Friday, February 10, 2012

The Nature of Work: Earth, Community, and Healing Alienation Part I

Humans are inextricably connected to the earth. We inhabit, breathe, drink, and eat this strange blue globe that is our only home. The oldest religious traditions recognized this scientific fact by weaving stories, almost myths-as-memory, which describe humans as creatures crafted from the dirt: adam and adama, human and humus, culture and cultivate. Indeed, the plurality of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity. And we are social animals, dependent for better or worse on other lives beyond ourselves. The peacebuilding practice of restorative justice recognizes this by believing that society is interconnected (Zehr, 2002, p. 19), a belief that reframes crime as the cause and effect of damaged relationships (ibid, p. 20). According to medical biologist and physicist Peter Levine, damaged relationships and disconnection from a sense of belonging lie at the root of violence and trauma (Levine, 1997, p. 266). If this is true, then the proper response to crime, to the “violation of people and interpersonal relationships,” is the obligation to make things as right as possible (Zehr, 2002, p. 19), which includes the rehabilitation of the offender.

But rehabilitation to what? If crime is both personal and societal (ibid, p. 12), and these two are interconnected, then simply rehabilitating offenders to this broken locus, especially after the alienating and shaming force of prison, can perpetuate the cycle of violence, certainly evident in recidivism and incarceration rates (see Gilligan, 2001). The current legal system also alienates victims in the emphasis on crime as an offense to the state. Biologist Mary E. Clark points out that excessive physical or psychological trauma, such as that experienced in crime, alters the very structure of the brain, and if healing does not occur after the initial stress, then victims may not be able to integrate into healthy and comfortable social settings (Clark, 2002, p. 63). If restorative justice is right, however, then situating crime in the nexus of social relatedness demands the restoration of society itself, which should include the realization that we are also embedded in nonhuman life.

Which brings me once again to the intimate human connection with the natural world. This realization is necessary for right relationships and a healthy culture. And so is the need for belonging and for participation in meaningful and creative work. I am therefore arguing for the union of unalienated work, nature, community, healing, and place. This union can deeply inform preventative and responsive approaches of restorative justice and trauma healing. The topic is personal because it foresees work I hope to do in the future with a close group of friends. In order to embody the proposed argument and vision of this paper, we have discussed the potential of a permaculture farm and education center as a site for restorative justice and trauma healing. A permaculture-based agroecosystem could serve as an ideal place for the emotionally and physically draining meetings of Victim Offender Conferencing. Furthermore, the farm could be a transitional home for people recently released from prison and who have struggled with addictions and homelessness where viable skills and crafts are learned and a sense of belonging is cultivated.

In a way, such a farm and community would microcosmically incarnate an alternative configuration of society envisioned by restorative justice. Meaningful work and practical skills are important and cannot be undervalued, and neither can the sense of belonging found in authentic community. The nature and practice of community is vital to the vision presented here. A working definition of this elusive term must be offered in order to ground the following conversation. The term has been stretched like a balloon in contemporary parlance, evidenced in expansive expressions such as the “academic community,” the “online community,” the “global community,” etc. Such combinations might realize our interconnectedness, but they also dilute “community” of any bioregional emphasis, local mutuality, and ultimately interdependence. This modern dilution, or delusion, depends on what Mary Clark labels the Billiard Ball Gestalt, which sees everything as “isolated, discrete objects that have distinct boundaries” (Clark, 2002, p. 6), a worldview which geneticist and environmentalist David Suzuki contends ultimately confines humans to their own minds as “separate individuals acting on and relating to other separate individuals and on a lifeless, dumb world beyond the body” (Suzuki, 2007, p. 275). And so community ironically retains a pathological individualism (ibid, p. 263): we may be connected, but only as long as nothing is required of us.

This worldview results in fragmentation, loneliness, separation, and the fear of death, summed up in the word alienation: “[w]e are strangers in the world, we no longer belong (ibid, p. 275). Systems based on extreme individualism, like the legal/judicial structure, result in overcrowded prisons (Clark, 2002, p. 331) and heighten an offender’s experience of alienation (Zehr, 2002, p. 16). Clark offers the Indra’s Net Gestalt as an alternative hermeneutic, in which we interpret the world as connected, interdependent, and interacting in bodies, economies, social arrangements, and ecosystems (Clark, 2002, p. 9). While not an absolutist picture of reality (ibid, p. 12), Indra’s Net has the potential to counter alienation by cultivating a sense of belonging. Societal beliefs have a habit of constructing the behaviors they articulate, and so the question becomes which reality we wish to inhabit.

Design consultant and writer Peter Block contends that “[c]ommunity is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds with itself” (2009, p. 30), stressing context as belief systems and ways of speaking (ibid, p. 15). This is surely true, so at times we must shift our context, or perhaps reinterpret and re-imagine it. But, like a community, a conversation itself is also given form, and therefore must take place in and with someplace. Context is certainly linguistic, but it is also economic, sociopolitical, religious, biological, ecological, and geographical. For a conversation to have any function, let alone meaning, it must have a context that shapes the conversation’s incarnation and is in turn shaped by it.

Block’s definition, though very useful, must paradoxically be narrowed and expanded. Activist, writer, and farmer Wendell Berry defends just such a paradox. “By community,” he writes, “I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature” (1993, p. 119). With this definition he narrows Block’s designation by repeating the word local, claiming that community must be rooted, and expands it by introducing nature, recognizing that community is not restricted to human structures but incorporates the nonhuman as well: a community “is like an ecosystem, and it includes—or it makes itself harmoniously a part of—its local ecosystem” (ibid, p.155). In fact, Berry claims that if we are speaking of a healthy community then we must speak of more than humans, because we will be talking about a place and all its inhabitants: the neighborhood of humans and “its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it . . . All neighbors are included” (ibid, pp. 14, 15).

Block concurs, and beautifully articulates, that community is centrally about belonging (2009, p. xii), thus clarifying that it is relatedness to our neighbor, both human and nonhuman creatures, that determines how we act in the world. Community can then be understood as the interdependent relationship and mutual belonging between place, its inhabitants, and their stories. Clark believes that understanding and practicing this can help to restore the balance of traumatized brains, in which “the normal integration between motivational and cognitive regions of the brain” has been severely disrupted (Clark, 2002, p. 225). She argues that humans experience an overwhelming need to belong to some form of caring community (ibid, p. 228), which aids in restructuring the traumatized brain by “building an emotional bonding of trust” that is crucial for the body to heal itself (ibid, p. 225). Permaculture constructively envisions the practicality of this definition and how it correlates with nature, work, and healing.

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