When facing reality is not ‘negative thinking’

May 31, 2009

By Carolyn Baker ©2009

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
– Carl Jung

Recently a friend told me that she had been talking up my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse and suggesting to friends who are aware of collapse that they read it. On several occasions the response was, “Well, I don’t want to engage in ‘negative thinking.’ I’d rather keep a positive attitude and stay hopeful in the face of what’s going in on the world.” When I heard this, I smiled inside because this perspective in particular prompted me to write the book. One of my intentions in doing so was to help heal the false assumption that looking honestly at the end of the world as we have known it is synonymous with wallowing in negativity.

First, let me begin by assuring the reader that I do not recommend staring down collapse 24-7. Initially, admitting the reality of collapse is frightening and disheartening. People at first tend to become overwhelmed with fear or hopelessness or both. At that point, we can do one of two things: We can back off and process the facts in bits and pieces, interspersing doing so with living our everyday lives, doing things we enjoy with people we love, and savoring everything in life that nourishes us. Or, we can immediately engage one or more defense mechanisms in order to assuage our fear and cognitive dissonance. The defense mechanism most frequently employed is denial, and unfortunately, some forms of spirituality are particularly useful in fostering denial because inherent in them is the assumption that accepting the demise of industrial civilization will drag one down into permanent depression, anger, hopelessness or despair. While it is true that when first acknowledging collapse one might experience such feelings, this does not guarantee that one must choose to take up residence in dark feelings, redecorate, change one’s address, and permanently reside there.

I wrote Sacred Demise from the perspective of exactly the opposite experience. Did I feel negative feelings when first learning about collapse and its implications? Of course. Do I still have moments when negative feelings return and cloud what was an-otherwise normal day? Absolutely. But for me, acknowledging and preparing for collapse has been a sea-change in every aspect of my life, which includes a full palette of emotional and spiritual colors and hues. It has indeed made me more fully human and alive.

Rather than dragging me down into depression and despair, my acceptance of what is has liberated me both emotionally and spiritually. As I have released false hopes of “fixing” civilization cosmetically or creating a mass consciousness change that might engender mass movements, I have gained much more energy for my work and for preparation for the daunting days ahead. In other words, I have gained a visceral understanding of “crisis as opportunity” – a cliché which I bandied about earlier in my life could not fully appreciate until I allowed myself to deeply understand collapse and its ramifications.

Last month, Oregon Peak Oil researcher and blogger, Jan Lundberg, put out a call to his readers to respond on three questions regarding collapse:

1) What we are acting toward? What main outcome might we be looking forward to?
2) What do we relish leaving behind, as collapse begins or as it will be intensified?
3) What do we not want to leave behind unresolved; or, what needs to be done before it’s too late to accomplish it?

This week, Culture Change published the results of the survey, which I strongly encourage everyone to read. Here are a few responses:

• I look forward to the world breaking up “into small colonies of the saved” (Robert Bly).  I look forward to a simpler, less neurotic life for me and my children.  I would like to think that my children, while their chances of survival may be lower, their chances of happiness will be higher.

• The central change I would like to see is abandonment of the addictive, frenzied, exploitative American way of life in favor of a tribal, cooperative, relaxed way of life that puts responsibility toward other species and the Earth, as well as other human beings, first.

• An authentic life that is centered around people and not things. Revival of things spiritual and not material.

• Learning how to live with each other and within the larger community of our bioregions and ecosystems in a way that is intimate, honest, humble and humanly and ecologically sustainable.  That includes restoring viable community life, economic and ecological relationships and systems – living systems.

While none of us knows exactly how the collapse of civilization will unfold, and while it is a process – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – whose beginning, middle and end are and will be difficult to discern, the responses to Lundberg’s questions are encouraging. First, they let me know that I’m not alone and that there are many more individuals than I could have imagined who are looking at collapse with the same optimism – and fear – that I feel when I contemplate it. Moreover, what I hear in these responses is not “negativity” but a deep longing for the possibility of living lives in harmony with all of the earth community and thereby experiencing the fullness of our humanity.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Sigmund Freud cultivated a very dark perception of humanity as he assessed the baser instincts largely repressed in the human unconscious. His pupil, who became the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, acknowledged the dark side of humanity that drove Freud to utter despair. But unlike Freud, Jung came to believe that the dark side was a necessary ally in transforming human consciousness. He spent decades studying myriad spiritual teachers, mythologies, and archetypes of the unconscious, and championed the sacred in nature and in the human psyche; however, Jung insisted, “We must beware of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites. The criterion of ethical action can no longer consist in the simple view that good has the force of a categorical imperative, while so-called evil can resolutely be shunned. Recognition of the reality of evil necessarily relativizes the good, and the evil likewise, converting both into halves of a paradoxical whole.”

In other words, according to Jung, what we call “good” and “evil” need each other and in our binary thinking are opposite poles which in reality comprise the whole of the human experience; one needs the other for completion, and particularly for the transformation of consciousness. This is why Jung adamantly declared that “mental illness is the avoidance of suffering.” He was not referring to meaningless anguish but suffering which we endeavor to make sense of so that our genuine human purpose may be revealed to us.

In Sacred Demise, I repeatedly return to the question: Who do we want to be in the face of collapse? My friend Joanna Gabriel in a wonderful 2007 interview with Peak Moment TV beautifully articulates the question “Who Am I In A Post-Petroleum World.” She and I concur that these are the ultimate questions that collapse is inviting us to address in our individual lives and in our communities. I believe that it is futile to attempt to do so unless we are willing to struggle with all of the human emotions that emerge as we choose to stop avoiding the issue of collapse and with the support of trusted others, look at it honestly, welcoming it as a wise teacher and ally.

Sacred Demise painstakingly guides the reader in opening to the process of initiation that collapse is foisting upon us. The ancients and all traditional peoples know that without initiations, humans will not develop into mature, whole beings. In such cultures, it would be almost unheard of for anyone to speak of “wanting to avoid negativity” because all experiences and feelings are honored as necessary aspects of the human condition, without which humans cannot become fully conscious.

Among other things, collapse is asking us to grow up, to become initiated elders and thereby guide humanity in a revolutionary new direction. Near the end of Sacred Demise, I include an excerpt from a comment a reader of my website, Truth to Power, emailed me last year. He wrote:

I, for one, would find much more meaning from putting food on the table that is truly needed and sustaining rather than taken for granted. Food that I raised or killed myself, or we ourselves, or my neighbor did, and I bartered with him for it. Much more so than the meaning Empire tells me what I am supposed to get from sitting here in my cubicle (my penultimate day today!) rearranging little electronic blips in exchange for money, which I am then supposed to exchange not only for my sustenance, but also for all sorts of diversions, to make me forget how meaningless it all is. I, for one, will find consolation in knowing my neighbors – and in knowing that they are there for me as I am for them, rather than living amidst strangers, as most all of us do now. I will find consolation in knowing that my ecological footprint does not extend beyond my gaze. That the things I consume do not cause death and destruction beyond my ability to see and internalize, rather than out of sight and mind as now, and so much larger than any being could ever have a ‘right’ to. I, for one, will find purpose in working closely and cooperatively and communally with those around me to provide our own sustenance, comforts such as they may be, and entertainments as time allows. I have no illusions that life post-collapse will be idyllic, nor that the transition will be anything but ugly. But neither shall I miss that which is dying – the dizzying complexity of our oil-drenched lifestyles, a thousand channels of nothing worth watching, mega-malls, motor sports (how many kinds of insane are those!?!), celebrities, glitter, growth, more, faster, bigger, keep up with the Joneses but ignore the sweatshops and the dying ecosystems, consume, medicate, live large… then die. Where is one to find a sense of purpose in all of that?

Whether one considers oneself “spiritual,” atheist, agnostic, religious, or eternally skeptical, the task of accepting collapse and seizing the myriad opportunities it presents is sacred work. As for me, nothing in my life has proven more positive or powerful.

Carolyn Baker, Ph.D., is the author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse (2009 IUniverse). She manages the Truth to Power website at and has also authored U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didnt Tell You. Read book foreword at http://www.carolynbaker.net/

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