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Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation

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Responsive relationships: The treasure of vulnerability

Responsive relationships – like the sociologist Hartmut Rosa describes them in his resonance theory published in 2016 – may exist in every context and between different creatures. Whilst an accelerating and more-and-more demanding economic system is claimed to foster mute relationships in which we do not respect the unavailability of life, responsive relationships are characterized through mutual commitment, trust, and respect. They might be developed through family bonds, between friends or animals, with Mother Earth or also with a romantic partner which has especially been studied frequently among researchers.

A caring relationship between parrots, Costa-Rica (2016)

Usually, many romantic relationships start with a conscious talk from which point on two individuals officially claim themselves (loving) partners. Thereby, common expectations of how to individually behave in the relationship might be fixed. However, the developing relationship might start way earlier with little steps of trust, appreciation, and care. So, in some phases of the relationship there might be a lack of clarity about "right" and "wrong", empathy for the other’s feelings or more in general the red line in the relationship. And if we do not acknowledge that we are in a relationship, we might hurt our counterpart’s feelings and freedom without taking the responsibility for our acting. Being responsible needs empathy and courage: Empathy towards myself, my needs and boundaries and also for my counterpart’s needs and boundaries. It needs courage to act congruently according my inner values and ethics. What happens for example to a starting responsive relationship if I overtax the developing red line of my relationship by ignoring or neglecting my counterpart’s needs, devaluate him/her or even abuse the trust? It could be due to spontaneous moments of distraction, valuation by society to be too cool to show feelings, economic pressure to behave in a certain way or simply egocentric hedonism? My partner could get hurt. By losing trust towards the partner, the relationship might come into a crisis, the responsiveness might be gone or even the whole relationship comes to an end. Why is this so? According to Rosa, one condition for a responsive relationship is vulnerability: We open ourselves and by doing so we risk to hurt or get hurt. 

Resonance needs openness and vulnerability, Morocco (2014)

But does our growth-oriented society foster short-term actions like betrayals of confidence or simply not being careful and farseeing with each other? Advertisement tells us that we need to be beautiful in order to be loved, to have a big car to be successful in life or to travel all over the world to collect memories of lots of places. These exchange-based relationships seem to miss what the philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm used to say: It is not about being loved; it is about to love. It is not about having; it is about being. But what about these long-term values? Where are these promoted? Do we learn at school how to take care of ourselves and our loved ones? I would rather say no even if science just recently suggested its positive impact on sustainable futures. Do we learn at school that we as human beings are completely dependent on other beings and nature? Do we get grades to help others and take care of weaker companions? Rarely. Our culture seeks technologization and individualization. Not that any of these aspects is wrong, it is about finding a balance between these external efforts and inner treasures as love, gratitude, and empathy.

Let us take these thoughts into the field of our relationship with nature. Obviously, it is not a romantic adventure that causes the social-ecological crisis. However, isn’t our daily life full of temptations that harm our responsive relation with nature?

Decision in mobility issues: Airplane or train?

It is easier to book a flight to Morocco then going to Spain by train. Very often it is easier to buy something new than to repair it. New clothes seem to be cheaper than their maintenance and very often the meatless vegan alternative in cafeterias and restaurants costs more than the highly subsidized cutlet. We seem not to see, feel or acknowledge that we are in a responsive relationship with nature, we do not want or are not able to see the pain we cause in her. Maybe we ourselves were heavily injured or traumatized in and by a relationship and now we avoid to step into a new one and stay mute. Some people prefer to stay independent but is this feasible? Is that not perhaps also a way to avoid closeness and possible injuries?

Our world is currently affected by a heavy social-ecological crisis and many people seem to stay mute, seem not to be touched by the extinction of species or the loss of rainforest even though we are in a receiving relationship with every tree that has grown in the rainforests and might now be cut down. We breath the oxygen trees produce, we drink the water that once fell down on earth as a raindrop, we eat food that was nourished by soils and we are able to sacrifice our and the world’s health in order to be loved by others.

Water as a source of life, Germany (2014)

It is time to acknowledge our deep connection and dependence on nature – which might scare us as we do acknowledge our vulnerability and even the momentariness by doing so. But the same as in every other loving relationship, the risk might also contain a treasure.

According to the recently deceased Vietnamese monk, peace activist, author and poet Thich Nhat Hanh the beauty of a lotus lies in the mud as the plant is rooted deeply in it. Metaphorically spoken, we can turn something possibly unpleasant or difficult into something beautiful by transforming the suffering. A similar positive connotation contains the word crisis in Chinese language which also means the chance of something new. Even though it seems to be difficult or even cruel to take a positive view on the social-ecological crisis in which species disappear, landscapes experience desertification and water is heavily polluted – it is time to accept these facts and change them. In order to do so, we need to bridge the action-mind-gap, to reach the humans’ hearts, to heal their injuries and reconnect us with nature. This will be painful – feeling all the pain we have caused to nature and thereby to ourselves, but it is the way to take responsibility. Therefore, we need to embrace grief, anger, hate, and sadness to heal the earth’s wounds, as we do with our beloved friends and partners, and by taking the responsibility we make sure that we will take care of our Earth and home now and in the future. How this can happen, we might learn from different forms as talking with friends, going to beloved places, taking care of an abandoned animal or a plant or also seeing a therapist as ecological issues start to rise in psychotherapy as I was recently told by a psychologists-for-future-activist. Here, I want to propose a film in order to learn about emotions and needs by watching "Inside-Out" (German title: Alles steht Kopf). Through the animated film, one is able to learn psychologically sound knowledge about how we experience the world and which role our emotions play in this process. By getting to know our emotions mindfully and appreciating every one’s meaning and task for our life, we might step into intrapersonal resonating relationships – so to say a resonating relationship with ourselves (what psychotherapists would do for heavy issues and wounds). This can help ourselves to act with self-efficacy as we know what every emotion seeks for and how we can respond to it responsively and take care. By doing so, we might translate the internal dimension into actions and concrete behavior: Claiming our needs in relationships with others, appreciating the same emotions in my partner and thereby allowing him or herself to open and get vulnerable. This could then lead into an openness for our responds to nature’s needs and her vulnerability.


Author: 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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