How to Embrace Despair in the Age of Climate Change

Through digital Extinction Rebellion LA channels, Charlie came across an article I published arguing that activism was not always the answer to ecological anxiety and grief. Charlie then contacted me by email. He described to me his story of eco-distress, as well as how he had launched into activism to help alleviate it. He also explained that he had recently had to take a step back from activism because of exactly what he had described in my newsletter. Like many people who have seen external activism as a “solution” to internal pain, he went into it too quickly and tried to cut straight through the transition process to be a happy, resolute, resilient activist. He had confused the therapeutic effects of the community, which his therapist wanted him to explore, with the idea that action toward a more positive future would take away his anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong, external action is absolutely vital. Society needs a lot more, and contributing to that momentum can bring some genuine calm because it means you’re tackling what’s stressing you out. But jokes like “action is the antidote to despair” can oversimplify a complicated experience and indicate a society that is opposed to difficult emotions.

As ecological anxiety researcher Panu Pihkala writes: “By emphasizing (over) the action, one can also see traits that derive from a general avoidance of emotions or even from a culture of contempt.” In many Western nations, where mental health problems are on the rise, we tend to turn off our feelings by working (too) hard, engaging and distracting, retailing, eating and drinking too much, taking drugs, or explaining our emotions. rightly so. . This is the emotional immaturity of many modern societies at work, which will do everything possible to block the deep internal and collective collective work that is required to deal with and process difficult feelings to completion.

Charlie came to understand this, and instead of trying to put his feelings into action, he took more time to sit down with them.

Activism, he realized, was just a way to reach out to other people who “understand” it, which his climate-conscious therapist rightly urged him to do. When he first got in touch with several online writers who were thinking about these topics (not just me) and had meaningful conversations with them, he quickly cultivated connections that could contain his deepest fears and frustrations. Every genuine conversation about the emotional cost of human-caused destruction of the environment made it even more bearable, he said. Research supports what he found and shows that social support of this kind is vital to maintaining psychological health.

What was still struggling when we spoke was a burning need to get out of industrial society as soon as possible. He was greatly tempted to leave the city, move to the forest, and learn to live off the land. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, at least he shouldn’t be painfully reminded that the water coming out of the tap was being pumped with fossil fuels from a reservoir 300 miles away. But then I would think of all the kids in LA who have never had the opportunities they had when they were little to pursue their dreams, play music, and enjoy being young without the specter of the climate emergency and a pandemic ironing on them. yours. heads. Wouldn’t he leave an entire generation in need of help to foster his resilience if he just left society and hid for the apocalypse? The responsibility was in his mind. After all, what do we owe to the end of the world as we know it?

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