‘Strange, the best part of a room is a window.’ – Oregon poet William Stafford
For decades now we’ve been bombarded daily—in the news, on social media, and in our own communities—with chronic, anxiety-producing strife: economic instability and poverty; racial, religious, class, and gender prejudice; constant war and empire building; gun violence and crime; the direct impacts of climate change; and ever-rising, often hateful cultural and political conflict. This leaves many of us confused, dispirited, anxious, even rageful. We seem stuck in a societal malaise that all our efforts to muster hope cannot seem to quell. And as my Alaskan poet friend Gene Ervine said to me one frigid night last winter, “Watching the news doesn’t make it better.”
Progress toward solutions seems elusive, but I think that’s largely because much of what we see and hear discussed online and in the mainstream media is a tired rehash of worn-out ideas—standard problem diagnoses, policy solutions, and other cultural conventions—that have been kicking around in Western culture for decades.
Want a respite from all that? Well, there are plenty of fresh and potent perspectives—drawing on non-Western and indigenous worldviews—that have simultaneously been circulating for decades as countercultural alternatives to the same old thinking. Here are few books, an online talk, and a recent poetry reading that have energized my own thinking and rekindled my hope. What they all have in common is life-digested wisdom, frank honesty (i.e., no delusion), and real depth. No Pollyannas here looking for false hope or pretending our crises will somehow pass of their own accord. Real grist for our mills. I hope you, too, find them useful, perhaps even inspiring.
On fundamentally redefining our relationship to nature . . .
. . . I recommend Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 surprise “word-of-mouth” bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass, a groundbreaking—and exquisitely written—integration of indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge that illuminates what Kemmerer calls “the regenerative capacity of the earth.” Journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert called Braiding Sweetgrass “a hymn of love for the world.”
Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is a botanist and professor at the State University of New York with a lifelong interest in plants, poetry, and creative writing. All these formative aspects of her background come together in a beautifully woven enunciation of a nature-respectful worldview that is essential reading for anyone interested in making the individual and societal changes necessary to seed and germinate a truly hopeful future. Among her potent ideas is her concept of “the honorable harvest,” a direct outgrowth of her Potawatomi upbringing and a timely gift to the world.
On economic justice and environmental sustainability . . .
. . . I’m recommending Sulak Sivaraksa’s 2009 masterwork The Wisdom of Sustainability – Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, the best book on the topic since E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 worldwide bestseller Small is Beautiful – Economics as if People Mattered. Thai Buddhist monk Sulak Sivaraksa is one of Asia’s leading social thinkers and activists. His book offers a clear, concise enunciation of the guiding principles that underlie any real solution to our economic and environmental problems. The book also illuminates the reasons why Westerners, neoliberals and the World Bank find it so difficult to approach these problems in any effective way.
Sivaraksa does all this—fine writer and thinker that he is—in a scant 100 pages. His tough, no-nonsense analysis and his enunciation of a clear vision for action actually made me feel optimistic. If only we can find the will to act on his ideas.
On how to foster compassion in a polarized, conflict-plagued world . . .
. . . I recommend Dr. Manu Aluli Meyer’s 2021 talk on “Community Resilience Through Aloha Practices,” a lively, thought-provoking PowerPoint presentation this Native Hawaiian education professor made at the annual conference of the National Alliance on Mental Health Hawaiʻi. Dr. Meyer, one of Hawaiʻi’s deepest thinkers, brings the wisdom and lessons of her Kanaka Maoli ancestors right into the twenty-first century with an astute and heartwarming set of ideas that convincingly argues that “loving is the practice of an awake mind.” If your view of human nature is jaded or your belief in people’s capacity to foster genuine human progress is shaky, here’s some indigenous medicine to help heal what ails you.
To explore the modern relevance of ancient Chinese Taoist thinking . . .
. . . I highly recommend the extraordinary novel YIN: A Love Story by Taoist monk Yun Rou. This fun and compelling story brings to life the ancient wisdom of the Tao, and leaves the reader—who is caught up in the mystery, suspense, and exotic settings of this cross-millennial tale—wiser, more optimistic, and a believer in the mystical wonder of the universe. Yun Rou (a.k.a. Arthur Rosenfeld), trained by Chinese masters and now ordained as a Taoist monk, gives us an insightful, page-turning fable that illuminates potent ideas long embedded in China’s soul, and through his exquisite storytelling makes them available to the rest of the world. In my view, this is the best novel about Taoism since the 1982 international bestseller The Tao of Pooh—and is more potent and more relevant to today’s world than that earlier classic.
For a wise integration of modern science with contemporary Native Hawaiian and Asian philosophy . . .
. . . Take a delightful jaunt into a recent slam poem by Hawaiʻi’s first poet laureate Kealoha Wong, performed as a commencement address to his alma mater, MIT. Wong, popularly known simply as Kealoha, offers the young graduates a perspective on the deeper meanings of life and any one person’s role in that. Whether you’re young, middle age, or old, I think you’ll find what this seasoned Hawaiian-Chinese slam poet has to say compelling, bridge-building, and horizon-expanding.
‘At first it’s not much of a river’ . . .
I hope you find this sampling of countervailing ideas nourishing grist for your mill, a salving respite from the hackneyed conversations that dominate so much of the mainstream media and the internet. And if you wonder (as I sometimes do) how any of these good ideas will ever become part of the mainstream, I offer another of poet William Stafford’s wonderful aphorisms (what I think of as one-line haikus): “At first it’s not much of a river.”