I wish to acknowledge the beautiful and hauntingly disturbing work of photographer Nick Brandt in his collection and book Inherit the Dust (2016). The image above is titled Quarry with Giraffe (uncropped version below).
I’m equally grateful to Nick for the permission he has granted me to feature his work in this essay.
Please consider ..
If your narrative of the world and what constitutes a ‘good life' is peddled to you through a human-centric lens, you will almost inevitably view and understand ‘needs' through that same lens. You will devise strategies to meet your needs and the needs of those you care for while paying little heed to the needs of the non-human life upon which your human life is inarguably one hundred percent dependent. The landscape falling off the edge of your lens will be barely visible to you. This of course doesn’t mean that the landscape isn’t there, even if you don’t see it.
In a sane and healthy culture, it’s understood that it is far more important to instruct people on how to develop a deep relationship with the natural world than to have them focus on their personal needs. We can best serve life when we understand our role to be one of custodianship rather than subscribing to being customers and vendors. Being in ‘right’ relationship with life IS ESSENTIAL to all life. We accordingly have an obligation to first attend to the needs of life. Otherwise we are all in peril. And yet when we take a look around, our behaviours reveal that, by and large, we are far more preoccupied with being customers and vendors than we are with being custodians and caretakers.
In my 20 years of teaching NVC (Nonviolent Communication), I have become increasingly aware and disturbed at the insidiousness of the human-centric lens and how it compromises the capacity of NVC to contribute to enriching life in a genuinely deep, inclusive and sustained way. The lenses through which we view the world invariably define the parameters and content of our conversations. Consequently, when our lens is human-centric, the very real needs of life beyond the human have no place to appear. How often does non-human life show up in conversations about social justice, resolving conflict, getting our children or employees to cooperate, etc? Very rarely.
Most disputes that I’m asked to provide support for in my work occur within physical and psychic spaces that are both created and dominated by predominately human interests. The insularity of these spaces and equally insulated associated concerns are in most cases considerably removed from the past and present atrocities, injustices and exploitations that can be linked to the unhealthy and short-sighted detachment that insularity in fact facilitates and perpetuates.
For instance, using NVC or other mediation processes, I could help dissenting associates reach an agreement about what marketing strategies to adopt for a new service or product while never once asking them to consider whether the product or their organization has consequences to the earth, to wildlife or to future generations. My job as a mediating facilitator is to assist members come to a shared understanding about the needs they’re attempting to satisfy within the context of their organization mandate. It’s not within my job description as a facilitator to question the organization’s purpose. Sadly and tragically, “professionalism” (or as Rosenberg called it: “bureaucratic language”) underwrites a lot of inhumane and unethical decisions. I believe however that it’s absolutely my job as an engaged citizen who cares about the health of the planet and its inhabitants to question any organization’s purpose. Will I? Will you? Will we? And what price will be exacted for doing so?
It turns out that our clamouring insistence to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted and respected for our choices and unique take on things (all of which are needs) can occupy enormous amounts of our precious attention to the point of eclipsing our human obligation to life and to future generations. Even when love, peace, nonviolence, etc are said to be central to our conversations, those conversations typically remain human-centric. And what about the rest of the world?
What about the rest of the world?
It was never made apparent to me as a child or later as an adult that my own well-being derived from the health of all that sustained me. It was never instilled in me that it was therefore my/our responsibility to make the needs of life a priority. Mostly what has been sold to me by the dominant culture is the ‘right’ I have to pursue the lifestyle that I choose irrespective of the needs of life. I have been taught that when things aren’t going the way I want them to go, it’s mostly because I am either not attending to my needs or not implementing effective strategies to fulfill them.
It’s so easy to come to NVC in search of ways to attend to one's own needs. How could it be otherwise when the most commonly trafficked understanding of NEEDS is unbalanced and skewed in the direction of the human? And yet caring for our needs, while not to be entirely dismissed or considered wrong, simply does not encompass the realities of life on planet earth and the mandatory obligation we have as caring citizens to recognize and nurture the reciprocal nature of our relationship with the natural world. Marshall Rosenberg wrote that, "Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.” Surely ‘others’ cannot simply refer to human life. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of ALL OF LIFE are in fact one and the same.
When we fall out of right relationship with the very life force that sustains our own lives, we can expect to suffer as a result of the disconnection. Traumas, syndromes, mental illnesses, addictions, deep loneliness .. afflictions representing only a small part of the story and appearing on the surface to be symptomatic of our personal needs not being met .. can more accurately be understood as being symptomatic of the many sanctioned and normalized violences and ruptures that inform our daily way of life within the dominant culture.
A few times in my workshops I’ve been asked the following, “Rachelle, what is humility?” It’s such a beautiful question. Oxford defines humility as the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance. The idea of having a low view of one’s importance doesn’t fly too well for most people. We might be better served to turn to etymology in this case: from humilis "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground," from humus "earth," from PIE root *dhghem- "earth." Perhaps we could define humility more accurately as a measure of our relationship with the earth. We might say that humility is the absence of entitlement .. it's knowing our place of belonging .. belonging to the land, to the earth, to our kin, to the world. It's saying I'm here to be of service to the life that sustains all life instead of understanding the world as being here to serve me.
What we do next seems quite clear: we must prioritize the needs of life and adjust our lifestyles, habits and preferences accordingly. We must be willing to SEE the very real impact of our choices. We must turn to a life-centric lens and become the custodians we were meant to be.
Rachelle Lamb’s lifelong interest in human development, relationship dynamics and the roles that culture and ecology play in people's lives, along with her ability to skillfully pave the way for transformational dialogue between people consistently produces powerful learning experiences for individuals and audiences. Learn more at www.RachelleLamb.com.