulates complexity for me. There is light in the darkness, and there is darkness in the light. Another pointer to complexity is the story about the Chinese farmer who lost his horse.
The yin-yang lens is helpful on a personal level. This lens enables us see ourselves and others as complex beings, not as “good or bad” people.
Thich Nhat Hanh put this better than I ever could:
I have weaknesses in me, and I also have strengths. If you congratulate me, I shouldn’t get lost and ignore that there are negative things in me. When we see the beautiful things in the other person, we tend to ignore the things that are not so beautiful. We are human, so we have both positive and negative things in us. So when your beloved congratulates you, and tells you that you are the image of perfection, you say, “You are partly right. You know that I have the other things in me, also.” In this way, you can retain your humility. You are not the victim of illusion because you know that you are not perfect. And when another person criticizes you, you can also say, “You are partly right.”
Adopting this lens is also helpful on the collective level. Through this lens, we can see things “out there” — e.g. capitalism, religion, nuclear energy, even the musical Hamilton — as neither good nor bad, but a mix.
The story is never over. We keep getting to write another chapter in the book of life.
As Jerry Garcia put it:
Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know. See how it feels in the end.
The next chapter may prove to be a good one. Truth is always a work in progress.
Let’s take off the good/bad lens.
Let’s not put ourselves onto a pedestal of ego, where were are so sure that our way is right that we are blinded to problems in our fold. And let’s not put ourselves into a hole of shame, where we can’t take creative action.
Instead, let’s look at the world through the yin-yang lens. Let’s do our best to clearly see all facets of reality, the darkness as well as the light.
Thanks to Liz, AJ and Api for inspiration / reading drafts. The good/bad lens image with the two girls is from this video.