In last week’s column, “Why words matter”, I encouraged readers to consider the power of mental images—and the words we choose to describe what we “see”—to define and limit (or expand) how we respond to the emerging crises of our time. In particular, I warned against seeing ourselves as headed “off a cliff”, in favor of the less paralyzing picture of standing at a “crossroads”.

Many people responded with a sigh of relief, happy to be reminded that fear is most often a matter of choice, not an inescapable force. They liked the idea that, by taking charge of the dark imagery our minds habitually offer up, we won’t necessarily alter the trajectory of the collapse heading our way—but we can fundamentally change our ability to act effectively in the face of it.

Others objected to the entire line of thinking. To them, the image of divergent paths in a green wood was far too serene, too safe. These thoughtful people have done their homework. Like structural engineers, they’ve run the numbers on this skyscraper called civilization, and have concluded it just won’t stand up much longer, no matter which path we take. They think it is time to start the evacuation, not hold hands and meditate. I seemed to be saying, “Hey, don’t let the end of the world as you know it get you down! Just think happy thoughts, put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work itself out.”

Clearly, I didn’t communicate as well as I should have, because I don’t believe anything of the sort. It is more proof that words matter—a lot. I really like Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy”, but I don’t recommend it as a philosophy of life.

I had planned to move on this week in “The Story of Here” with a walk down to Clear Creek, the closest thing in my circular world to a wildlife refuge. (This is where I can see deer grazing under the overpass of an interstate highway, find raccoon tracks in the mud, spy great blue herons standing like feathered fence posts in the water, or pick wild rosehips and other plants for the medicine cabinet.)

But that trip can wait a week while I back up and take another stab at making myself clear. For starters, it’s important to acknowledge that, these days, looking the future square in the face, without the anesthetic of denial in its many forms, is traumatic. If peak oil alone hasn’t scared the pants off of you at some point, then you haven’t fully understood it. Period.

It is also true that waking up from the hypnosis of belief that tomorrow will always be better than today doesn’t happen just because Dr. Mesmer snaps his fingers. It is a process that proceeds at different rates for different people. The course it runs is best described by “the five stages of grief” laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As others have pointed out, these don’t always occur in everyone, or in the sequence in which they appear on this list. Hell, I’ve been known to feel them all in a single day!

Here’s the point: Seeing the unvarnished truth of our present predicament is a lot like facing death. It is frightening and painful. If it makes you angry, you’re not alone. Depressed? Welcome to the club. You won’t catch me telling you to feel something other than what you feel. It is necessary to your forward progress. And, if you are in the stage where all you want to do is climb on your roof and scream bloody murder at your neighbors—to try and wake them up too—then you probably won’t appreciate someone who comes along and says, “Be careful. Words matter.” You might even share a few choice words of your own.

But…I stand by what I’ve said: Being mindful of the word-pictures we paint for ourselves is good thinking, no matter where you fall on the Kübler-Ross scale. To tell you why, I will leave the cliff vs. crossroads analogy for now, and turn to something I know a little bit about: martial arts.

Several years ago, as a brand new white belt karate student, I fully expected to get my butt kicked in the dojo. Getting a late start at age 48, I knew I would spend a lot of time looking up from the floor at younger, stronger, more agile students than myself. But I honestly didn’t think I would set a record for being especially dull and dense. Training in the early going felt like trying to plow a sun-baked field with my bare hands. It was hard. At the end of the night I’d be the only one in class dripping with sweat and covered with bruises.

Finally, the sensei took me aside. “I can tell you what you need in a single word,” he said. “Relax. You are getting beat up because your muscles are so tight.”

Relax? I thought this was supposed to be hand-to-hand combat training. Battle. Bruce Lee. What did he mean, relax? Besides, I begged to differ: I was getting beat up because everyone else was so much better than me. But, he was Sensei, so I would do my best to follow his instruction.

Over the coming weeks, “relax” became Sensei’s one word curriculum for me. But nothing I did helped. Even when I thought I was relaxed he’d shake his head. “Tight. And that makes you slow and extremely easy to off-balance.” (Think of the difference between trying to push over a hat stand, and a sheet hanging on a clothesline.)

And so it went—until one of the black belts in class took pity on me. (Actually, he told me later he was tired of working so hard to train with me. It turns out my tightness was making it difficult for everyone to learn drills that were meant to flow like water, not break down doors like a battering ram.)

One night during sparring he stopped me. “I can read your mind right now.”

“Really?” I said, grateful for the chance to catch my breath.

“It’s plain as day. You are saying to yourself, ‘I’m old. I’m slow. I don’t stand a chance.’ This is why you are so tight. You expect to go down, so you’re already flinching before I get anywhere near you. That makes it impossible for you to do the simple things that might give you an advantage.”

Suddenly the light went on. He was exactly right. When I stood across the mat from him, all I saw was his black belt and his years of experience. I assumed (told myself) that I had no tools that would work against him, and that I had no time to employ them even if they existed. He was too smart and too fast. I was too dumb and too slow.

“Try telling yourself you have all the time you need,” he went on. “Try visualizing yourself stepping easily out of the way of a punch. See yourself anticipating the kick and blocking it effortlessly. You know the technique, you just need to know you know it.”

Miracle of miracles, it worked. From that moment on I began to improve by leaps and bounds. I realized the most important element of defending myself is believing that I can. It doesn’t matter what I “know” if I let fear freeze me and rob me of the chance to put it into practice. Making sure that doesn’t happen takes conscious effort. It matters what I see and what I say.

The truth is, the future may be a dark alley we can’t avoid. The hardships we face may be like a gang of vicious thugs. But we are far better off if we relax and face them calmly, than if we go rigid with fear. In the first option (standing calmly at a crossroads of possibility), we have a chance of dodging as many hits as we take—because our heads and hands are up, our eyes are open, and all our tools are available.

In the latter case (teetering on the cliff of expected defeat), well, let’s just say panic is a lousy survival strategy.