Australian Peter Webb, at work in the Brasilian rainforest; photo from It’s Crow Time.
Peter Webb, one of the ‘pioneers of permaculture’ (which would make a cool name for a rock band), mentioned to me, in a recent email exchange about the essential skills that will be needed as collapse deepens, that perhaps one of those skills is recuperation.
Yes! One of my (and I suspect many people’s) constant laments is “I don’t have enough time to…”). Of course, that’s always a bit dishonest. If we really consider it urgent enough, we will find time for it. But there’s a paradox — If we give ourselves time to reflect, to do nothing, to recuperate, then we leave less time for other things we ‘should’ be doing. But if we don’t allow for this down time, we are likely to have less energy and attention for everything we do, and hence will not do anything as well as we could have. We may also ruin our health.
When I worked as an advisor to small businesses, I heard this a lot: All their time and energy was consumed dealing with the urgent, with crises, and there was never time to recharge, to just think, to ask the deeper and more important questions. Especially the why questions. The result, often, was burnout.
Now that collapse is everywhere around us, and the crises seem never-ending, there is an even greater danger that we will just keep fighting the fires until we drop, and never take the time to recuperate, to reflect, to think about the why’s, to imagine other possibilities, to just listen to the quieter voices.
Alice Walker was philosophical about this, when she wrote:
We will just keep going
Until we drop
And this is not a sad thing.
All the leaves that ever lived
Did the same.
But I’m also drawn by Ursula Le Guin’s comment about the importance of us learning to take the time to listen to the voices of women:
We are volcanoes.
When we women offer our experience as our truth,
as human truth,
all the maps change:
There are new mountains.
We cannot really listen, we cannot learn new truths, create new maps, if we are endlessly distracted and exhausted — if we don’t take time, make time, for recuperation.
As I see it, there are two ‘levels’ of recuperation: The first, in times of acute stress, is where we just stop moving, stop bemoaning endlessly and anxiously the sorry state of the world, stop fighting the fires even though they still rage, and put down our tools, sit, and wipe our brows. At this level we are still alert, still anxious, but allow ourselves to catch our breath, to sleep, eat and drink, and think about what makes sense to do next. This, I would say, is more a respite than a recuperation.
The second, in times of chronic stress, is where we make time to do nothing, to stop thinking and just pay attention, to just be. This is the real recuperation, with the time and space for real healing. Most of us aren’t very good at it, perhaps mainly because we don’t get much practice at it.
Of course, to the extent these recuperative activities allow us to perceive, to notice with new eyes and new energy, what we had missed in the frenzy — that intriguing new idea, that unrecognized new threat — our recuperation time might be short-lived.
Millions of ‘experts’ tell us, platitudinously, their advice on how to recuperate: This advice could fill lots of Bullshit Bingo cards, and includes: Breathing exercises, noticing your body’s aches and tensions and tightening and relaxing your muscles one at a time, taking care to look after your body’s immediate needs, drinking lots of water, giving yourself ‘permission’ for ‘deserved’ rest breaks, paying attention to what is happening non-judgementally, smiling and laughing, meditation (especially of the ‘mindfulness’ variety), contemplation and gratitude practices, warm baths, soothing music and singing, regular exercise, yoga, moving your body gently and continuously, eating the ‘right’ foods, ‘cross-crawl’ and similar ‘brain-confusing’ exercises, talking (or blogging) things out, helping others in worse positions than you, celebrations and rituals, ditching your phone and doom-scrolls and TV and social media, taking relaxing vacations, non-competitive play, and setting aside a specific time every day for just relaxing.
Did I miss any? This is not to criticize these methods, though my sense is that most of us have tried most of these at some point, and are still doing the ones that kinda work, and have given up on those that don’t. I think that’s my point about these methods, and about recuperation ‘practices’ (and other ‘self-help’ methods) in general — if they’re going to help us, we’ve probably already discovered them.
And my sense is that we are all so very different in what works for us, and what we’re conditioned to do and able to do, that general guidance (‘top 10’ lists etc) are pretty useless. I’m not a fan of ‘self-help’ books and cures, and even I have tried just about all of the methods in the list above. I could probably have told you in advance how well each was going to work. And having exhausted the list, I’m still not very good at recuperating.
So for me the question is more about how we can discover enough about ourselves to reveal what is the best method for recuperation for each of us. It’s a bit like finding a diet that works: If we’re disinclined to follow it, it doesn’t matter how convinced we are that it’s ‘good’ for us.
Peter wrote (emphases mine):
Recuperation it seems has less to do with getting something back and more to do with letting go (of something). Sort of paradoxical. But as you know, this space of paradox is extremely fruitful if we can remember to keep breathing and stop when we feel like it’s time to stop and feel or reflect. We men don’t always come with this possibility clearly defined in our genetics, so it can be unknown ground until we explore it alone in a loving manner. Can we allow ourselves? With all the weight and impulse to be someone and do something with ourselves in life or society; the inherited male ethic. As it falls apart within the ’spectrum’ we now live with, can we just be comfortable with who we are?
As the Earth (being) shrugs to relieve itself of some of the ‘human invents’, how do we recuperate a normality of humanity that has been perverted and led far away from a resonance with all of life (animate and inanimate) which share the planet with us? When we can let go, the ‘void’, which seems to be a primal fear, is not so frightening.
Time to jump together. With more space, time dances in a different way and our feet with it; if we allow ourselves. Sort of a ‘recuperation’ of what is natural for us.
I think Peter is right. It’s sometimes more a matter of remembering to do things that help us recuperate, when we need to, rather than just appreciating they can help when we do.
And we are so enculturated to react, to be outraged, to persevere, to keep struggling, to focus all our attention on the problem or predicament at hand, that it’s easy to forget to look after ourselves so we can stay healthy enough to continue the struggle. Sometimes it’s left up to our bodies to stop us, to say “no more” by falling ill, forcing us to recuperate.
I like Peter’s question about collective recuperation of our entire species, as part of the more-than-human world. But I don’t have any answers on how, or even if, that might happen.
“Letting go” is another matter, especially when we have been so conditioned to fear what we do not ‘know’. And part of letting go is the very acknowledgement that, as a tiny, bewildered part of the Earth “being”, we really don’t know very much.
I think his distinction between “getting something back (to ‘normal)” and “letting go” is a critical one. The former is about resilience, a primary catchword of this century, and one that I think may be seriously misguided. Only in our tiny, brief, narrow, prosthetic world is there such a thing as ‘normal’ to get back to. Our universe is a place of endless, tumultuous change.
“Letting go”, by contrast, is not about resilience, but rather about adaptation, “fitness” in the Darwinian sense, making space and room for the always-new: accommodation.
When we cease to see recuperation as getting back to normal, and start to see it as adapting ourselves to, accommodating, the always- and ever-new reality, then perhaps we will get better at it. A lot of wild creatures seem to be pretty good at it, by practice, or by instinct. Some people in struggling nations already facing collapse are getting much better at it very quickly.
Think about welcoming two billion ecological collapse refugees, or being such refugees ourselves, constantly on the move. Think about learning to live without fossil fuels, imported goods, air travel, automobiles, currencies, and the internet. Think about learning all those new skills we will, of necessity, have to learn or relearn, and the incredible self-confidence, capacity and independence that learning them will bring us. Enough capacity, self-confidence and self-knowledge, perhaps, to become so good at recuperating that we’re ready for almost anything, instead of fearing, mourning, and resisting change.
Dmitry Orlov in his book Communities That Abide tells the story of how birds self-organize in the face of collapse, adapting easily without needing a ‘leader’:
Fifty blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.
And, perhaps too, how to recuperate. They know there is no going back, no ‘normal’. Accommodating, in more ways than one.