The Sacred and the Profane

“But what if we discuss it without the endgame of convincing and mobilizing and compelling others to action? Is there value in talking about this with the people in our lives simply to commiserate, communally, on this impending demise?”

— Sam Miller McDonald, Climate Despair

I think my involvement in 12 Characters can give an emphatic YES to these questions, although that’s qualitative and not quantitative. It has certainly given value to me – it’s helped remove a cynicism and apathy that had become calcified into my days; it has changed the lens through which I see and experience the people around me from one of uncaring, self-centered automatons to confused, frightened, lonely people who have never had any sense of what real life could mean; and has helped me experience the enormous relief of that comes over me when I meet someone with no inhibitions talking about the impending apocalypse with a sense of real grief; and it has shifted much of my focus away from whether or not other people ‘get it’ to the importance of having the next conversation.
I know there are others out there who could say similar things – maybe not many, but certainly those in the group who come with me to read Characters for the gatherings have a similar greatly increased sense of importance in having conversations – which means creating spaces in which conversations can happen – which is one of the primary functions of the 12 Characters gathering – a ritual space that we craft together in order to hold the dialog we will have within it. Those of us who have taken part in many such gatherings have a responsibility to the new participants to hold certain key aspects of the ritual space building we undertake: we recognize it as a ritual space, we bring the ritual of Theater to aid us in the leavening of the space, we guide and host the conversation to cultivate intimacy, curiosity, and a vulnerable revealing of a shared humanity in the room. Nights when I leave our gatherings and I know it has been a success I am filled with a renewed sense of the importance of making it to the next conversation.
I don’t think these conversations can happen at the cafes or the markets or in the parks because those spaces are profane – out of the temple – I’m beginning to think there is a sacred element required for these conversations to be possible.

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe. — Mike King in The Writing of ‘Mountain Calls’ on the Dark Mountain Project Blog 

When I read these words I was struct again by the recurring realization that as people we are living in a time when the way of living our lives is killing the web of living beings upon which our own lives are entirely dependent. That we might actually succeed in killing the web of life (and therefore ourselves) is not the main focus of my shock. It is the realization that people have already been born for whom this killing is a possibility. For most of human existence it has not been possible to think the thought that we could kill the web of living beings on this planet – and now it is not only possible – it is even likely by some calculations.

At some level, though we may not wish to, we find it easy to imagine such a nightmare [as described in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road], because it validates one of the defining beliefs of our civilisation: that life without the supermarket and the superhighway is not liveable. — Dougald Hine in DEFUSING THE APOCALYPSE: A RESPONSE TO JOHN GRAY on the Dark Mountain Project Blog

I realize this idea that the ‘civilized’ life is the only life worth living is one of the formative myths that I grew up with in dominant culture North America. This is made clear in the understanding of ‘being civilized’ as it is opposed to ‘savage’ or ‘primative’ or ‘barbaric’. The connection it seems is not coincidental.

When I hear many of the ideas that pass for ‘solutions’ to the current crises – all of them take for granted the continuation of “life as we know it”. I realize now the connection because having to live without the modern conveniences like the iPhone X is apparently undesireable, unthinkable, or pointless.

THE SENATOR: This is an abyss into which it is better not to look.

COUNT: My good friend, it is not entirely possible for us not to look into it; it is there before us, and, not to see it, we should have to be blind, which would be much worse than being afraid. — Joseph de Maistre, The Saint Petersburg Dialogues

Is 12 Characters a ‘performance’, a ‘workshop’, or something else?

The same friend who asked me recently about what the target group is for 12 Characters events also asked me this question:

How do you see your activity, as a performance, workshop or something else?

Again, this is something that I’ve not really known how to answer and it has mattered to me a great deal. So him asking me the question gave me the opportunity to begin to get clear.

Brief Answer:

We’ve called them ‘Gatherings’ because we haven’t found a more descriptive label that fits. They are half performances (we read the monologues and people listen for 45 minutes) and half conversations (in between every 3rd monologue there are interludes for neighbors to share with one another and after the readings are finished there is 90 minutes for an open hosted conversation).  Currently my focus is learning how to assist people to share candidly and listen vulnerably during the conversation.

Full Answer:

We have purposefully decided to read the monologues from paper as opposed to acting them out from memory. This is to help everyone listening to be able to focus on what gets stimulated in their own thinking as much as possible. If it becomes too much of a performance there will be too much focus on how well we are acting, how good the writing is, etc. I am concerned all that will take away from people noticing what gets stimulated in their own heads and hearts. On the other hand, as readers we put a great deal of effort to give a life to the Character we are reading – to make them believable, to engender understanding for their thinking, and to cultivate some kind of compassion towards them. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Maybe the biggest is that many people can recognize all 12 of the Characters as aspects of their own thinking – some people can at least recognize a few Characters in their thinking. I believe it will help people have more compassion for their own thinking the more we can help them find compassion for the Characters. Another reason is that most people seem to have some kind of a ‘crust’ or a ‘shell’ that gets in their way of vulnerably hearing and sharing. There seems to be a connection between how realistic the characters are portrayed and how vulnerably people share their own experiences.

I haven’t yet found a label that fits. I call them ‘Gatherings’ – I’m happy to find something more descriptive. We perform while reading which takes 45 minutes and the rest of the time is for a hosted conversation. Between every 3rd monologue we pause for 5-6 mins so people can turn to their neighbors and share what’s arisen after hearing the proceeding monologues. At the end of the monologues we have 90 minutes to hold a hosted conversation to help people uncover what’s in the room. Help people find out what they’re thinking and learn how many others are thinking like them or differently.

What is the target audience for 12 Characters

I was asked recently by someone looking to host a 12 Characters event the following helpful question:

What target group you would have in mind, e.g. the  “converted”, the “deniers”,  the “sceptics”, or whatever labels you would like to give them?

I liked it because it made me think long and hard about where I stood. Here are my current thoughts.

Brief Answer:

The target group is those people that think that something is happening, even if they’re not clear about what it is or how bad it is. So definitely not limited to the converted and definitely not including the deniers. I would certainly hope there is room for people who are skeptical – but I’ve found many people who think of themselves as ‘skeptics’ who turned out to be ‘cynics’ instead.

Full Answer:

I have only thought about the target group peripherally – so this is a helpful question. At this point my own hosting capacity is limited – I’m still learning what it takes to support people to take risks and speak about their fears and hopes in relation to the many many conflicting thoughts they are having when they think about whether or not a climate apocalypse is coming. What I have written in my opening notes is that the many labels that have been used “global warming”, “climate change”, “peak oil”, etc. are not helpful for me because of the distance they create between me and what I see. Instead what I am looking at is the unravelling of the web of living beings that supports us and makes our lives possible. The things that we put into the category of ‘changing climate’ is one set of factors that is impacting this unravelling. I am inviting people to have a conversation about their own experiences – about how the unravelling we are living through is impacting them, their families, and their communities. So, the audience then is the group of people that think they are living through an unravelling. At some point I might learn that group of people is too limited and that I want to reach out to a wider audience. The 12 monologues that we’ve chosen from Andrew’s set of 35 all answer “yes” to the question of whether they think Climate Change is real – and from that point they diverge as to how serious a problem they think it is and what they think we should do about it – some are pragmatic and quote Bill McKibben and James Hansen, others are reactionary – preppers building bunkers, partygoers in Thailand, still others are hit by either Hope or Hopelessness, some are just straight-forwardly hard-working to defend the place they live. But all of them thinksomething is happening even if they disagree about what it is.

What that complexity has offered me personally is a deep insight into the workings of my own thinking – that these ‘Characters’ capture aspects of my daily thoughts around what is happening and what I think I should do about it. What it has offered the people who have attended it is an intense and perhaps relentless experience

in which a years worth of thinking about what is happening gets condensed into a single hour. It has created an opportunity for some vulnerable conversations to take place where some neighbors have learned they have more in common than they thought and some bridges have been built between people of differening views of what we should do about it.

12 Characters – Brynfedwen

Things we tried

  • right-brain pause questions
  • spectrogram
  • inviting participants to share with one another before starting the monologues
  • singing before and after
  • opening poem – Grandfather – Sara Jolena Wolcott