A black and white bumper sticker lived on the windowsill next to my desk through my junior and senior years of college.
The sticker read, Life is a struggle then you die.
I disagreed with the sticker, which would eventually become hidden behind a stack of textbooks and other obligations. I disagreed so much that I vowed to prove the sentence wrong.
It is not that I had not known struggle. I’d waded to my chin in the shame and insecurity wrought through incest since early childhood, turned to drugs and promiscuity during high school and lost my menstrual cycle to exercise bulimia my freshman year of college. I’d known struggle well enough. I just did not buy the story that this is all there is to life. Something in me remembered much more and sought to recover it.
At the time, I was struggling. A diagnosis of melanoma and a wise physician had drawn me out of the eating disorder. I was no longer on a path of imminent self-destruction. I had begun the healing work, speaking for the first time with professionals about the incest and exploring breath work and group counseling circles. However, my torment was too deep and long to switch off the victim with a simple touch.
My efforts to escape the anguish of shame and fear moved from the eating disorder to activism. I projected my pain onto the world, specifically the forest, who became the child that needed protection from the perpetrator, namely me and other human beings.
I poured my energy out to the world in service of something far greater than myself and I was rewarded for it in honors and scholarships while anger ate my insides.
Upon graduating with a degree in environmental health education, I turned down the scholarship money for graduate school and went to work for a forest advocacy organization, earning less than half of what I would had I put my degree to use. I had fallen passionately in love with a world crying for help and I would give my life in answer.
Within a year working as a paid activist, I crashed and burned. My immune system was shot. I was crippled with CMV, an Epstein Barr-like virus that generally overcomes individuals already compromised with HIV. I was not HIV positive; I was severely depressed, wracked with grief and self-loathing. At 24-years-old, I could barely walk around a city block. I had to stop working for the forest.
I retreated to a forest homestead and spent two years living by the seasons, sun and moon. That’s when the forest began speaking to me in an attempt to lift me from the depression of shame.
One morning as I stepped out of the main house to do my chores, a thought arose: This world is full of the sorrow you keep, enough now, please smile.
In that moment, I was given permission to be joyful in light of the great slaughter.
It took 13 years and a load of therapy, meditation and self-reflection for me to make good on this blessing—to move from half-awake to wide awake and dreaming. When I woke, I woke in rapture to a world being born. Steeped in ages of grief inherited, I had missed the pure pleasure of being alive that is ecstasy, the breath of every being, the newness of every moment.
Psychospiritual healing is essentially the process of clearing the clutter and restoring joy and imagination to the being. These qualities may be suppressed and distorted by a variety of personal and cultural traumas, yet they are very rarely ever completely lost.
We all want to help heal this world—to be and be part of something beautiful.
Ultimately, the only one I can heal is me. I am my responsibility. There are many who can and have helped me, but the healing is my choice and effort.
The world requests gratitude for life in nothing more than a simple joy. That is, beauty reflecting itself. My joy matters more than I can know. The same is true for everyone.
With beauty itself at stake now, it is hard to prioritize self-healing. It is hard to accept that how I feel about myself and others matters more than stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline or protecting the heart of the Amazon and Tarkine. And it is not so much that I matter more. Really, not at all. It is that how I feel about myself and others determines the quality and influence of my thoughts, words and actions.
Love is the protector that begins and ends within. I hold to this: if we cannot do it with a smile on our face and love in our hearts, we have no right to do it at all.
It is true that the forest has been abused, as have the minerals and waters. These are the abuses of our very soul. If we can save ourselves from judgment, beauty has a chance.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Lauren Savory / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Nikki Hoffman / Flickr