CW: Climate Change, Climate Anxiety, Topics related to Emotional Distress
Like many of you, my own path has included a process of giving up dishonest certainty in favor of honest uncertainty. Like all humans, I’ve experienced hardship, from health conditions to traumatic experiences to economic vulnerability to marginalization and rejection. However, being honest about just how far that uncertainty extends into daily life is usually neither comfortable nor easy.
“Honesty,” said the poet David Whyte, “is reached by the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, our world, or our self.” He goes on to say that -
“Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are by the generous measure of loss that is conferred upon even the most average life.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160415045433/http://riverbankoftruth.com:80/2013/08/18/honesty-by-david-whyte/ )In other words, while humans have created oppressive systems that create a boundless amount of unnecessary suffering, some amount of suffering and uncertainty is inescapable. Learning to honestly face the things that make us recoil, experiences and circumstances we feel compelled to avoid or hide, is a vital part of growing into our full humanity, “a robust incarnation” into the way things are with a grateful, kind, wisdom.
But the recoil is real. Against our embrace of honest uncertainty is the fear of loss and the risk of false hope. There has been a very small subset of human beings, mostly in places like the United States, who have been able to believe without question in the inevitable progress and stability of the world. This has not been a safe assumption for most humans during most of history, with the only certainties offered to the masses being exclusion, coercion, and exploitation. And though it seems to be amazingly easy to forget the past uncertainties, recent years have forced more and more U.S. residents to remember. Since 2014, researchers at Chapman University in Orange, California have used an annual survey to document the ways normal folks in the USA have experienced uncertainty and fear. The topics range from government to natural disasters to personal anxieties. (https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/survey-american-fears.aspx )
Over these last five years, two striking trends are emerging. First, US residents are becoming more afraid. In 2016, for example, the number one fear in the nation was held in common by 60.6% of respondents, and the other top fears were held by no more than 40% of the population. In 2018, the top fear, government corruption, was shared by 73.6% of the population, and “all the top ten fears were held by more than half of Americans.” The second trend is rising anxiety due to environmental concerns. “Not a single environmental concern made the top 10 list in 2016.” In 2018, five of the top 10 were environmental issues. (https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2018/10/16/americas-top-fears-2018/ )
And it is no wonder. After all, “The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates an increase of 250,000 excess deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to the ‘well understood impacts of climate change.’” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5984805/ ) And we already know that environmental catastrophes have a profound and negative impact on mental health. For example, researchers have documented the relationship between depression and PTSD with natural disasters, such as hurricanes. If these disasters occur more frequently, so will the resultant mental health issues. Similarly, one recent study showed that living with impacts of climate change has already resulted in “significantly worsened mental health” for those who lived in impacted regions.
“For each degree of average temperature increase, mental health worsened by a 2 percent increase in the rate of reported mental health issues. … extending their findings to the whole US population translates into nearly 2 million extra people with mental health difficulties in any given month when the weather is worse.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201810/how-ignore-climate-change )As a result, psychologists are now discussing Climate Anxiety as a way to better understand how climate change exacerbates anxiety and depression. (https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-09-21/psychologists-explain-our-climate-change-anxiety/ ) In other words, we aren’t just being pessimistic, and we aren’t making up these impacts. The same could be said of the other fears on the list, none of which are unreasonable or outrageous. On a host of urgent issues facing our society, there are sound reasons to feel concern, outrage, and even fear. And here we are, a community that has committed itself to honest uncertainty.
In an era of Climate Anxiety and growing fear, that honesty must include our struggles to enter into that uncertainty, to acknowledge our relative powerlessness, and then resolve to keep making decisions and living life in ways that make a sustainable, just future possible. A failure to do so only makes us increasingly vulnerable to the very dishonesty that we were certain we already discarded. A failure to do so makes us increasingly vulnerable to inaction, either because we avoid the issues that feel overwhelming, or have a false optimism that everything will turn out okay. Both paths easily lead to inaction and an accommodation of injustice.
My own preferred weakness has been despair. I’m not saying I am immune to optimism, but I can say it has never stuck. It’s become something of a truism that humanity has the technology to build just and sustainable societies right now, and has for some time, but it does not yet have the psychology for it. Our best hope is that we survive as a species long enough for our psychology, and the related structures and cultures, to catch up. I don’t think that is certain at all. And yet, I also know that if we give up, there is no chance. So I drag my discouraged self out, again and again, to try to do the work of social change. I am not an optimist, but I have become somewhat skilled at not giving up. I am convinced, with Vaclav Havel, that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” That is a type of honest certainty that I can live with.
Adapting the PERMA Model
I haven’t yet found a really comprehensive tool for intentionally reflecting on these issues, and western models often seem deficient to me in several key areas. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/perma-model/ ), which I’ll reflect on in just a moment, is no exception. It has too often been used prescriptively, when, if I understand correctly, it was intended as a descriptive and theoretical model. It is perhaps too focused on the individual’s psychology and doesn’t adequately include physical well-being or social systems. And it generally isn’t oriented around or inclusive enough of the experiences of oppressed and marginalized communities. (https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/cap-0000036.pdf )
That being said, I have found it helpful as a reflective practice and a good way to help me navigate that treacherous strait between naivete and despair. It can provide a bit of a check-in, helping me notice my discouragement before it blossoms into depression. And it can be a practical action, something to do when I don’t feel like I can do something else, or don’t even know what to do.
My reflections begin with Seligman’s fourth aspect, Meaning. For my purposes, meaning is about intention and aspiration, what inspires and keeps us going. We recognize aspiration when we notice our spirit rising, rather than sinking. For me personally, this means that, when I sit down to meditate, I begin by remembering my aspirations to experience life with curiosity, kindness, and gratitude. And then I try to carry those aspirations with me throughout the day.
This is closely related to our vision of how society could be. Socially, my aspirations are oriented around building equality in community, dismantling oppressive systems, and establishing social relationships that are non-hierarchical, just, and kind. We spend a lot of time focusing on the things to resist, and we don’t always have a choice in the matter. We have to notice and resist oppression and environmental destruction. But Paulo Freire reminded us that we must announce the new world with as much, or even more, time, energy, and enthusiasm as we denounce the way things are. This can be difficult, especially when there is simply so much suffering, but despair is never closer at hand than when I lose touch with my intentions and aspirations. We remind ourselves what we are fighting for, why our effort is important and beautiful, and not only why we cannot give up, but why we do not want to give up.
This connects well with the second aspect, Engagement. If something happening in the world is feeling particularly overwhelming, it can be helpful, hopeful, and empowering to do something practical, especially in cooperation with others, that connects with our aspirations. This can be tricky, because there is only so much any one of us can do. There is an ongoing dialog between engagement and equanimity. All of us need rest, all of us need to work with our limitations, and all of us have to figure out what works for our own unique selves.
For example, there is a steady stream of bad news when it comes to the exclusion and bigotry aimed at queer folk, such as the recent decision by the United Methodist General Conference to exclude lgbtqia+ folk from leadership positions and marriage. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/02/united-methodists-fracture-lgbt-plan-rejected/583693/ ) While the Methodists were getting most of the news, the first anti-LGBTQ bill of 2019 in Missouri, HB927, was introduced into the House of Representatives on February 25. This bill would empower student groups on campus to use their religious beliefs as a cover to discriminate against lgbtq students. (https://legiscan.com/MO/text/HB927/id/1911562 )
There seems to be no end to this kind of thing, and it can be overwhelming. So, in addition to supporting and participating in organizations like the ACLU, I help facilitate local transgender/nonbinary support groups. This is often both exhausting, requiring a a lot of time and a great deal of emotional and physical energy, and energizing, making a space to intentionally and lovingly accept and show care for one another. And even though the conversations and situations can be heavy, there is also joy. I know that this work isn’t going to solve everything, but it keeps me engaged, reminds me that my identity and well-being are real, important, and beautiful, no matter what terrible news might come my way.
And Engagement like this also brings us into community, into Relationships that can sustain us. Most of you already know my stories of growing up as a queer person in southwest Missouri, overflowing with internalized oppression. Last June, a straight friend from out of town joined me here to celebrate Pridefest. And, as I was introducing him to folks and he was slowly realizing he was completely surrounded by queer folk for the first time in his life, I gradually realized just how many wonderful friendships I had in the lgbtq community. That may not sound like a big deal, but it was. When we moved back to this area in 2010, I felt increasingly isolated.
Getting involved with activities and organizations advocating for lgbtq rights and well-being, made it possible to find a larger network of friends, fellow activists, and allies than I had dreamed possible. I still remember the joy and relief of sitting in a room for the first time and realizing that all of us there were both nonbinary and on the asexual spectrum, and we didn’t have to explain anything to each other.
There is a parallel experience for most of us when we find like-minded people. In a gathering like this, we can unite around the crucial social justice issues of the day without argument. We know that black lives matter and native lives matter. We stand on the side of immigrants and refugees. We work for economic dignity and justice and insist on the value of labor, against the insatiable greed of those who hoard wealth and power. We believe that education, health care, and housing are human rights, and that our policies and communities should reflect this. We know that women’s, and lgbtq rights, are human rights. And we know that our well-being and our very survival as a planet necessitates caring for the earth, restoring ecosystems, and creating sustainable, regenerative societies. Because we share these convictions, and others like them, we can relate with each other much more freely. We are not all best friends, but we can trust each other more readily, and we usually enjoy it when we get to know each other a little better. That sense of community is vital to sustaining us, and all the more so when we face such an uncertain future.
There’s a lot more to be said about relationships, but since I’m preaching about social rejection in April, I’ll leave it at that today. Instead, let’s focus on the role of cultivating Positive Emotion and recognizing Accomplishments. I like to think about positive emotion in terms of gratitude and goodwill. Too often, positive psychology as it has been popularly presented has fallen short when it comes to addressing issues and populations related to oppression and social justice. (https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/cap-0000036.pdf ) It is too easy to talk about positive emotion in such a way that folks feel obligated to try and create these emotions, which feels all the more frustrating in situations of injustice. A wide range of emotions are appropriate responses to the suffering of a the world, including anger and grief. We move forward through those emotions, not by denying them.
Yet it is also true that an emotion like anger isn’t the only emotion we feel, and, at least for me, it is not an emotion that sustains either my activism or my well-being. But when I am in touch with my aspirations, or when I engage in meaningful actions alongside people I care about, gratitude and goodwill arise quite naturally. We don’t have to force anything; we can just recognize it and enjoy those moments.
We need the relief that comes with joy. When we are dealing with stressful, depressing circumstances, we can quite easily be carried along by our negativity bias. And it is easy to fall into the trap of identifying only with those stressors, to the neglect of everything else. So we need to take special care to recognize and savor the times when pleasure and joy break through. We need to intentionally recognize gratitude when we feel it, and take time to enjoy and express that feeling. Similarly, when I feel the tug of despair, I pause to connect with goodwill and kindness. My actions can be an expression of love for all of us who live on planet Earth, now and in the future. Gratitude and goodwill are much better motivators for me. They energize me and, even if they don’t make me optimistic, they do make me want to go on and not give up.
And this is true for all the ways, little and large, that bring us closer to this more sustainable, just, and caring world. When the obstacles are so large and the journey is so long, we need to really celebrate Accomplishments along the way. Back in 1984, Karl Weick pointed out that conceiving of social change on a “massive scale” could actually be counterproductive. Anticipating the problem we began with today, Weick said that -
“People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them. … When social problems are described this way, efforts to convey their gravity disable the very resources of thought and action necessary to change them. When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilizing action, the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal, and helplessness are activated.” (http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2013/01/Small-Wins_Redefining-the-Scale-of-Social-Problems.pdf )
In contrast, focusing on -
“a small win has an immediacy, tangibility, and controllability that could reverse these effects. … By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.” (ibid.)This is how we build movements. This is how we build community. Practically speaking, this necessitates processes like strategic planning and action-reflection, which have their own skill sets. But the principle is simple: identify your goal; make a plan; break it up into small, manageable steps; celebrate even the little accomplishments; and make adjustments to keep you on track. Human psychology seems to thrive on these kinds of baby steps.
In one study of workplace moods and activities, researchers
“generated 12,000 person-days of data on moods and activities at work. The striking conclusion is that a sense of incremental progress is vastly more important to happiness than either a grand mission or financial incentives … . Small wins ‘had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.’” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/09/change-life-small-victories-burkeman )Anyone who knows the satisfaction of marking something off on a to-do list knows exactly what’s being said here. We need to be realistic, yes, and acknowledge that the small acts we do are not sufficient to change everything in the world that needs to be changed. But our realism must also include human psychology, and it is very likely that we will find our greatest motivation and encouragement to keep doing the hard work of social change when we take the time to recognize and celebrate - even, and perhaps especially, the small accomplishments.
One Another and Ourselves
All of this is to say that, while we cannot offer guarantees, we can offer ourselves. We can refuse the easy pathways of inaction. We can even, sometimes and perhaps in small doses, honestly face the overwhelming difficulties we face as a society. And we can act. We can offer: patience as we wrestle with powerlessness, courage as we let go of ignorance, and love as we move through loss. We can face uncertainty with honesty and grace. We can stay grounded in our best aspirations, and we can live out our convictions: without guarantees, but with faithfulness to the best visions within us for communities that are wise and kind.