As Aldo Leopold wisely wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” This is particularly true when it comes to climate change. We live in a time where one can indeed feel alone in a world of wounds, despite a resounding chorus of scientific evidence. When faced with this situation, it makes perfect sense to retreat into a state of despair, futility and fatalism.
How we manage these feelings is at the crux of our relationship with our work and with our endangered world. Unfortunately, in our post-Enlightenment era, how we deal with difficult and challenging emotions remains a taboo topic for many of us, most notably in the sustainability sectors. Sustainability professions tend to attract “doers,” people who would much rather focus on solutions than dwell on the felt experience of what it means to engage in this work. To acknowledge our feelings is to be “weak” and “soft,” threatens credibility, and is often dismissed.
Yet, for those working on the front lines of ecological damages, including climate change, ignoring these challenging feelings and experiences comes at a great cost. When we cut ourselves off from the painful realities of our work -- our successes and failures – we become split off, dissociated and less effective. We are more prone to lashing out, enacting unhealthy relational patterns, falling into depression, or becoming cynical and jaded.
Instead of taking a more integrated approach to the full spectrum of experiences, we tend to swing between two poles of a spectrum – what I call the “happy rah-rah” focus on positivity – or the “doomer” fatalist and cynical view. The problem is that neither of these poles is accurate or constructive. We have an abundance of creativity, innovation and solutions -- and we are also in deep trouble. We need all hands on deck, and we don’t know of the outcomes. The more able we are at holding these truths together, and not falling into fatalism or the ‘happy rah-rah’ obsession with solutions, the better off we are.
The task for us is not to “overcome fatalism.” Rather, our task is to become friends with our fatalism – to meet our experiences with compassion. We can look to the rich resources offered by psychotherapeutic practice, with decades of working with people on developing greater capacities for facing our truths, no matter how challenging. A gifted psychotherapist has the ability to acknowledge her client’s experience – not to judge or reject it for being too “negative” – and then together work towards a more integrated way of being. The key is to feel safe in feeling what is happening, so we can move through it. Similarly, the tradition of “engaged Buddhism” as exemplified by teachers such as Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hahn stresses the importance of bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, commitment and humanity. We have so much to learn from these practices, in becoming friends with our fatalism and our despair, while remaining active and engaged.
What this means for us is to first stop focusing on getting over our feelings of fatalism. That will only lead to the pendulum swing that happens when we avoid our true experiences. Let’s not be afraid of our fatalism, but embrace it, and become friends with it. It has much to teach us about how we came to this work, how we wish to live, and relate with our world. At the same time, we need to find creative strategies for managing it more effectively – which will lead to greater efficiency and healthier emotional management. They may include:
- Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts. Notice when you judge your own feelings of frustration or despair;
- Be an empathetic friend. Listen to your friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than “just get over it” tendencies;
- Identify friends and colleagues with whom you can speak openly about your experiences, without fear of judgment or being accused of being “too negative”;
- Create forums in your social or workplace networks, to create a greater sense of support; work with consultants such as myself or others trained to address fatalism and difficult emotions in your organization;
- Speak and write openly about your experiences. The more we can break the taboo against the range of feelings, both positive and negative that arise in relation to climate change work, the more effectively we can support one another.
- Recognize that feeling fatalistic doesn’t need to negate the power, importance, and value of our work. It’s natural, normal and part of what we do.
While we may view fatalism and despair as a dangerous detractor to our work, the more we can “become friends” with it, the more capable and efficient we can be. This is basic human psychology. And the more we can encourage one another to accept these feelings, the better capable we are at navigating what lies ahead.