Monday, May 18, 2015

The Great Grief: Is It A Natural Symptom Of A Compartmentalization Hangover?

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Hell is empty and all the devils are here." - William Shakespeare, The Tempest

I found this quote from Shakespeare floating around Facebook the other day. Upon reading the words I had to take a moment to pause. There do seem to be a number of devils loose in the world.  And one of them is apathy.

I recently came across an article entitled The Great Grief. I found the title of this article very compelling. Despite all the psychotherapy and healthy practices I have engaged in the last two years there is an aspect of my grief that I don't feel especially capable of fully resolving. It is a grief I carry with me each day as I continue to witness all the careless ways we treat the planet...and one another.

As I have noted elsewhere in my blog I was a precocious child. I was aware at a very early age that something felt profoundly off about this world we humans live in. I remember being intrigued by the many facets of our industrialized society. Somewhere early in my development I wondered how so many people could apparently be so devoid of intellectual curiosity. It seemed many people never stopped to wonder about the impacts of our society on the natural world around us. Did people think all the exhaust from our cars, trucks, homes and businesses simply magically vanished without consequence into the atmosphere above us? Were we as a species that naive? Having been an adult for a few decades now I think I can better answer that last question. I am not sure that naive is the best word to describe much of the behavior we humans engage in each day. A better word would be dissociated.

As noted in the article I referenced above there is consensus among a large majority of climate scientists that our species will witness dramatic changes unfold on the planet in the coming decades as a direct consequence of our continued use of fossil fuels as a primary way to power our global economy. As often happens it is virtually a guarantee that those who will suffer the most due to these changes are, as a general rule, least responsible for the mess being created. I referenced this reality in some of my writings from graduate school. There is a school of thought that claims the global North has run up an immense ecological debt and yet it is the global South that is incurring the deleterious consequences of said debt. Regardless of who you are, where you live, what you do and what your socioeconomic status is one thing is certain: no portion of the planet will remain unchanged due to our actions.

The article goes on to reference a growing body of research that documents the mental health consequences of climate change. The flora and fauna of this world are already experiencing heightened stress due to the changes we are witnessing. And this will continue. And we humans will also be impacted. To quote directly from the article the manifestations of our own psychic distress are many: trauma, shock, stress, anxiety, depression, complicated grief,  strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation and on and on. In other words, fouling the planet we depend upon for our very sustenance will impact us whether we wish it to or not. But how could this not be true? How could witnessing clear cutting of an entire forest close to a home your family has held for generations not affect you?

It is also sobering to read that recent developments offer a mixed bag, at best, regarding our future prospects. Consider the following "data point" as but one example. According to the article a survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication the percentage of Americans who rarely or never speak with friends and family about global warming has grown since 2008. It would naturally help to have significant context to better appreciate the reasons behind this development. I personally am inclined to believe this statistic is a product of a number of issues coming together all at once. I believe discussion of the issue has waned due to 1) fatigue with the issue due in part to a sense of hopelessness about finding a feasible means to create effective change, 2) the political polarization within this nation that only further contributes to feelings of hopelessness and 3) a focus on issues many Americans find more pressing, namely the economy. In other words, people will prioritize being able to eat today over addressing an immense issue whose impacts still seem far removed in time and space.

I personally struggle with these feelings of grief and despair in regards to what we are doing to our planet. I honestly am very perplexed as to what we can and should do to address the issue of human induced climate change. In many respects I think what is most needed is a revolution in our very minds.  I believe we need to think differently about ourselves, about who and what we are, about how we think of the planet and so on. I believe we need to stop seeing so much of our national politics as a zero sum game in which the triumph of one party or interest group is automatically interpreted to mean another group is a loser. I believe we need a spiritual ethic of stewardship and sustainability to inform our individual and collective actions. And I believe we need to strive to find the qualities that create common ground rather than those that divide us.

It has been my experience that the field of mental health is still woefully under-equipped to deal with the mental health consequences of climate change. Why? I believe this is partly a result of the fact that practitioners in the field are not trained to think and practice in such holistic terms. I believe we humans are suffering the inevitable pain of what I will creatively call a "compartmentalization hangover".

So many of us still believe that what happens elsewhere doesn't affect us. We believe our neighbors down the street as well as the citizens of a neighboring country can suffer immensely and yet somehow that will not impinge upon our own lives. Some believe they can carry guns on their persons on a daily basis and thereby ensure their own safety. Others will choose gated communities as a means of insulating themselves from the troubles of those of meager means. By building walls and security fences we hope to keep out that which we fear. Humans have built walls for millennia. Consider the Great Wall of China. Ponder the Berlin Wall. But walls will not keep out the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases swirling above all of our heads.

I believe this compartmentalization hangover also adversely affects the ways practitioners within various fields experience the world.  Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, natural resource managers, data analysts, physicians, lawyers, material scientists, astronauts, teachers, hospitality professionals, city managers and so many others all have important insights to offer our world. And yet they all have their own unique lingo specific to their disciplines.

A number of years ago the teachings of Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme made quite an impression on me.  Their wisdom still stands out in my mind.  Based on what I learned from them and my own life journey I believe the following is true now more than ever:

We need to reinvent what it means to be human.

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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!