“Without feedback, we really suffer.“

Paul Hawken spoke those words in a video I watched for a class about climate action and Project Drawdown. It made me think about the feedback we need to heed this year. Without the feedback of personally knowing someone who has suffered and died of COVID 19, the novel coronavirus, many, myself at times included, brush it off as “just the flu.” When we do, we may take less responsibility for actions to halt its spread. Lack of attention to feedback may be what causes the most suffering.

Feedback must first open our minds

Without being personally impacted by rising coastal waters, deaths and extinction events and the fires raging in the western United States it is easier to carry on with life as usual. It is easy to long for the way things were and getting back to “normal” if normal was comfortable. Without the feedback of the climate crisis and social or racial injustice, it is easy to allow suffering to continue.

We, those of us in a segment of comfortable citizens, may not personally suffer. However, We the People suffer when we allow ourselves to take in feedback that shows the suffering around us. Feedback must open our minds to work that needs to be done. If we let it, we can focus on work we may otherwise postpone in the absence of feedback. We need to take feedback in and pass it through the fire of our thoughts to turn it into action that can alleviate suffering.

“Pass light through the fire of thought,” Said the minister of the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation this last Sunday. To that I would add, use what shines through to show us the work We the People are called to do. Feedback only becomes effective when we pass the light of that information through the fire of our thoughts.

I was already struggling with how to clarify all the flares-ups raging through my mind as this year winds towards conclusion. My youngest brother championed me with his teenage announcement: when he grew up he wanted to be just like his big sister, … he wanted to be a Backcountry Ranger Naturalist. Interest and drive to contain wild land fire drove him to a life of service fighting wild land fire. Even more exciting was discovering ways to manage forests to stave off disastrous effects of wild fire where forest management had suppressed fire for decades. He taught me a lot about the need for fire, the right kind of fire.

“Bad”? or “Good”?

Some of what we think of as “bad” may sometimes prove to be essential. Change we later recognize as necessary may arise from misfortune. Yosemite National Park, where I worked for five years in the 1970’s, went through a tumultuous time of changing rules and procedures. The Park recognized visitors were spending more time in traffic jams than enjoying the natural wonders of the park. 

Against much initial protest some roads were closed to private automobiles and a shuttle bus system began. Permits were required to backpack to popular wilderness camping destinations. Numbers of campers were limited to provide an experience more intimate with nature than a crowd of fellow campers. 

Decades of suppressing fire came into question. Trees were encroaching on meadows, blocking inspiring vistas and decreasing browse and forage for native animals. Prescribed burning began shifting the landscape to more nearly what it had been. Frequent, less devastating lightning fires and burns controlled by the first inhabitants of the Valley forged the grand landscape closer to a natural state. That balance of fire resulted in species adapted to regular burning.. 

“For he is like the refiners fire” is a line that ripples and rises like flames flickering through Handel’s Messiah. Sometimes I feel as if this year is like that refiner’s fire. News images show Californians and Oregonians returning to molten autos and charred remains of their homes. I try to imagine how I would feel if everything familiar became gray ash. 

Pass Light of Feedback Through the Fire of Thought

As I sifted through papers and other effects left by my brother when he departed his home hastily to work on the last fire of his life, I realized it is time to consider what is worth keeping and caring for. I ask myself, what can I release before a fire takes it, or I am not able to sort it myself? 

We are letting go of so much that really matters: gathering to celebrate and mourn, hugs, meals shared with friends, ease of long distance travel, even browsing the aisles of a bookstore or perusing products in the grocery store..

“Without feedback, we really suffer” while true, requires us to heed and respond to the feedback. If not, we will suffer as much or more. With awareness of feedback we may have greater choice in what we can live without. Without paying attention to that feedback we may face even greater devastation.

What do you miss most? What loss serves as feedback to prevent greater suffering? Are you receiving feedback you need to pass through the fire of your thoughts?

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