Archived Blog: On compassion at times of peril

I’m a firm believer that when things go wrong, it doesn’t help to point fingers.  You have a rational brain and an emotional brain; the latter is not known for being great at resolving problems.  Getting upset and putting others down for making a mistake—that’s your emotions taking over—only slows down the recovery process.  

Restaurant speak:

If a patron orders a risotto ai funghi e tartufo (black truffle risotto with mushroom) with the request no mushroom please because the patron is deadly allergic, and the server arrives with the glistening morsels of porcini mushroom proudly resting on a bed of arborio rice, there’s clearly been a mistake.  

The mistake could have occurred because the waiter didn’t write down the special request on the ticket, or one of the cooks tossed the mushroom into the pan without remembering the request, or the sous chef didn’t catch the mistake before he plated it and handed it to the waiter.

But at the moment the patron recognizes the deadly funghi peeking out from under the blanket of truffle sauce, that is not the primary concern.  The chef de cuisine (head chef) does not stop the entire kitchen crew and demand to know who sautéd the damn mushroom into the damn sauce.  Instead, she orders her panicked staff to churn out the correct dish as soon as possible, so as to not inconvenience the patron further.  

Eventually, a plate of risotto al tartufo senza (without) funghi is delivered.  The patron is happy.

Truffle Risotto — Ljubljana, SI.  Find more food photography under “Food” tab.

But, there are times when the blame game may be necessary.  The whole point of the head chef delaying the whodunit investigation of the mushroom debacle is that she instead focuses her attention and energy on correcting the error.  But what if several other patrons placed the same order with the request no mushroom please, and dish after dish, the patrons received a mushroom-laden plate of risotto?

Then she must play the blame game.  The source of the forbidden mushroom must be identified.  That’s the only way to make sure the mushroom stops making its way into the dish.

In other words, when there’s a mistake that’s not only continuing but actually getting rapidly worse—then the finger has got to come out and point.

And today, I’m going to talk about why the finger’s pointing straight at us.  

*     *     *

To be fair, no one thought it would get this bad.

When early modern humans began to domesticate plants and animals in the first stages of agriculture, they couldn’t have imagined this would be the outcome.  When Columbus set off on his voyage that led to the exchange of species between the Old World and the New World, he had no idea this would happen as a result.  When the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the 1800s, no one expected we would end up here today.  And even in the 20th century, a time we call “the Great Acceleration” due to rapid population growth and spread of industrialization, we didn’t think our actions would have such dire consequences. (𝟷)

But just because we didn’t mean to destroy the planet doesn’t excuse the fact that that is exactly what we have been doing, are currently doing, and will be doing in the future (if we don’t do something about it).

Yes, I’m talking about climate change.

But my aim in this essay is not to scare, threaten, accuse, or condemn you with depressing data indicating that things are going horribly wrong.  I encourage you to peruse through some of these relevant reads if you are interested, but I’m here to offer a new approach to enacting change.  It’s an approach based on compassion.  Because I know all too well about the anger, fear, anxiety, and hostility that plagues climate speak, on both sides of the argument about whether human-caused climate change is real or not.  And the last thing we need in this world is more hostility.

So I’ll just give you the quick summary: Earth is home and we (human beings) are destroying home, here in the strange and unfamilar Anthropocene epoch.  We have not been careful with the way we live and our actions have had big consequences—on ourselves, but even more our nonhuman neighbors with whom we share our home. (𝟸)

We have made a mistake as a species.  So, how do we deal with mistakes?

More restaurant speak:

Kitchen mistakes occur frequently.  We’ve seen how they’re dealt with; popular media has glorified the asshole-head-chef persona of Gordon Ramsey, and that’s probably the image most people have of normal restaurant kitchens.

But I say screw that.  Having worked in three different high-speed, high-tension, and high-stake kitchens, I have learned that putting a cook down for a mistake does not lead to increased productivity or higher quality work.  At best, the harsh treatment could scare her into concentrating more, but she is certainly not going to care more or enjoy her work more.  She’ll just hate being there and lose her mojo.

(Yes—speaking from personal experience, I can assure you: if a cook screws up, she’s going to give herself enough criticism.  There’s a lot of horribly cruel internal dialogue that’ll happen in her head.  That’ll take care of whatever emotional trauma you think needs to be inflicted upon her to teach her a lesson.)

. . . But then what’s left for the rest of the kitchen crew to do?

Simple.  We learned this at a young age.  Their role is to forgive.

Here’s how it goes: A mistake occurs, responsibility is accepted, and the lesson is learned.  The next step is forgiveness.  A mistake, when treated with kindness and understanding, can be a valuable learning opportunity from which we can grow; on the other hand, it can destroy our confidence and passion if handled without care and support.  In order to move forward in a proactive way, it is essential that we’re forgiven, and encouraged to try again and do better next time.

Of course, you’ll never see this on TV.  How lame would it be if a cook burnt something that was supposed to be charred, and Chef Ramsey just gently wrapped his arms around him, caressed his head, and whispered, “shh, shh, it’s going to be okay,” until the cook felt well enough to get back to work?

(Actually, that sounds adorable and touching; I would love to see something like that.  Get to it, Netflix.)

So when we find ourselves at times of peril, we must look to compassion.  And that can best be demonstrated in the form of forgiveness.  That’s what’s missing from our climate speak.  We’ve seen the heartbreaking photos of marine animals covered in oil, heard news about the shrinking and disappearing glaciers, and watched footage of the devastating hurricanes that claimed lives and destroyed cities.  And we’ve just been left to feel bad.  We feel bad for being a human being.  Finding out evidence about climate change evokes so much guilt and shame because climate dialogue frames humans as destructive, greedy, ignorant, selfish, good-for-nothing villains who have ruined the planet. (𝟹)

But I would argue that we’re actually pretty great.

Humans are extraordinary creatures.  We’re the most intelligent species to ever exist on Earth, and that comes with a lot of power and ability that we should be proud of.  We learn things and create things and work together to use those things to change the world.  No other creature can do that to our degree.  Gold star for us.

Or, think about it this way: consider how gigantic the planet is and how unfathomably old it is . . . And then think about how we supposedly teeny-little-insignificant-humans managed to create such a huge impact on this monolith in such a short period of time.  Yes, the impact turned out to be devastating—but here’s the bottom line: we couldn’t have done that if we weren’t capable of great things.

Breaking news: You should be proud to be a human! 

So here’s where that leaves us.  We have the knowledge, power, and ability to do great things for our planet.  On top of all that, we have the advantage of having and sharing values—love, friendship, family, community, health, happiness, adventure, the list goes on—and our values are so strong in us that we even have the drive to do great things.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to use our human greatness to mitigate the climate crisis.  If you need further convincing of how great we are, consider the massive network of scientists, researchers, educators, and scholars who are already taking the first steps to repair the environmental damage.  Consider how much more could be done if those with political power, economic control, and social influence also took part in this great effort.  And then there’s the rest of us—you and me, and our family and friends and neighbors and coworkers and classmates and all those people on the internet whom we can reach from the palm of our hand—that’s a ginormous coalition of greatness coming together to find a solution.  At the risk of sounding like a superhero movie, we are unstoppable.

I know climate change is scary.  It’s scary, it’s huge, it’s unpredictable; it’s tempting to just turn a blind eye and pretend everything is fine, the way we have for so long.  But remember that in history, Davids have repeatedly defeated Goliaths with wit and alternative strategies to take down the adversary when it seemed like there was no hope.

Because an underdog has the advantage of being driven by desperation, when there is no other option but to fight with every ounce of strength they have. (𝟺)

So, we must admit that we have made a mistake by being reckless with our greatness, giving little thought to what it will do to us, to our animal kingdom friends, and to our home.  We must accept responsibility.  But after that, we must assure each other that all is not lost.  We have established that we need to do something differently, and now it is time to show compassion—forgive each other and forgive those in power and forgive those we do not agree with.  We must encourage ourselves to do better, because we believe that we can.  And we’ll help each other out.

So forgive yourself, first.  From there, we’ll save our one & only home.

Relevant reads if you’d like to know more:

1. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”

2.  Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall

3.  The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

4.  David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Featured image: Endangered baby orangutans

One thought on “Archived Blog: On compassion at times of peril

  1. Very profound and ambitious. I do like how you make it accessible to those who are not familiar with the story of mankind. Specifically, how you mention that there was more than one Industrial Revolution. People are typically complacent when it comes to larger issues, particularly ones that make us feel guilty, but your suggested approach of compassion and acceptance for ourselves as a species could mean one step closer to everyone trying their hardest to reverse, or at least mitigate, the damage done by our ancestor’s understandable ignorance. Stay frosty yo.


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