Cultivating Conversation at the Cafe

I launched this blog as a way to sort and evaluate thoughts and feelings about sustainability.  It seems these days that debate about what to do quickly becomes unproductive; either we reactively defend our turf or we shut down, not knowing how to tackle the big beast.  Doing so, we extinguish the opportunity to collaboratively discover a better way forward.

I always attach images to my posts.  For me, images evoke emotions, leading me to see things differently, causing me to think new thoughts.  Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night underscores the simplicity yet significance of taking the time to relax, perhaps with a shared bottle of wine under a starry sky, of making space to talk and listen and feel and think.

Vincent Van Gogh - Cafe Terrace at Night (1888)

In an interesting article, Feeling, Art, and Sustainable Civil Society, Elizabeth C. Herron, essayist, poet, and collaborative artist, explores connections not typically made.  She defines a society as civil when the ideals of community are valued and nurtured and when citizens take into account the common good of all life on earth.

Herron argues that art has the potential to transcend the chasm between opposites, and that the process of feeling requires time and space for reflection.  The din of our daily lives steals precious time needed to talk and listen and swallows elusive space needed to think and feel.  The gadgets upon which we depend create distance and foster anonymity.  Anonymity leads to apathetic misunderstanding.  A world lacking empathy is a world populated by distant strangers who don’t understand or care about one another.

Herron writes:  Empathy takes place through imagination, that is, through image.  When we lose touch with the vision of the imagination, we lose our capacity to connect with one another … Image is the link between self and other … a more inclusive level of consciousness enables a feeling of care and concern for diverse and distant life … we recognize with compassion the other within and so no longer view the stranger as alien … The recognition of ourselves as interdependent within a multiplicity of interrelated systems, which together form a whole, leads to a consciousness that includes other species, forests, bodies of water, and people on the far side of the world whom we have never met.

Simply put, humanity is not everything; we are but a small part of a much larger whole.  A challenge to overcome is the multiplicity of perspectives that we vigorously defend rather than lovingly treasure as the warp and weave of a shared existence.  Art can play a greater role in our conversation, helping us to sense things as both separate from yet representative of ourselves.

A shift is needed.  Sustainability is not about saving the earth but instead exercising an expanded empathy that includes all earth’s occupants (animate and inanimate) who must share earth’s finite resources in order to survive.  Perhaps we can engage in this conversation about the big picture if it’s put before us in paint or poetry or pastorale.

Herron writes:  Images of art can guide, inspire, and educate us.  In the clarification of values, the role of art is as important now as it was when early people painted the walls of Pleistocene caves and held ceremonial dances on those cool clay floors.  She says that art refreshes our appreciation for the ground beneath our feet, beneath the detritus of civilization, and that through art it becomes possible to imagine a sustainable world, one in which we see ourselves as interdependent in a nonhierarchical web of living systems, each essential for the survival of all.  This, she says, is essential for the survival of civil society.

I concur.

©Taryn Fisher 2013


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