Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


Loving Souls – Loving Hearts

A human being has a soul. Does every being have a soul?

What about a dog? Isn’t a dog a being in whom a soul lives?

The beautiful soul Ranui, Germany (2019)

And what about a horse that according to studies seeks deep and intense contact to human beings, comparable to a mother’s loving contact for her newborn child? And how about the soul of a mother whale whose love and grief makes her carrying around her dead newborn for 17 days even though she risks her own life by doing so? And last but not least, what about a book and its history, which touches us deeply in our hearts and makes us cry in the face of the characters’ beauty?

Is a human soul different to other souls?

Human beings tend to view themselves as different, superior to nature, more valuable. But where does this egocentric, self-centered belief of difference and superiority come from, one that presupposes a greater level of protection? Why do many state constitutions, such as Germany´s, only focus on human dignity? According to researchers especially monotheistic patriarchic religions – such as Christianity here in Germany – have been accounting to a destructive and non-emancipated behavior towards nature, whilst animistic religions, Buddhism and Hinduism rather perceive nature as an emancipated partner and even as sacral. By saving an earthworm and acknowledging his intrinsic value of a livable life that needs to be protected, we step into a connectedness with life. If we imagine, that one day we might be reborn as an earthworm, we might sympathize with the earthworm’s soul, corresponding to the ideal thought of a fair society by the philosopher Rawls: A society in which every being is worthy of protection and part of the universe. These days, in most parts of the world the term society is limited to human society, which should not imply that human beings are less worthy of being protected than non-human beings and that their creations should not be acknowledged. There are positive aspects of the human species like helpfulness, art, or incredible intelligence that can touch us and could have the potential for a transformation. However, humans are capable of and known to cause mass slaughter of animals, rain forest destruction and desertification of entire countrysides. Our aspiration for more – more development, more possession, more knowledge – has led us to the fact that today we are facing a social-ecological and economic crisis that is hard to avert. Even if it is claimed that the human brain is more developed than the brains of other creatures (who defines more developed by the way?) neither have they invented slaughterhouses, bombs or concentration camps, nor are they responsible for climate change. So, it is debatable if human beings really are so intelligent and whether their capacity of self-reflection and conscience is really so special if it does not hinder us from ecological destruction of our home. But there exist people that prove that human beings are able to be brave like the lately deceased archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, who had always fought for the greater good. People like Oskar Schindler, who saved a lot of Jewish people from death or Rosa Parks, who had the courage to stay seated. This kind of courage is also needed to stand up against today’s growth-oriented system and to fight for more solidarity, self-determination, and the recognition of the beauty of nature.

Demonstration against economic liberalization, Berlin, Germany (2015)

It is activists from Fridays for future and Greta Thunberg who show this courage. It is politicians that speak up about inconvenient content. And it is also scientists who do research about this activism and bring it forward this way. Let´s also be brave! Let’s change the mute relationship western societies have with nature into a responsive, caring partnership by giving nature back her own voice and acknowledging her unavailability.

To get in contact with nature

To give nature back her voice and to recognize her unavailability in line with Hartmut Rosa´s theory of resonance, means that we humans have to learn (again) to speak and understand the language of nature. It is not new in science that nearly every model of communication is based on the communication of humans with words. But communication with other beings is located on another level. While riding a horse, most of the communication process is nonverbal: I tense my muscles, I shift my weight and the most important issue – my feeling, thinking, and acting are congruent. I am attentive in the very right moment and focused on the horse. Ultimately, when communication reaches its peak, it is enough to just think of an action and the horse will react and resonate with me. In almost the same manner, the horse notices when I do not pay attention for a moment – and this moment can show me its unavailability. To acknowledge this unavailability means that there is another being who has feelings and dreams, who is worried and has an individual personality. That this nonhuman being can suffer from psychological traumata just like humans. Coming back to beings who are worth protecting – it would mean to actually provide protection and love for every creature. Let´s add this idea into one of the best-known models of communication: the five love languages. Why is nature mostly excluded from these kinds of models in western societies? Appreciative words for nature could be said through prayers, sermons or meditation and small presents to nature like dry coffee grounds. Or through quality-time activities like forest bathing, where you walk into the forest without intentions and let the numerous trees have an effect on you.

Extending the definition of beings and souls

Coming back to the initial question: Human beings do have souls. But does nature not also have a soul? Countries with strong indigenous influences like New Zealand, Bolivia or Ecuador recognize nature’s status as legal personhood and grant her rights. Thus, a river can be understood as a person or Pacha Mama, the earthmother, as a being with intrinsic value and a soul.

Bolivian girl wearing a flag in the capital, Bolivia (2012)

We need this acknowledgment and protection of diverse conceptions of souls and beings in order to live respectfully together as different cultures. And even in Germany for example, there are attempts to re-acknowledge the Isar in its beauty and dignity as one of the last natural stream courses in Germany. In Bavaria a petition for a referendum is in progress.

A closing question: Does a book have a soul?

If we believe the author Carlos Ruiz Zafón in his book The Shadow of the Wind, every book has a soul:

"The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

Using Hartmut Rosa’s words, even a book might be a resonance sphere where the souls of the reader and author meet and, by doing so, create something new. When a book makes us cry by reading it, then it might be the first step of a resonating moment out of which we emerge as transformed and even tell others of this experience. My last novel was The Book Thief, a book which tells the story of an inquisitive and strong girl in Nazi Germany by taking the perspective of death. A death that is not mean and greedy, but a death, that does gently carry away the souls of the deceased and is touched by their faiths. This is also the appreciation of a different perspective - that even death has a heart that can be touched.

Author: Susanne Müller 

Translation: Henrike Stölting & Susanne Müller

If you have any comments or question on the essay, feel warmly invited to contact the author (s.muellerioer@ioer.de).

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