In this Forum on Pathways to Planetary Health, writer, visual artist, and vocalist Laurie Anderson spoke with Jonathan F.P. Rose, Co-Founder of the Garrison Institute. The conversation began by reflecting on how the pandemic has affected them and their work.
Anderson remarked that she both treasures and struggles with the solitude of quarantine, observing that “when we don’t have all the props of our jobs and who we think we are and who other people think we are, we become free in a weird, scary, and interesting way.”
She has found meditation, watching films, and reading to be helpful, and has particularly savored The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, as “Baldwin has so much to say that is so relevant” to this time.
Rose commented on how his work in affordable housing has changed during the pandemic. “We have a society that completely does not support people,” he shared. “Our low-income seniors, for example, are mostly fed through senior feeding programs, so when those stopped, they had no food. So, we had to figure out how to connect them to food banks. The kids in our programs are fed at school, through school lunch programs, so those ended, too.”
“It immediately revealed how the social support system is so weak. The social supports were never there, and that got revealed.”
The revelation of our broken systems is taking place on top of the increasing visibility, at least to white people, of white supremacy’s persistence in the United States. One example of this persistence that Rose noted is the fact that the Black-white economic gap hasn’t budged in over fifty years.
Considering 2020 alongside past justice movements, Anderson wondered if this time would be different. Rose responded hopefully, positing that many of us are less busy and have more space in our lives due to Covid. This space allows us to more deeply process all that is happening, which could lead to a different outcome.
“There is space in this time, and hopefully, out of that space, there will be new things born.”
Anderson mentioned that we also have the benefit of drawing on history and learning from past social movements. “When chaos is brewing, it’s so crucial to go back to that,” she said. One such rich learning from history is Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, or passive resistance, which heavily influenced civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. As Rose shared:
“Martin Luther King resisted with love. I re-read his last book, Chaos or Community, and it reads just like today. The world is veering from the ideal to the chaotic in every way, and he keeps going back to the need for love.”
Satyagraha, which means truth-force, is a force of love—and it is a fierce love that we can tap into today. However, Rose and Anderson highlighted the need to protect our minds and hearts as we engage with the suffering of the world. “Empathy leads to something called empathetic distress. The more open your heart is, the more it can flip you out,” Rose explained. In contrast, “compassion is to feel not as somebody but with and for them.” Empathetic distress often leads to exhaustion, while compassion can lead to a feeling of exhilaration.
One way to protect ourselves is to meditate and use simple tools like mantras. The word mantra means “mind protection,” Rose pointed out. As we are inundated with horrible news and information, it is important to discern what to tune out, what to let it, and how to relate to that information. As Anderson said, “this is our job: to think clearly, be calm, and not be so reactive to all these alerts.”
As the conversation drew to a close, Anderson and Rose reflected on the power of collaboration and the hope of building a collaborative network that becomes a platform for the future. “These times are hinge points,” Rose said. “They give birth to new ways of thinking and being.”
Visit Laurie Anderson’s website to learn more about her and her work.
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Laurie Anderson is a writer, director, visual artist, author, and vocalist who has created groundbreaking works that span the worlds of art, theater, and experimental music. She has released over seven albums, with “Landfall” winning a Grammy Award in 2019. In 2002, Anderson was appointed the first artist-in-residence of NASA, which culminated in her 2004 solo performance “The End of the Moon.” A current exhibition at Mass MoCA features Anderson’s virtual-reality collaborations with artist Hsin-Chien Huang. She has also published eight books, including most recently All The Things I Lost In The Flood.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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