T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear much reality.” In today’s world, threatened as it is by global climate change, human overpopulation, massive extinctions, fresh water depletion, toxic waste, and replete with escalating worldwide slavery, brutal institutionalized animal cruelty, human starvation and many more problems, it’s no wonder we can’t bear much reality.
In our Master of Education and Humane Education Certificate Programs at the Institute for Humane Education, we know students struggle with the content of their courses (on education, human rights, environmental preservation, animal protection, and cultural issues such as consumerism, social psychology, media and globalization). Although every course has books and articles with practical and wise solutions to our problems, each also exposes our students to the challenging realities of our time. After all, we cannot solve our entrenched problems and transform unhealthy systems if we don’t know about and understand them.
Many of our students struggle with the dark content of some of the books and films in the program because, indeed, it is hard to bear that much reality. But there is another reality that our program explores: that of our human capacity to experience wonder, joy, connection, compassion, and understanding. Our students are required to spend time in a natural setting, participate in activities that reawaken their reverence, meet and connect with people from other cultures, listening to their stories and building relationships. Each student also does a practicum, not only to put their knowledge and training into practice, but also to experience the joy that comes in doing the work of humane education.
Yes, we cannot bear much painful reality, and so we must cultivate the joyful reality that is our inheritance so that we can hold the joy and pain together and rely upon our experience of profound connection and empathy to face and transform those systems which harm. If we expect to change the world through doomsday stories, we will find that many turn away, unable to bear that much reality. But if we inspire people to fall in love with this gorgeous planet, revel in their senses and ability to feel awe, turn their apathy into compassion, and hear the stories of the heroes among us, then we will discover that our reality is huge: full of light, dark, and everything in between, and we can bear it all in our hearts and minds in order to create a better world.