THOMAS BRUHN is a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany. He is a researcher and a bridge builder, helping experts and change-makers from all sectors of society to come together to explore the topic of sustainability, listen to each other, and develop solutions.
In part 2 of his conversation with JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Reykjavik, Iceland, Thomas talks about embracing mortality, finding a purpose, defining our role in the world, and the shift humanity is living through.
Q: In the Forum, you touched upon having no fear of death. You talked about the way the world is going, making a lot of people quite frightened. Can you tell us about that?
TB: That’s a profound topic. When I was nineteen, I did my civil service in a home for the elderly, where people spent the last months of their lives. I really connected with people there. My grandmother died when I was nine years old, but at nineteen I was better able to engage with old people.
Witnessing the final stages of their lives influenced me a lot. What was important for them? What did they reflect upon? Some had a hard time letting go because of unresolved relationships, or some trauma they hadn’t worked through. This influenced my own reflection about what kind of life I wanted to live.
At nineteen, you’re busy finding out how awesome life is, but it was also important for me to embrace and welcome mortality. I can’t say that I’m not afraid of death. I want to experience life, and there is so much I haven’t yet lived. At the same time I find comfort in the notion that this existence is finite and impermanent. I can’t do anything about it anyway.
The question for me is, “What is the purpose of my time here, and how should it be fulfilled?” That gives me a good orientation and makes me take things less seriously. “What is my contribution? What feels most meaningful?”
Some people have a hedonistic attitude like, “I’m going to die anyway, so let’s have a party as long as it lasts.” That’s not the kind of life I want, but it does help me to be aware it’s finite.
My work is dedicated to sustainability, and to more livable ways of life. My life is my responsibility, and if I have lived the wrong life when I leave this world, it’s only myself that I’m hurting. I’m also experiencing what’s happening in the rest of the world, and there’s so much suffering and destruction.
Loss of biodiversity is de facto a degradation of the aliveness in this world. It is not easy to say I’m not afraid, because so much is beyond me. I love this world; it’s beautiful. I love humans, and I also love what we can contribute to this world. It’s more difficult to come to terms with the current crisis we’re experiencing as a globalized civilisation.
Q: Do you have any idea of a way forward through that? I know it’s a big question, but what can you contribute going forward? And how do you sustain yourself through all of this?
TB: Ten years ago, my mind was on the big abstract topics like climate change, the technologies to mitigate climate change, global warming, CO2 emissions, and so forth. I still see a lot of value in those developments, but I also realize that the world I experience is a manifestation of a certain culture, and this culture is a manifestation of a certain understanding of being human. How do I define what it means to be human? How does that drive me to consume my surroundings, and to sustain my own aliveness? That is a paradox in itself!
In the book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn writes, “You are captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”This is a very profound refection for me. How do we define life if it is at the expense of everything around us, even at the expense of ourselves?
In the last ten years, I’ve gone through a shift in what I see as the next steps, and what my contribution can be. I see a different paradigm and a different culture emerging. Everywhere, there are young people and others who feel that our dominant culture doesn’t provide a meaningful life. They are like small islands where different modes of living are practiced. Sometimes I wish I could live the life I experience in these islands, but I cannot. Maybe I am just too much a child of this civilization that is not in harmony.
My contribution is to connect these many islands, because they are often isolated and even suppressed. I enjoy connecting these marginalized change-agents, to give them a certain visibility, to show there is a potential for a different type of human life emerging, while the old one is reaching its limits. That’s the role in which I see myself.
When I was fifteen, there was a popular game: “If you were a tool, what type of tool would you be?” I remember saying “a watering can.” That’s still how I feel twenty years later [Laughs]. I want to be a watering can for the plans I see growing as seeds in the middle of concrete environments. I feel like I’m standing in the middle, keeping a crack open so that something can grow, but I also feel my own limitations because I embody so much of the old paradigm. It’s a challenge for me to let go of the way I have grown up. Does that make sense?
I want to be a watering can for the plans
I see growing as seeds in the middle of concrete environments.
I feel like I’m standing in the middle,
keeping a crack open so that something can grow.
Every time I speak about it, I realize it’s quite a tension I’m sitting in, but somehow I feel that the tension is exactly my role. It’s the right thing for me to be in.
Q: Almost like a bridge, perhaps?
TB: Yes, like a bridge or a gatekeeper.
Q: Do you do any practice to sustain your inner world?
TB: Yes and no. There are many practices I find valuable. I have come into contact with different approaches since I was fifteen, but they never became part of my everyday life. Over the past couple of years, I have been practicing Mindfulness and Compassion Meditation, but not like some people do. You could say it’s a moment-by-moment practice for me just to stay conscious of, “Am I the being I want to be? How purposeful am I being? How present am I?”
I don’t want to push that into a corner of meditation and then go back to my work. When I have written thirty emails in a row, I sometimes notice I’m not writing as compassionately as I did in the beginning. Am I sensitizing myself to the quality I bring to those relationships and to those encounters?
Sometimes it is playing the piano, sometimes it is hiking, or sitting in a meadow and looking at a lake. I don’t have a fixed routine, and at the same time I’m drawing on different experiences from people who have shared their practices with me. They are influencing the way I try to be present.
Thomas is a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany. He is a researcher and a bridge builder, helping experts and change-makers from all sectors of society to come together to explore the topic of sustainability, listen to each other, and develop solutions.