May 19, 2017 | By George Gantz
What We Can Learn from Swamps – Stagnation, Entrenchment and Spiritual Renewal
Our world seems to be mired in anxiety and fear, and civic discourse has degenerated to accusations, outright lies and rhetoric. While we hear calls to “drain the swamp,” any common understanding of what that means, and a willing consensus required to achieve it, seems to eludes us. Perhaps we are looking at the situation from too narrow a perspective. It is not just our politicians that are lost in the marsh. It is our spiritual life, too.
The English language is full of references to the soggy, wet places of the world. Have you ever gotten tangled up “in the weeds?” Or perhaps someone you know is “stuck in the mud?” Recently we have heard calls to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC lobbyists and political insiders. These sayings all have a common origin – the idea that marshy places should be avoided, lest we become entrenched in the unpleasantness they represent. While modern environmental science is struggling to change this negative narrative about “wetlands”, there are natural contextual explanations for it. The negative image is psychologically powerful. There is also a spiritual correspondence, found in Ezekiel 47:11: “But the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed.” Let’s unpack these different layers of meaning.
Marshes, mires and swamps, collectively referred to as “wetlands”, are significant natural features found around the globe. Wherever the land intersects major bodies of water, marshes often develop at the interface as water from terrestrial sources makes its way towards the sea. Technically, marshes are characterized by grassy or shrub-like vegetation, while swamps feature trees. Mires, or bogs, are acidic and contain accumulated humus deposits known as peat.
Marshes are often difficult to access or to maneuver in (if you are human). The water usually moves slowly and may be brackish or salty. Typically, oxygen levels are low, a condition that indigenous species adapt to. Reeds, for example, grow hollow stems that bring oxygen to its root structures. Marshes also provides a useful water storage function, filling up in rainy periods and draining water downstream in dry periods. They also serve as a filter and sink for sediments and pollutants. They can be highly productive, biologically.
Yet they can be quite unpleasant and inhospitable as well. They may host a variety of parasites, leeches, spiders, snakes, and even alligators. Since marsh water moves slowly, oxygen may be depleted by respiration and decomposition, particularly when pollution levels are high. Hypoxia may result, causing fish and invertebrates to be killed. When decomposition turns anaerobic, fetid odors are produced. This all helps explain the negative reputation of marshes, mires and swamps. They are fertile sources for our linguistic imagination about the horrors of stagnation.
Marshes are also very sensitive to manmade influences, such as intentional filling and draining, flood control, water withdrawals and development activities (in addition to pollution). Their historically negative reputation has made them particularly vulnerable. According to EPA data, perhaps half of all the marshes in the US were drained or destroyed prior to 1970 — and that destruction has continued. A Fish and Wildlife (FWS) study reported that in the 5 years between 2004 and 2009, almost 1% of coastal wetlands disappeared as a result of development pressures and silviculture expansion.
Stagnation is defined simply as “a state of not flowing,” yet our imagination associates the word with unpleasant marshy qualities of death and decay. In the natural world, the low oxygen conditions of stagnation are unfavorable to growth and change and give rise to illness and death. In the psychological sense, stagnation refers to the similar condition of being emotionally or rationally stuck. Without the ability to renew ourselves, by absorbing new thoughts, new ideas, new experiences and new emotions, vitality and resilience are lost.
The story of Narcissus, a beautiful Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection, offers an example. Narcissus became so enamored of his image that he forgot about food and rest, and eventually died. This is the origin of the modern personality diagnosis of narcissism, an excessive pre-occupation with self-gratification and self-image. Some psychological research is suggesting that our omnipresent digital environment and, particularly, excessive attention to social media promotes narcissistic tendencies.
Depression also represents the quality of stagnation – getting stuck in negative thought patterns and losing the motivation and energy to reach out to others or try something new. Depression is also on the rise, in the US and worldwide, as is suicide, an ultimate and tragic statement of hopelessness. While the causes may be varied and difficult to assess, it is clear that extreme emotional distress and feelings of isolation and alienation are shared worldwide.
In economics and politics, we often refer to the negative attribute of “entrenchment”. The word entrench simple means “to put in a trench”, which is suggestive of being stuck or tightly confined. A corporate management team may become entrenched if the members of the team stick too closely together and refuse to bring in outside people, or outside ideas. This condition can be deadly for the enterprise when upstart competitors with new and better ideas come along. Even an individual or business team can get “mired in the weeds”, unable to break an impasse or develop a realistic plan forward, arguing about minutiae while in the midst of a crisis. This is reminiscent of the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” In the broader economy, monopolies, cartels, price-fixing and insider trading all represent different forms of entrenchment. They are all disastrous for productivity, creativity and healthy markets.
Entrenchment in the political arena applies to the condition where incumbents or small, tightly controlled elite groups are able to dominate and control the political process. By cutting out other participants, eliminating dissent and rejecting new ideas, these groups set the agenda and determine the outcomes – all in their own favor. What is lost is any sense of renewal or accountability to the citizens the government is presumed to serve. This is the basis of the description of Washington, D.C, as a swamp, dominated by professional politicians who have been in office a long time and their enablers, the lobbyists who wield immense war chests of campaign funds and who trade in secrets and inside information. The entrenchment narrative has been rising across the globe in recent years, as indicated by the volume of books and articles talking about governments behaving as oligarchies, kleptocracies or autocracies.
The common thread to the negative image of wetlands, psychological stagnation and civic entrenchments is that when fresh water, fresh feelings, or fresh people and ideas do not flow into the system, it is no longer able to thrive and grow. Like a stagnant marsh, the system goes into decomposition and decay.
Our Spiritual Condition
Ezekiel 47:11: But the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt.
Emmanuel Swedenborg devoted much of his writing to the idea of spiritual correspondences. In a spiritual sense, flowing water is living truth. When the flow of water stops, this truth becomes stagnant, and spiritual life dies. Being stuck in the marsh therefore means — to become confirmed in falsity.
One common feature of a healthy spiritual life is the belief in, and commitment to, a higher truth than just the laws that govern the natural world. From one’s personal commitment to a transcendent realm or agent (God), many blessings can flow — and have been documented in the psychological literature. These include a sense of purpose, feelings of joy and gratitude, and the willingness to improve the world and the lives of those around us with love. Without such an affirmative commitment, our understanding of life is by definition constrained to finite, physical space and time. If we do not believe, and are not open to, spiritual experience and ideas, then the potential to receive any inflow of such ideas and experiences has been destroyed. Meaning and purpose, for creation or for life, are limited and relative only to the physical parts of experience.
Some thinkers take this to an extreme, framing meaning and purpose as mere illusions. Love becomes just a biological function. Improving the world is defined in purely materialistic terms.
This is the condition referred to in Ezekiel — one’s spirit has been given to salt. A commitment to the idea that there is no spiritual life, that the natural world is all there is, is destructive to spiritual life. When we are confirmed in this falsity, any goodness that we might see, feel or experience is sucked out of life. We are stuck in the marsh and cannot be spiritually reformed, cleansed and healed.
As Swedenborg explains:
“Those who cannot be reformed, because they are in falsities of evil, are signified by ‘the miry things and marshes which are not healed, and go away into the salt…’ “ Apocalypse Explained, para 513.
“… to be given to salt” signifying not to receive spiritual life, but to remain in a life merely natural, which, separate from spiritual life, is defiled by falsities and evils, which are “miry places” and “marshes.” Ibid, para 342.
“ … nothing is more delightful than a marshy and also a urinous stink to those who have confirmed themselves in falsities, and have extinguished in themselves the affection of truth.” Ibid, para 659.
There is a solution to stagnation to be found by following the chain of correspondences. As we know from the natural world, fresh water must continue to flow in, and through, the marsh to keep it healthy and biologically productive. In addition, external pollutants must be limited to what the marsh can absorb.
Similarly, our emotional and psychological lives need to include an appropriate level of openness, recreation and renewal to remain healthy. We need to balance our internal preoccupations with outward companionship, aesthetic experiences and learning opportunities, and to avoid the “pollutants” of excessive stimulation, addiction, obsession or distraction.
In our civic lives, we need to foster and support institutions that are resilient, responsive and open to new people and new ideas. This requires that we resist our natural tendencies towards complacency or complicity, and the temptations of using institutions for personal gain — all of which pollute civic life.
To grow spiritually, we need to be open to transcendent possibilities and search for knowledge and experiences that enrich our appreciation of spiritual truth. If we close off the possibility of spiritual experience and ideas, then our spiritual life will decay, deprived of spiritual sustenance.
Moreover, if our spiritual life is stuck, then where is the foundation for a healthy psychological and emotional experience — focused not on our own inadequacies or gratifications, but on becoming better at learning, at sharing love and at enhancing our community? A healthy spiritual life is the wellspring for a healthy psychological, emotional and civic life. It also sustains the virtues essential to a vibrant and thriving civic life, the commitment to truth and the dedication to the well being of those we are responsible for serving.
Finally, without a healthy civic life, we will never be able to agree on the rules and practices that will assure that clean water flows into the earth’s marshes, refreshing, renewing and rejuvenating the life that thrives in them. It all ends where it begins – with what we believe.
See the companion post: What We can Learn from Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth.
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