How can we respond creatively to world crises, rather than feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed by distress?
Differing Views of Reality
In my last article I wrote about "malignant narcissists". These are people who block all genuine emotions and focus their energies on causing suffering for others. While Trump is like the poster-boy for this syndrome, such people can be found not only in leaders, but in daily life. Whatever their veneer, by definition they have a "top-down" mentality.
In the current article I intend to focus on those of us who have not suppressed our feelings, but in fact are in touch with a world that is falling apart. This is part of a "bottom-up" response. It is now clear that we need not only to feel our pain for ourselves and other living beings, but also to find ways to respond to this deepening crisis in a rapid and effective way.
A key reality of our time: it appears that a great unraveling is taking place leading to converging adversity trends.
Denial is probably our greatest temptation.
Human population and consumption are increasing at the same time as essential resources, such as fish stocks, topsoil and oil reserves, are in decline. These are major adversity trends. While reversals in the economy have left many feeling desperate about how they are going to manage, trillions of dollars are spent on the making of war. It is no surprise that so many of us are experiencing a profound loss of confidence in the future. A stunning reality that will be obvious in the foreseeable future: we will no longer be able to take for granted that the resources on which we depend - food, fuel, and drinkable water - will be readily available. Naturally, this is already affecting developing countries first.
In fact, those of us with the clearest vision are affirming that there are serious questions as to whether our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.
The simple fact is that our current way of life is unsustainable.
We live in extraordinary times, caught between differing views of reality. There is the Business-as-Usual version that doesn't recognize the crisis, alongside with the unconscious or semi-conscious terror that things are much worse than we thought. Living in this double reality creates a split in our mind.
Humanity has entered a rare period, filled with immense opportunity and danger: We are collectively between stories with a break in the narrative describing the overall human journey. Around the world, old institutions of business, government, education, and more are breaking down. New institutions responsive to the new era are rising up, but seemingly at a slower pace than existing institutions are breaking down. As a consequence, there is a growing void or felt-sense of absence of guiding narratives for nearly all humans who are alive today.
Naming this uncertainty as a pivotal psychological reality of our time. This is where we must begin - by acknowledging that our times confront us with realities that are painful to face, difficult to take in and confusing to live with.
The "American Dream" that pulled the United States forward for at least three generations is fast becoming the world's nightmare as the excesses of consumerism produce climate disruption, the depletion of cheap oil, and rapidly growing income disparities. The foreseeable future holds other perils: the threat of nuclear weapons, rising numbers of climate refugees, spreading regions of fresh-water scarcity and plant and animal extinction, as well as declining agricultural productivity.
Depression has reached epidemic proportions, with one in two people in the Western world likely to suffer a significant episode at some point in their lives. The consumer lifestyle isn't just wrecking our world; it is making us miserable. Now, instead of a different "dream," people crave a sense of real possibility told in ways that are believable
The question is: - What it will take for humanity to evolve past our looming, disastrous, "ecological wall" toward a future worth building? Can we grow beyond our "evolutionary wall" - our adolescent behavior - and embrace a new maturity?
Are the only options denial, extinction, collapse or a rigid world of authoritarianism and massive AI surveillance? Or can we learn to respect ecological limits and regenerate the Earth and our own well-being? Do we have the potential to sow the seeds of a planetary family in which we are members of the Earth Community?
Pain and Grief
As with grief work, being unwilling to face our distress doesn't make it disappear. Instead, when we do meet and feel our sadness honestly, we are able to place our distress within a larger landscape that gives it a different meaning. At the heart of this approach lies a different way of thinking about our pain for the world. Because it deepens our relationship with the web of life, such principles and practices can be applied to education, psychotherapy, and community organizing.
The perception of radical interconnectedness found in both Buddhism and systems thinking helps us recognize that our distress about world conditions, which manifests as outrage, grief, guilt, dread, alarm and despair, is necessary for our survival..
However, when avoidance of emotional distress has become a habit of a culture, this low level of confidence in our capacity to cope creates a barrier to publicly acknowledging upsetting information. This, in turn, leads to a selective screening out of aspects of reality that seem too painful to bear, too distressing to contemplate.
One alternate way to deal with this is to form a group that offers a safe, supportive forum where distress can be voiced, heard, and valued. We in essence say, "I want to face the truth of what's happening in our world. If that truth is painful, I need to face the pain."
As people open to the flow of their emotional experience, including despair, sadness, guilt, fury or fear, they will likely feel a weight lifted from them. Something foundational can shift, a turning in which there is an increased determination to act. As we touch our depths and tell the truth about what we know, see, and feel is happening to our world, we may feel tremendous relief in realizing our solidarity with others; we no longer feel such isolation.
Also, as we release suppressed emotions and information, our formerly dampened energy returns as we go with, rather than against, the flow of our deeply felt responses to the world. No longer held in check by suppression of feelings, a fresh burst of intelligence can blossom.
It is known that a person may acknowledge that something experienced as negative has happened, yet only take it in on a superficial level, not yet accepting it. The process of authentic acceptance involves feeling the pain of grief. When we feel this, we begin to know not only that the loss is real but also that it matters to us. This is the digestion phase, where the awareness sinks into a deeper place within us, so that we can absorb what it means. Only then can we find a way forward that is based on an accurate perception of reality.
Planting A Garden
Honoring our pain for world is a way of valuing this awareness; i.e., acknowledging both that we have noticed, and that we care. Intellectual awareness is not enough. We need to deeply digest the compelling bad news.
This may rouse to us to respond - and to find joy in the process. From our wider identity as part of the living Earth comes a strong urge to act. We have the choice to see our era as an invitation for us to actively shape our future rather than be passive victims of denial and delay.
We need to transform garbage into compost, and begin to plant our gardens.