A few weeks ago in this newsletter I invited anyone experiencing trauma to sign up and attend an online program held by our dear friend Terry Patten on grief, loss and dying.
At the time, Terry was already diagnosed with a fast moving stage 4 cancer, so the content was close to his heart and remaining life. It mattered.
Our FGP leadership team emerged last weekend from two weeks guiding our Flow Canyons course, filled with thunderstorms, snowstorms, flash floods, rockfall, and epic triumphs to the quietly tragic news that Terry had already slipped the veil and moved onto other realms.
Just before we'd loaded up our packs to go canyoneering, Terry had called me to chat, and offer some heartfelt and uncle-y advice.
"Jamie, I love everything you're up to, and you can run circles around most conversations" he said, "but I can't help but imagine that it would all be that much more powerful if you didn't always hide behind some ironic distance."
At the high level, I could totally get what he was saying.
I was raised on English humor and as Monty Python's John Cleese famously said, "it can be considered the singular goal of any Englishman to make it to his grave unembarrassed!"
So while speaking of love, possibility, community, the Sublime, the Future, or any other topic that I might care passionately about, (but could also run the risk of seeming pretentious, romantic or outright naive), I'd be sure to pop the bubble myself before any cynics or haters could get there first.
First strike "ironic distancing" as defensive strategy against seeing what I truly loved trampled by those who didn't get it.
But on the lower levels of the stack, I just didn't grok what Terry was driving at. I wanted to know if what he was perceiving were those deliberate "first strike" tactics, or if he was sensing some subtler spot where I was punting or deflecting from something truly important. where I should be taking a more honest stand.
Because personally, I've never felt more vulnerable or exposed than in writing the last few chapters of Recapture the Rapture––talking about my own ambivalent relationship to faith, and offering an utterly sincere last ditch hope that we all need to screw our courage to the sticking point, practice resurrection and initiate ourselves and each other into what MLK so memorably called Soul Force, or it might be the end of the road for sapiens.
So he and I made a deal––Terry committed to finishing that last third of Recapture in his book club, and then we were gonna check back in right around now so he could help me land this particular plane.
Only now it's too late for that.
But I want to honor his gift of offering that feedback and do my best to transmute the wisdom he was trying to give me.
So here's a few thoughts I had in the Utah canyons with the irony and the distance backed out of the equation. I hope they resonate, or at the least let you locate the thinking and feeling behind the writing and talking.
*I've never really understood culture, especially American culture, and its bizarre customs and rituals. So that has left me in Groucho Marx land––sincerely wanting to "find my people" and at the same time, never wanting to be a member of a club that would have me. Often, that means my strongest and most scathing critiques are directed at those communities that I'm closest to because I want/need them to be something more than they often are.
*I've never been able to accept things at face value, and have always driven myself and others relentlessly forwards to higher ground. This has often left people closest to me feeling never enough, judged and lacking, which is ass backwards and kinda sad to just hammer the folks I love the most. But there you go!
At the deepest level, simply unconditionally accepting them as they are, or the status quo would feel like dying to me, because of the double whammy of a) feeling like the "default reality" of Fight Club Space Monkeys and IKEA is cartoonishly unsatisfying and b) knowing that the crystal clarity of the peak state (geographical or psychological) was so profoundly and self-evidently perfect that all else pales in the matchup.
As the Polish Ambassador put it "when you inhale, you embark upon a tale, don't grieve over what you leave to set sail."
*It breaks my fucking heart that the leading edge of transformational cultures, whether Dead Shows and Esalen back in the day, to Silicon Valley techno-utopianism in the 2010s to Burning Man and the psychedelic renaissance more recently, have so consistently and blithely jumped all the sharks. Whether flakey hippy dippy-ness with no capacity to execute anything hard or practical, to Aspergery Libertarian tech-bros with no concern for collateral damage, to the money-changers-in-the-temple ego trips of lifestyle coaches and neo-shamans––those who have been blessed with oodles of light and possibility seem hell bent on pissing it all away.
*This leads me to somewhat ruthlessly "disillusion people at a rate they can handle" (and sometimes at a rate they'd really rather not handle!). It's not that I don't have hope, I do. But it's a post-tragic radical, intergenerational hope. On the other side of profound grief. For all the fucking marbles at the end of time. Nothing else even remotely pencils out at this late date.
So when folks show up in my life or social feed looking to harvest a little whizz bang starlight, and huff a contact high from blatantly pre-tragic flow hacking, neo-tantric wankery, or psychedelic tourism I withdraw, it feels like the only honest thing to do is to drag their assess kicking and screaming into the depths of the tragic––to strip away every last false hope and platitude they may be using to shield themselves from the reality of reality, and if, only if, they're still willing, to then share the goods of what might lie on the other side of all that gut wrenching gut checking.
Surrendered service or bust.
(pithy, but hardly an effective growth strategy for a movement)
*I don't often share my unfiltered despair because I'm still out there on the sharp end looking for routes through the cliff bands––trying to find a crack in the wall that we can all still sneak through to get to higher ground. It doesn't feel fair to share the grim odds with too many people beyond colleagues who've signed up for the same mission. But for sure it can creep into my tone and show up as frustration or poorly masked grief that I rarely express head-on.
*Lastly, it's not just ironic distance that I've been deploying to keep what I cherish safe from the haters. It's also gallows humor. The kind that firefighters and ER docs deploy––a seemingly glib shorthand, often devoid of compassion on the surface, but spoken and shared by those who have already signed up for a walk on part in whatever war they've chosen to fight. We may be up to our elbows in blood and guts and cracking jokes while we're at it, but the real reason we're all there is to lend a hand.
So that's it Terry––wherever you now may be. I accept your challenge. To take the stand, to stake a claim. To share and bare my heart, without irony or distance. At least this once. (after that, we shall return to our regularly scheduled ironic programming ;)
As Cornel West reminds us, "having hope is too detached, too spectatorial. We've gotta be hope. Courageously bearing witness to the best of our abilities before the worms get our bodies!"
And that's the thing. In the end, the worms come for all of us––they came for Terry, they're coming for me and you too. And that's ok. Because courageously bearing witness to the best of our abilities is the only thing and the everything we've ever had. We are little more than compost for consciousness and culture.
We are (Nothing but) flowers.
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