"Our own life has to be our message" -- Thich Nhat Hanh1
I live alone in rural Maine, on native Wabanaki land. My two kids are in their early twenties, alive and well in other states. I can't imagine how their lives will engage this climate emergency.
We are ideologically attuned, but so far they don't want to think much about it.
I feel quietly but extravagantly dismayed, hurt, infuriated, grief-stricken, betrayed, and regretful. I've been reading on global warming since they were babies and waiting for our leaders to halt carbon emissions and begin to restore a healthy environment. Now I expect nothing, not until a major restructuring of our world economy and ethics permits healthier conditions to develop in the Great Turning that Joanna Macy envisions. What further violence and injustices will figure in that transition? I feel it rumbling inside me, like a hungry, growling stomach. I feel hardly grounded, barely embodied, and all too seldom anywhere close to the astonishing, fertile reality around me.
I used to find news of global warming rare and delayed. In the past few years it has exploded, presenting an unrelenting avalanche of emails, blogposts, list serv threads, webinars, organizational start-ups, books, and choices. Even selecting what to read seems to take a few hours every week. I can feel paralyzed and overwhelmed, guilty and ashamed in my self-perceived inadequacy to attend and respond to it all. This is crazy. I'm losing perspective often. What do I do?
Mindfulness helps. Meditation, however casual, feels deliberate and restores me to some sense of balance. I observe my feelings, including all my angst-ious reactions to them. I want to know their vivacious waves and pull, their wildness, their ultimate equanimity. I try to let myself know them more intimately, less aversively. I try to hold myself to it. I begin to accept these states, at least intellectually, sometimes a bit more viscerally, as abiding or naturally recurring gut experiences. I know I will be living with them.
Often I get caught up in judgment, asking whether I'm taking it all seriously enough, whether I'm too superficially caught up in my head and how I may look or sound to someone else. Comparisons and judgments constitute an inner hall of mirrors I can get lost in, sometimes dropping into collapse and inattention there.
I've been shaken up by the ecopsychologist Zhiwa Woodbury's idea of the earth's enormous awareness, of which every earthly entity is a factor2. This morning, chopping spinach leaves and cracking eggs to make an omelet, I questioned my ethics around doing such violence to these subjective entities of Gaia's marvelously actual realms. How can I come to acknowledge and revere other life forms interdependent with my own, deserving of equity, without ending and exploiting their sacred lives? How can I live in North American security without precipitating suffering beyond the equator?
It would be, I feel, a self-devouring, debilitating compulsion to live so consciously within the framework of such thoughts and feelings without a break. Alone so much indoors, sitting out the Maine winter, I take refuge from myself, to discover myself differently, through art, history, literature, music, movement. I meet with clients in session, and I wonder at their seeming elision of the catastrophes to come, as we discuss potential change and circumstances.
What is going on for them, for other people? Now more than ever, I can speak only for myself.
Increasingly, this hyperobject is taking over my sense of reality. Its coding affects everything I recognize. All art throughout all time, all history and philosophy, certainly in modern Europe and its diaspora, including this United States, gets reframed as evidence of an inherently violent, exploitive, wasteful, narcissistic drive, or as ironic reminders of it and momentary relief from it.
I can feel occupied, under occupation, as though subject to the authority of a regime that's taken over my material and psychic space. Or I can feel the agency of passion, flickers of interpersonal and spiritual awakening, and the beginnings of a re-integration with the non-human world that was undone by the time I entered puberty. Not knowing how to find and walk this path both inhibits me and compels me.
Lately I've been pondering a seeming all-or-nothing angle to my engagement with the climate emergency. Amanda Hess put it this way, writing for the New York Times a week ago: "We are always mentally skipping between a nostalgic landscape, where we have plenty of energy to waste on the internet, and an apocalyptic one, where it’s too late to do anything. It’s the center, where we live, that we can’t bear to envision3." When I feel radically decentered, black-and-white thinking seems to take over this way. It gets hectic.
Sitting in my quiet home, I can feel compelled to take refuge in a dreamy elsewhere of ideal forms and fantasy, seeming tickets to utopias, or I can renew attention to how things are, most accurately and truly, including the immediate revelations of all that's out of doors and the connections I feel in people who, locally or further off around the world, respond to their engagement with compassion and communion. But I can't ever read or do "enough."
Sooner or later, I remember: As a rule, I don't tolerate "either-or" propositions, forced choices that violate my own sense of a more diverse and incompletely knowable reality. So, I recast them into "both-and" language, take a deep breath, and then a longer sigh. I embrace myself, standing in for the world as a whole, and rest a moment. Then I am less crazy. I know I myself, alone, will never fully achieve what I feel right and needed in the long run. But I'm sure I will experience some fulfilments ahead that I can't know now.
I've seldom seen myself as any sort of an activist. I do only so much, when I feel I can, avoiding many roles that might serve more continuously in movement organization or non-violent expression. I'm coming into acceptance of activism as any thing one does in furthering a cause. My own kindness and intentions matter more than effects, at least to me.
Thich Nhat Hanh seems to reply, in the book I'm reading: "Some life dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thought. We just live with them, struggle with them, and become one with them… How could we continue to live if we were changeless? To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.4"
Steve Benson: a queer, cisgendered white poet, activist, and psychologist in private practice, author most recently of AS IT HAPPENS.
1Thich Nhat Hanh, (2004) The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press
2Zhiwa Woodbury, (2021) "From Extinction Rebellion to Gaian Revolution: A Humane Response to the Climate Crisis," at Academia.edu
3Amanda Hess, "Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll," (02/03/2022) New York Times, New York
All photos by the author