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How do we be present to the suffering caused by climate change – and not let it overwhelm us, but rather move through it to a place of hope and empowerment?
It sometimes feels like an unrelenting onslaught. News story after news story about the horrors climate change is wreaking upon us. Floods, fires, cities filled with smoke, a melting Arctic and more and more new refugee crises. And of course most of these stories end with the virtual inevitability of worse times ahead.
What we don’t know is how much worse it will get, and when we will turn the corner towards sanity. These are the massive uncertainties that can weigh on us and cause us to disengage from that precious gift of this one life we have been given.
Uncertainty is one of the places we human beings are most uncomfortable. When faced with not knowing, we often settle on a negative outcome just to have a story to tell ourselves that will bring some comfort of certainty in our own minds. Like when your family member is late for dinner and you convince yourself they’ve had a car accident instead of the more obvious possibility that they were simply delayed. We detest uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable. And yet learning to live with uncertainty is one of the life skills that is most called for at this time.
All of this challenging news about the state of our climate, our planet, and what it might mean for human civilization can indeed be overwhelming. Many people are now entering into a state of eco-grief. In psychological literature the term “solastalgia” has been coined to refer to the distress caused by environmental decline. It is derived from the notion of nostalgia for the comfort of home — the effects of witnessing the place you identify as home being threatened or destroyed. Therapists and clergy are now developing practices to help people cope with this new a new category of psychological stress.
And indeed there is much to grieve about. Luckily, grief is something we humans know quite a lot about. While the scale of ecological grief is new, grief itself is very well known terrain. And while climate grief is different in scale and focus than individual grief at a loss, they look quite similar in terms of process.
The key takeaway is that the difficult work of facing the reality cannot be avoided. Yes there will be denial, anger and forms of bargaining as outlined in the seminal work by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying. But what we know most about grief is that it is a healthy, necessary and healing process to cope with loss. The extent to which one avoids or subverts grief is the extent to which one delays the potential for healing.
And so we must sit with it.
We must acknowledge our feelings about the reality of an increasingly unstable climate and the innumerable repercussions it will have on the human and nonhuman worlds. We must let ourselves meet this darkness face to face, so that we can move through it rather than be weighed down by it.
And, conversely, we must remember how much we also have to be joyful for. Those that move through grief often talk about coming out the other side to a new kind of aliveness. A deeper joy and appreciation of what is. Rooting in gratitude can create the safe container we need to let ourselves feel our grief without becoming mired in it. A daily practice of naming what you are grateful for can give us a reservoir of love and appreciation that both enhances the joy of life and gives us the strength to be present with the darkness.
So, how to deal with your feelings of climate grief?
First, offer gratitude for what you do have. The relationships in your life, the abundance around you, clean water and clean air. And we — each of us reading this on a computer or smartphone — we each have so much. We have more than most any other cohort of humans have ever had. Consider a daily gratitude practice or keeping a gratitude journal. Go for walk in nature and re-root your system by soaking in the outstanding beauty of the amazing world we now inhabit.
Second, feel your feelings. Let yourself be sad, or confused, or angry. Talk to a friend and share your feelings. Grief needs to be heard and witnessed. Watch a movie and cry your eyes out. Journal about it. Shout into the wind. Let it out. Let it come through you and be released. All of these things will help you along the difficult healing journey.
Third, get comfortable with uncertainty. Humanity is on a roller coaster the likes of which we have never seen. Change is the only certainty. Of course our wisest selves have always known that certainty and control are illusions. Now, we are invited to practice that eternal spiritual skill of living in the present and accepting the unknowable nature of the future. Surely there is a gift in that.
And lastly, know that your grief — reaching into the darkness and actually feeling it — is a natural and healthy response to life in these times. In fact is a valuable contribution to the collective emotional work that is needed now.
You are not alone with these feelings.
Part of the work of saving the world is grieving for the parts of it that we may lose or which we have already lost. Let yourself be transformed by your grief, the way compost enriches the soil, to make fertile ground for the new life — however that may look.
This is the first of a series of articles exploring Climate Hope. Please send me a message or email to let me know what you think. We’re all in this together.