by Dr. Kathleen Kesson
It is March in Vermont, and a first generation of adult Monarchs, our state butterfly, are coming out of hibernation, seeking mates, and preparing to lay their eggs on milkweed plants. In late spring, the larvae will hatch, gobble as much milkweed as they can, and then in just two weeks, begin their metamorphosis. They will attach themselves to a stem or leaf, and weave around themselves a silken chrysalis that will protect them while they go through the rapid changes that will result in the emergence of the exquisite Monarch Butterfly.
The chrysalis is a space of liminality (Latin liminalis – threshold, doorway, entrance) – a transitional moment between what has been and what will be. A space between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ A space of transition, a season of waiting. We have, across the planet, entered a collective chrysalis, a shared moment in time between the familiar and the unknown. A psychotherapist describes liminality as
a kind of dreamtime, betwixt and between knowing and not knowing, neither here nor there—a limbo of uncertainty… that is radically open and full of possibility…a threshold of time, place and consciousness pregnant with potentials for challenge, insight, transformation and growth. (Golden, 2012)
Like the proverbial butterfly wings in chaos theory, which flapping over the Amazon create a cyclone in China, an invisible molecular particle encircled by a crown emerged in China and created a global firestorm. It has thrown our multiple and interlocking global and local systems into chaos. If there is anyone out there who was not aware of the fragile interdependence of our lives before, they are now. The cracks in our systems have been revealed as gaping caverns; as is the case in many crises, the people suffering the most are low income, food and/or housing insecure, or dependent on low wage jobs that demand their physical presence (wait staff, cleaners, clerks). People who are homeless. People who are incarcerated. People detained in border camps for trying to seek asylum. People abandoned by the promises of a globalized capitalist system built on the backs of exploited labor, disenfranchised populations, and the eco-cidal plunder of the natural world.
Many of us have left our “normal” lives behind (one poet describes normal life as “the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and ‘obligations’ that keep [us] from hearing our single and shared beating heart” (Flyntz, 2020). Whether we hasten back to our frenetic, furied rush of illusions when the crisis passes – and it will pass – or deeply engage with personal and collective reflection about where we are headed will determine the transformative possibilities of our experience. Can we change course? Can we make the radical shift from the doomsday scenario in which we currently exist towards the optimistic future promised us by P.R. Sarkar, in which “Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, the cult of love for all created beings of this universe?” Will the cult/ivation of this expansive love translate into the political, economic and social actions needed to transform the material conditions of the world’s suffering and dispossessed so that all might enjoy the Earth’s abundant bounty?
Here in the U.S., in the face of Federal government incompetence and venality, states and communities have taken on the major burdens of survival. I have been inspired to see so many people acting selflessly to care for others. Heroic health workers struggling to mitigate suffering without adequate resources. Teachers working to reinvent schooling so that children might stay connected to their peers and engaged in learning. Regular folk creating mutual aid societies, ensuring that those who are sick, disabled, or elderly are not forgotten.
We are collectively realizing the many ways that the dominant global economic system, a system that values profits over human needs and the well-being of the entire planet, is at the root of the current crisis and will likely contribute to a much larger tragedy than was necessary. Virologists concur that most of the infectious diseases that have emerged over the past few decades (AIDS, Ebola, and SARS, just to name a few), result from the interspecies transmission of zoonotic RNA viruses (see Vijaykrishna, et. al, 2007). These transmissions occur because humans have encroached on the remaining wild areas of the planet in order to plunder the biodiverse forested areas for timber, metals, and agricultural land to meet the voracious demands of an expanding human population. We are all familiar by now with the unsanitary conditions in the Asian “wet markets” where animals are slaughtered for human consumption and disease is spread. Equally problematic as disease vectors are the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) that supply much of the meat consumed by the world’s population.
Aside from the ecological dimensions of the crisis, here in the US at least, we have had decades of austerity programs, an upward flow of wealth that has filled the pockets of the corporate elite while depriving many of basic human requirements. The commodification of fundamental services such as health care and education, coupled with the increasing costs of housing and necessary living expenses have created gross levels of inequality, even in this supposedly richest nation in the world. These inequities have come into stark relief during the present crisis, as we see millions who lived hand-to-mouth suddenly out of work and struggling to meet their basic needs. And we are likely only in the beginning stages of the crisis.
I have been studying Sarkar’s ideas about Neohumanism and PROUT, along with the interpretive writings of other scholars, since 1972, when I was first introduced to the work. I have tried, always, to look at these ideas and weigh their merit alongside other current trends in the intellectual and practical worlds, such as deep ecology, eco-anarchism, critical theory, decolonization, and so many other ways of thinking that are consistent with Sarkar’s ideas. Taken as a whole, Sarkar’s ideas are perhaps more comprehensive than other systems of thought, but I am inspired to see so many movements e/merging that are leading us towards the realization of our “shared and beating heart.” Yoga, once considered a “fringe” spirituality, is now a mainstream practice (and yes, it has been trivialized and commodified, but has at least become accepted enough to be taught in many public schools). An environmental movement sparked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring back in 1962 and brought to global attention by the climate crisis enjoys growing popular support, despite the criminal rollbacks of regulation under the current administration. And socio-economic-political ideas central to Sarkar’s Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT) — worker’s cooperatives, food sovereignty, moral leadership, the rights of all people for a decent job, housing, food, health care and education, and the protection of biodiversity and natural habitats (see Maheshvaranda, 2012) — are now being seriously considered as solutions to current social and ecological problems. All of these ideas are vibrating in our collective chrysalis as we look forward to emergence. What will each and every one of us do to give impetus to the turning of the social cycle, nudging humanity into the “bright new day” that we know lies ahead?
Chaos is destabilizing. But chaos theory teaches us that systems re-organize, often in surprising new ways. Our way of life has brought us to a tipping point of which the Coronavirus is only the most urgent evidence. We will undoubtedly be faced with more crises in the future that require us to think in new ways about all aspects of our social life: How do we create strong communities? What do we collectively value? How can we build networks of support so that all are cared for? In terms of our youth, and their education: How do we create educational approaches that value human development, equity and joy over test scores and academic achievement? What is worth learning and how can we best prepare young people for the actual future that is evolving before our eyes? How can we create pedagogies that nurture the inner lives of children as well as teaching them about the material world? And for us elders: How can we behave more responsibly towards the generations to come? What do we need to learn about making our communities ecologically sustainable? How do we establish more harmonious relations with the rest of the natural world?
Author and theologian Richard Rohr (1999) describes the space of liminality as “the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.” Will we find the courage to allow this dissolution, in order to make way for the world we hope to create? I believe that we are in the thick of what may come to be understood as the “great transition” – the death of an old era and the birth of the new. Such a birth is not accomplished painlessly, but with extraordinary labor. Those of us who hold a Neohumanist vision of human potential and a PROUTist vision of a just, ecological and joyful Earth home, along with our many partners across the planet, share a responsibility to be midwives to this birth. Systems demand that we evolve and adapt. The butterfly effect teaches us that small actions can have big impacts. Our collective small actions, mindfully taken, could have important collective impacts, so let us proceed into this new experience as mindfully and compassionately as we can.
For further reading on this topic by Kathleen Kesson:
“Three Scenarios for the Future of Education in the Anthropocene”, in the Journal of Futures Studies
Flyntz, K. (2020). Imagined letter from COVID-19. Unpublished poem.
Golden, C. (2012). Encountering the liminal: A shamanic space for healing self and community. Retrieved at: https://soulcraftwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/encountering-the-liminal-a-shamanic-space-for-healing-self-and-community/
Maheshvarananda, D. (2012). After capitalism: Economic democracy in action. Puerto Rico: InnerWorld Publications.
Rohr, R. (1999). Everything belongs: The gift of contemplative prayer. The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Vijaykrishna, D., Smith, G.J.D., Zhang, J.X., Peiris, J.S.M., Chen, H., Guan, Y. (2007). Evolutionary insights into the ecology of coronaviruses. Journal of Virology. 81(8): 4012–4020.
Kathleen Kesson is Professor Emerita, LIU-Brooklyn, and is the former Director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont and Director of Education at Goddard College. She currently lives in Barre, Vermont and is actively engaged in the work to make Vermont schools more equitable, sustainable, and joyful. Her latest book is Unschooling in Paradise. You can read other writing by her as well as an excerpt from this book at https://www.kathleenkesson.com. Visit the book link at AMAZON and see the new Kindle version, available for only $.99 (AMAZON’s minimum price).