Sunday, February 12, 2012

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

Activist and theologian Ched Myers asserts that some early monastic communities provide an example of just such a transformation. Certain monastic communities believed that the project of civilization is constructed on the centralization and exploitation of wealth; if that is the case, then communities should become as self-sufficient as possible (Myers, 1994, p. 182). Furthermore, they claimed that exploitation and wealth stratification stem from the alienation of human labor, so in order to restore dignity and respect (as opposed to humiliation and shame), they centered their communal lives around shared manual, and therefore unalienated, work (ibid, p. 182). Contemporary examples include the worker-owned cooperatives of Mondragon (Clark, 2002, pp. 397-399); the agrarian local democracies of Kerala, India (ibid, pp. 399-400); and the grassroots cleanup and urban agriculture of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston (ibid, pp. 401-402), to name only a very few.

Such examples highlight the need for meaningful engagement with other living things which, as mentioned previously, can help heal trauma (Suzuki, 2007, p. 257). In a statement that supports the notion of a permaculture farm and education center, Suzuki points out that mental health is enriched through horticultural activities: “gardens are becoming an integral part of the healing therapies at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and more” (ibid, p. 257). Not only is this due to humanity’s need for intimacy with the natural world, but due also to the connection between the mind and body, both of which are engaged by good work just as they are engaged by art, music, dancing, and repetitive rhythms, all of which excite the hypothalamus while simultaneously suppressing self-conscious orientation (Clark, 2002, p. 228).

Recognizing this connection is crucial to this argument because, as Mark Clark states, the human mind is the body “plus all its relationships” (ibid, p. 162). We cannot escape the intricate web of relatedness, even within our own bodies. Our bodies cannot heal alone, as if they existed in isolation (Berry, 2002, p. 99), because healing is conviviality (ibid, p. 99), which includes the deep felt needs of belonging and purposeful meaning. The process of healing restores the connections within our bodies (Clark, 2002, p. 228) and between our bodies and the world. In fact, the word health stems from an Old English word meaning wholeness, and so healing is the renewal of wholeness.

Peter Levine emphasizes this wholeness in his research on the physiological effects of trauma. He declares that the “key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans is in our physiology” (Levine, 1997, p. 17). Animal bodies, including humans, have evolved instinctual mechanisms that keep them safe, including the freeze/immobility strategy (ibid, p. 95), which “often leads to human trauma” (ibid, p. 97) because of our learnt inability to discharge extreme trauma energy (ibid, p. 35). However, animals rarely suffer from trauma because, once they determine the threat has passed, “they often begin to vibrate, twitch, and lightly tremble” (ibid, p. 97), which are the “organism’s way of regulating extremely different states of nervous system activation” (ibid, p. 98). Because of this, wild animals should be our teachers in trauma healing because they portray “nature in balance” (ibid, p. 98). If we humans allowed the fluid and adaptive biological response to run its course we could ameliorate the symptoms (ibid, p. 37). Therefore, humans have much to learn by studying and experiencing the natural world because not only are we healed by acknowledging our connection to nature, but we are also healed by imitating nature. This gives further credence to permaculture and bioregionalism (see McGinnis, 1999; Carr, 2004).

Much more elaborative and practical work must be done, including detailed accounts of specific case studies, but this sketch provides a developing basis for future praxis. Even so, I am committed to participating in the cultural renewal of communities that foster an “ethic of interdependence, partnership, and limiting violence (Schirch, 2004, p. 15) and that also recognize their place within natural ecosystems. Furthermore, recognition of connection to nature and to one another through imagination and the creativity of shared work manifest restorative justice and trauma healing.

A permaculture farm and education center can take seriously the nature and practice of community articulated here, and restorative justice could benefit from this definition that potentially addresses social harms as well as ecological devastation, in which humans are also offenders. Sustainability, maintaining a dynamic equilibrium, can only make sense if human societies and cultures learn from the structures and functions of their local ecosystems that exhibit self-renewal and resilience, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity. Meaningful work and actual craft can also be provided for people, especially as urban agriculture and eco-building spread more and more widely. And in this case, viable jobs and skills transform alienation by fusing with the therapy of the natural world and the therapy of engaging both the mind and the body in creative acts. The traumatic effects on offenders of harming others can be just as crippling as the victims’ experience (Yoder, 2005, p. 14), which only strengthens the argument made here. These diversified places of play, education, and work “create safe spaces in which to heal” (Schirch, 2004, pp. 46-48) for both victims and offenders, separately and possibly together through forms of Victim Offender Conferencing.

Lorraine Stuzman Amstutz laments that a critical issue in VOC and other restorative justice approaches is its currently individualistic nature (Stuzman Amstutz, 2009, p. 80) even though community is central to restorative justice processes. This is understandable to a certain extent, because VOC is usually seen as a curative rather than a preventative. However, locating this process in an agroecosystem begins to erode the dichotomy between preventing and healing and gives the communal aspect of restorative justice some livability, without which it vaporizes in abstraction and the status quo persists. The name Victim Offender Conferencing almost begs for this to occur: in Latin, to confer simply means “to bring together.” An integrative vision weaving together nature, community, healing, and work is worthy of a restorative name.


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Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

McGinnis, M. V. (1999). Bioregionalism. New York: Routledge.

Myers, C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world Christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Schirch, L. (2004). The little book of strategic peacebuilding. Intercourse: Good Books.

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Suzuki, D. with McConnell, A. & Mason, A. (2007). The sacred balance: Rediscovering our place in nature. (3rd ed.). Berkeley: GreyStone Books.

Yoder, C. (2005). The little book of trauma healing: When violence strikes and community security is threatened. Intercourse: Good Books.

Zehr, H. (2002). The little book of restorative justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

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