If your reaction to that title is to avoid reading this post, then I am not surprised. Please press on. I promise it will be worth it.
You see, it’s New Year’s Day and as usual I’m reflecting upon the previous year and thinking about the next one. This is always an introspective time for me. My process is to clean out the house and my mind in order to make room for whatever comes next. Ever since I learned that ‘Boxing Day’ might have been about packaging up your surplus for disadvantaged people, I’ve taken the weeks following Christmas to be deeply grateful for what I have and honest about what I really need. Each year I own less and feel lighter. Not so much this year.
It’s not that I haven’t found long-cherished things to release, along with the unwanted, the unused and the unsuspected. There are two boxes and three bags for the charity run, including all those too-small clothes that make me feel ashamed rather than joyful. If I’m ever thinner than this I’ll go to the charity shop and buy smaller clothes, safe in the knowledge that if we all donate the stuff that doesn’t fit us there will always be plenty. That’s how shared abundance works.
Surplus redistributed, energy released, permaculture ethics realised. Why do I still feel sad?
What’s PTSD got to do with it?
I have a theory, but before I get there I’d like to share something that I know about post traumatic stress disorder. I have PTSD as a souvenir of 20 years of policing, much of it in child protection. I was interested to read recent research into the people in the military and the emergency services that don’t develop this condition. It seems that if you are able to process your emotions in real time, and do your job anyway, that you are much more resilient.
This fits with my own experience. I’m the kind of person that has always tried to avoid feeling anything in distressing situations, thinking I could somehow process the emotions later. It turns out that this is not how our minds (or our hearts) work. Failing to open ourselves up to what is happening in real time is, to our brains, like failing to run from a tiger.
Our emotions are our early warning system. They exist to keep us safe from danger, and to reinforce our behaviour when we’re doing something enjoyable. Understand this and you have a much better insight into everything from addiction to depression. Since exploring this research, I’ve concluded that conditions like PTSD and depression are protective; when we fail to pay attention to the emotional early warning system our bodies find ways to stop us in out tracks.
But what’s this got to do with feeling a sad and angry and frustrated about New Year’s Eve?
The most recent report into climate chaos gave us this quote:
We have to do everything, and we have to do it immediately.
This is from Piers Forster, a professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds (UK) and a lead author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Is anyone else struck by the overwhelming feeling that we are totally fucked? It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. It’s not like anyone with any reasonable level of awareness hasn’t been talking about climate chaos for as long as they have been aware of it, and in my case that’s over four decades.
I’m inspired by Lis Bastion’s site, The Big Fix, and her attempts to change the narrative from what we’re doing wrong to what we’re doing right. I agree with her about the power of hope and the need to keep finding solutions and supporting each other. I just think that part of that support should include being collectively sad.
I think the reasons for feeling sad are not limited to the climate, but include species extinctions, the continuing massive growth in human population and the absence of thoughtful, visionary leadership from most individuals, governments, organisations and businesses.
The Importance of Grieving
Grief is a painful emotion. It’s also critical to our mental health, and our ability to recover from deep loss and trauma. Grief allows us to open ourselves up to the most distressing of all our emotions and to sit with them until we are ready to start taking our first tentative steps towards healing. We would not expect anyone that had lost someone dear to them to cope with that loss by focusing on the good times and making plans for the future. We understand grief well enough by now to know that someone not expressing it is cause for concern.
Suppressed grief becomes anger, or substance abuse, or self harm, or depression, or PTSD. We would never think of telling a laughing person to contain their emotional response but most of us are still uncomfortable with the outward expressions of someone else’s pain. A few of us have learnt to be a witness to it without offering solutions or advice. Pain needs a safe space to come out.
Our Collective Grief
I think that a critical part of dealing with the current state of the world is opening ourselves up to grief. I think it’s as essential to our mental health as mourning the death of a partner and, for many of us, just as traumatic.
I have spent most of the last decade (actually most of my life) trying to care for the earth and to minimise my own impact upon the planet while creatively and peacefully doing what I could to encourage, convince, cajole and confront others with the impending crisis. I have been blessed by the company of many hundreds of people along the way that shared my concerns, each of them working in their own way to change the trajectory of human damage to our earth.
I am deeply sad. Now that I have finally identified my grief I can see the various stages have been unfolding for some time. I felt personally responsible and guilty for not doing more. I denied that things were as bad as they clearly are. I became angry. I wondered who I could bargain with to make the pain go away. I tried lots of things to avoid thinking about it at all.
It’s time for acceptance. I am ready to open myself up to the true magnitude of the whole sorry mess. Can we please stop pretending that everything is fine, and that everything is somehow going to be fine.
I also believe that giving ourselves permission to grieve is part of the solution.
After Grief Comes Hope
Grief doesn’t last forever. It feels as if it will, but once you have experienced that dark and painful state you have also come away with new strength and insight. There were probably times when you felt like the agony would kill you. And then it didn’t. The great paradox of grief is that the only way out of pain is to move through it. Fail to do this and your mind will pull all kinds of tricks to get you to stop avoiding the inevitable.
Grief passes faster when it is shared. That’s why funerals and wakes are so important. My husband often jokes that he won’t care who is at his funeral because he’ll be dead. I remind him that funerals aren’t for the dearly departed. They’re for the people that survive them. A funeral is a shared recognition of loss, an opportunity to mutually recognise shared grief and to extend support to one another. If the person in the coffin was in our emotional zone one then our grief will be profound and long lasting. And then it will pass.
The Scope of Grief
Grief isn’t restricted to the loss of another person. We grieve for all kinds of things. In my life I have mourned many animals that spent their lives in my company. I have grieved the loss of my mental health, the loss of robust physical health and the loss of my breasts to cancer.
I have experienced the ironic grief that comes with being a parent, as my child left my body, stopped breast feeding, headed off to school, hit puberty, fell in love, left home and got married, with each of these making me oddly sad. I have grieved for my inability to protect her from dangerous people, and unkind people and inherited propensities.
I have grieved for family relationships that no amount of effort or energy could heal; a sister that resents me and a mother whose imagined version of what I am like bares little resemblance to who I really am. This used to make me angry. I grieved it. Now it’s just information about family dynamics and I can shrug my shoulders at it and recognise that I share this kind of thing with so many other people. I learn. I do better with my husband and daughter.
I have sat holding hands with grief often enough to now be entirely at peace with it. I recognise grief as both painful and strangely healing. I see now that my deep well of grief for the state of humanity and the damage we continue to do to the earth is not something I can ignore. The trouble is that this has been a slow, creeping grief and not one that was triggered by a single event. How will I express this sadness?
I would like to suggest that part of healing ourselves and our planet is the development of some new rituals. We need to find ways to share our grief with each other, to openly recognise and talk about the pain we are feeling and to just be appropriately sad for a while. We need to make room for all of the emotions that come with this grief and to sit with them.
You see, grief burns away denial and distraction. It helps us to remember who we are and what we want to stand for. It reconnects us with our values, and with each other. We have good reason to be sad, and in coming together to be sad, I think we will also find the energy and the imagination to keep going.
Imagine regular candlelight vigils for the planet, or public events where people come together to express their grief. I don’t know what these will look like but I know I want to be part of something that provides a safe space for me to honestly express my sadness.
I think many people fear that grief will paralyse them, that they will be overwhelmed by it. There is so much to be sad about. In fact the opposite is true. It’s the failure to acknowledge our grief that will result in us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.
I also think that coming together to honour our grief will allow us to release it, to recognise our connection to each other and to all life. There are no ‘bad’ emotions, only unhelpful ones. Our grief is not unhelpful. It relieves us of the need to hold all of our sorrow and anger and frustration at arms length while we pretend to everyone else that there is nothing wrong, and let’s be honest, that’s what we’ve been doing for quite a while now; keep smiling, stay positive, chin up and best foot forward.
Except we now know that that’s the road to depression, trauma, inaction and illness. Unfelt emotions will manifest as something else. Refuse to turn and face our legitimate grief and our clever minds will detect a kind of cognitive dissonance, where our imposed attempts to ‘cheer ourselves up’ are at odds with our genuine feelings. Better to just feel what we are feeling.
If you’re reading this and becoming increasingly concerned about my mental state, please be at peace. I’m feeling much calmer and stronger for moving into my grief. It helps me to understand why I’ve been experiencing this irritating, low level anger towards nothing in particular for so long. I’m going to be taking some time over the coming year to be sad instead, preferably in the company of others that are comfortable with sharing their own grief for the planet and the dreadful mess we’ve made of it.
There is still time. I still have hope. I also think that the best way forward is to stop distracting ourselves, take a really good, long look at it all and grieve. You see ultimately, grief is evolutionary. It moves us from wherever we were to somewhere wiser and stronger. Perhaps collective grief can do that for the species.
So here’s to a very unhappy new year. May those of us that need to grieve find compassionate company and mutual support, and perhaps a much happier 2020.