Can anyone who’s paying attention not feel despair?
After all, every one of the earth’s major ecosystems is in decline. ¬†The daily news is filled with such horrors as dying ocean coral, declining animal populations and extinctions, record temperatures, record droughts, record floods, and much more.
Indeed, my heart is often heavy. ¬† I lose a lot of sleep, worrying about the fate of the birds I love, about what life will be like for our young people as they make their way in an increasingly inhospitable environment.
Is it possible to live life with equanimity, while also understanding the truth of our situation?
I believe it is possible, although not easy.
One commonly tried approach to equanimity, which I believe does not work, is denial. ¬†Around me I see a great many people who ‘get’ global warming, ¬†who care about the kind of planet we are leaving our children, but who don’t think much about these things. ¬†And I see why they don’t. ¬†Our environmental ills are so large, so complex, that people feel helpless. ¬†And hopeless. ¬†So to avoid the pain of despair, the alternative seems to be to put aside thoughts of our suffering planet.
But denial does not lead to equanimity. ¬†And it hurts us. ¬†Psychologists tell us, and I have experienced the truth of what they say, that the effort to keep painful thoughts at bay saps our ¬† vitality. Some great psychologist (who, I don’t know) said that the route to wholeness and happiness is to head straight toward what we find most frightening and painful. ¬†Plunge in; ¬†don’t turn away. ¬†Confronting what we’d rather avoid is key to wholeness and happiness.
I remember, back in the 1980s, when I was working in the peace movement, a study showed that kids whose parents were actively working to prevent nuclear war had less fear than other kids that a nuclear war would actually take place. ¬†I hypothesize that the children were reflecting the emotional state of their parents, whose spirits were fortified by actively engaging with that fearsome issue.
It’s similar with the environment, I believe. ¬†While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the latest painful news of environmental destruction, rather than avoiding it, facing it head-on can actually be an antidote to despair.
For me, the antidote of squarely facing our painful environmental situation takes two forms–activism and grief.
Activism is helping me right now, as I prepare to join with more than 150 others tomorrow to plunge into the Potomac River! ¬†I expect to feel a sense of camaraderie and fun. ¬†After all, plunging into the river in the middle of winter is a pretty crazy thing to do! ¬†Each of us ‘plungers’ has been inviting friends and family to sponsor our plunge by making a donation to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. ¬†I’ve had fun telling people what I’m up to. ¬†And I’m thrilled that I have surpassed my $1,000 goal by more than $500! ¬†So while the climate situation remains as dire today as it was when I embarked on this project a few weeks ago, I am feeling more light-hearted and hopeful than before I took this on.
The other part of the antidote is grieving. ¬†That really sounds counter-intuitive, I know. ¬†I am inspired by environmentalist Trebbe Johnson, who spends time grieving damaged environments. ¬†She describes joining with others at a Pennsylvania river, into which toxins have been dumped by a fracking company:
“Spending an hour or so there, just sitting, being with the river on a Saturday morning, the unexpected gift of beauty was the persistent¬†aliveness of this river that we all felt, the sorrow we shared because of its predicament, the sense of community we felt together in simply being with this river as if it were a dear friend who was ill and that we loved no matter what. And of course, the sun was glinting on the water, the birds and butterflies were flitting all about.”
I have read other examples of Trebbe’s work with grief, and she is giving me courage to fully feel my own grief about the planet. ¬†Because she found life and beauty fully present, in spite of great damage, I am learning to trust that I too can yield to my grief, without fear of succumbing to despair. ¬† Trebbe shows that love arises when we allow ourselves to experience our grief. ¬†She also shows, I think, that when people grieve together, they become a stronger community.
And so I embrace activism and grieving. ¬†While it comes naturally to me to throw myself into activism, I have tended to resist grieving. ¬† But practicing both, I believe, is helping me to find equanimity.–April Moore