As I read the thoughtful blogs on this site, I feel grateful for the vision, practical wisdom, and creative thinking that I see so often expressed here. In a time when the very foundation of our way of life is breaking down, it is inspiring to hear from so many who are willing to roll up their sleeves and prepare to do the more conscious work of growing good food, providing shelter, and strengthening their local communities for whatever may come.
And of course there is good reason to believe that we may be facing a great deal more challenge in the future. Global climate change, species decline, and the growing political and economic polarization all hint at a “perfect storm” of events that call into question our very survival. Curiously, all of this seems to be happening at the same time that our political leaders are increasingly parochial and less capable. For the next few decades, and probably for the next few generations, it looks like we are in for a very wild ride indeed!
Food, clothing, and shelter are basic needs. Most of us also acknowledge the importance of healthy communities to help provide these basic necessities. There is however a whole other realm of experience that is critical to our survival; indeed, it begins to become more apparent when people come together on common projects and seek to live in community. This is the realm of emotions.
Without emotional resilience, people will not survive. Not only do we need to ‘think through’ this process of breakdown, we need to feel our way through it. In fact, our proclivity for thinking first and perhaps allowing a bit of emotional expression later on is a pattern that has helped get us into this dire predicament. More about that at another time perhaps. And yet suffice to say here that we are a very clever people: Good at manipulating the environment and coercing one another into desired actions. But we lack wisdom. A survey of the current crop of political leadership in the US, UK, and too much of the world only confirms this. However driven or intellectually capable these people may be, they lack the balance, compassion, humility, and patience to lead well in the best of times, let alone the most difficult. Something is fundamentally wrong with this picture!
Wisdom cannot be measured in IQ or sheer computing power. From the perspective of a wise elder, all intelligence looks pretty artificial these days. That is because the cleverness of the mind is meant to be rooted in the wisdom of the heart. This is an understanding at the core of all of the major spiritual traditions. And whereas the currency of the mind is ideas, the heart expresses itself through emotions.
In Latin, the word ‘cur’ for heart is the root for courage. In fact, courage is not an intellectual stance or simply a denial of fear. It comes from the heart. Whenever we face great change–moving to a new home, taking on a new career, or beginning or ending a primary relationship–we need courage. Imagine how much more courage we will need as we enter an era when our very way of life is on the line.
So let’s look at some of the emotional responses that may be coming up even now as we are beginning to move into a time of great turbulence In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, and whole-scale environmental destruction it is easy and appropriate to be angry. I personally get outraged when I about the reversal of environmental regulations and a whole range of generally regressive policies being advocated by the current Administration in the U.S.
Indeed, anger is the dependable ‘go-to’ emotion for activists of all stripes. Not surprisingly it is the emotion that characterizes a lot of Trump supporters and many of us who see the U.S. Commander-in-Chief being…well, chiefly good at channeling anger for his own ends. Like all emotions, anger has its proper function in helping us to set good boundaries. When someone steps on your foot, it is appropriate to express a degree of anger as you inform them of the violation. “Excuse me, you happen to be on my foot.” Politely said at first, but with an escalating bit of ‘attitude’ if they don’t respond. And then finally…well, in America, you might just shoot them. Not that I recommend this as a healthy expression of anger!
And when so many of us feel that our rights are being violated, or see that the future for our children and those who follow is being imperiled, it is only natural to feel anger. Like all emotions, the anger needs to be expressed. The question becomes: In what way? How? And where? Using anger to lead political action is common. And it tends to elicit more anger from those who have a different perspective. This leads to an escalating ‘he said, she said’ or ‘tit for tat’ scenario that can become ugly–even violent.
Anger is seductive. It is empowering as it stokes the ego and gives one a feeling of righteousness. Before you know it–whether you are a progressive campaigning for sustainability or a conservative who believes that modern life is characterized by a secular war on religious values–you begin to demonize the other side. ‘They’ become less than human. You hate ‘them.’ The result is you get the kind of polarity that we see growing in too many places around the world.
Peel away a bit of the anger, and you begin to see a swirl of other emotions. They tend to be displaced by anger because they are not nearly so ‘sexy.’ Key among them is grief. A lot has already been lost, and there will be much more to come. We have lost much of the old growth forest in the world. Species of plants and animals have disappeared. Clean air and water are harder to find. The wild open spaces that make one’s spirit soar are disappearing. Many of the indigenous cultures that had the wisdom to live in harmony with nature have been destroyed. A sense of innocence and optimism about the future have given way to deep anxiety about our survival.
There has been so much loss! If we do not shed tears, if we do not honor these great losses, we may displace the grief into rage and self-righteousness, or we may simply become deadened. A good part of the disconnection that is characteristic of modern life is because we have not properly grieved. Those who come from more intact traditional cultures can see this in modern western people.
Burdened by unexpressed grief, a deadened people can only wreak more death and destruction. This was certainly part of the dynamic when European peoples came to the New World. Their own cultures had been going through centuries of war, famine, disease, and collective trauma. And when they set foot in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, they wrought further death and destruction on the native peoples and the lands they inhabited. Trauma begets more trauma. The cycle needs to stop if there is any hope of surviving into the future.
Whereas anger gives us a bit of a charge, grief can seem debilitating. With grief, we slow down, turn inward, and ultimately shed tears. We may need to withdraw from others and our ability to accomplish everyday tasks is lessened. Real grieving takes time since grief is the slowest of emotions. But when given it’s due, grief clears the way for new life and possibilities. Just as a good bout of crying can leave you feeling lighter and refreshed, so a full embrace of grieving can give you a sense of being reborn and ready to tackle life with new enthusiasm.
If we avoid grief–or anything else for that matter–there is another emotion at play. It is none other than fear. As we become disconnected from each other and the natural cycles of the living world, we dwell increasingly in fear. What is not generally appreciated is how much fear is at the core of modern life and the role this emotion plays in getting us to this place of crisis and breakdown. It is the proverbial elephant in the modern living room. To the extent that we try to control nature and create comfort, we are acting out of fear. Not that some level of comfort isn’t appropriate. But when being more comfortable becomes the driving force behind a way of life, then environmental ‘over-reach’ is inevitable. Behind it all is a gnawing fear about not having enough or losing what you already have.
Swimming in fear, enough is never really enough. This basic fear spawns our insatiable consumerism. We come to believe that if we have ‘more and better,’ somehow we will feel happy and safe. In the process, we are willing to gobble up all of the earth’s resources, and the technologists among us dream of moving on and repeating the pattern on other planets and beyond. By its advocates, this is considered the inevitable trajectory of progress. For many of us though, this is a sign of a great sickness–an addictive behavior that makes human culture look more like a cancer than anything to celebrate.
Like all emotions, fear has its legitimate role. It is meant to put us on alert so that we avoid harm. Ironically, those of us fortunate to be living in the so-called “developed world” may have a lot less to fear about our survival than those who still live close to the land in indigenous cultures. And yet we fear a lot more: Our minds are constantly veering out of the moment to anticipate the next big challenge–whether it be getting to work on time, paying our bills, or somehow planning for our future. To live in the modern western world is to live with a constant, gnawing anxiety which is nonetheless treated as “being reasonable.”
As the climate shifts or economies and political systems begin to flounder, as survival is truly on the line, there will be only more good reason to feel fear. We can already feel it growing in many parts of the world as the shadow of breakdown begins to stimulate angst and increasingly divisive politics. Just as with anger or indeed any emotion, it is not that fear is a “problem.” It needs to be acknowledged and expressed. If not, all too often, it hijacks our actions in a way that does not promote resilience. Fear tends to focus our attention into a flight, fright, or freeze mode. If someone is literally pointing a gun to your head, one of these responses may help you survive. On the other hand, the kind of chronic fear that so deeply woven into modern life leaves us feeling desperate and incapable of the kind of creative open-mindedness that is good for long-term survival.
Some practical steps towards developing emotional resilience:
- Self Help: Seek out your own personal healing. This is the time to face any “demons” you carry–anything that you have been avoiding. This can include your own addictive or avoidance behaviors. As a person of this time in human history, you are very fortunate indeed if you have not suffered some kind of profound trauma by the time your reach adulthood. This may be sexual, physical, or emotional or all of the above. It may even be generational; in fact, if you have experienced trauma, it more likely has ties to past experiences in your family or beyond. When individuals don’t face their demons, they simply pass along this ‘shadow material’ to the next generation. As turmoil grows in the world outside, these demons will only grow more insistent on getting your intention. And if you draw a blank here, simply ask a loved one or a close friend to help you see what you are not seeing in yourself. Survival will be hard enough in the future. You don’t need this additional emotional baggage. If you can get professional help, look for an orientation (Jungian, Process Work, shamanic, etc.) that recognizes the transpersonal nature of deep wounding.
- Talk About: In addition to learning how to grow food and build shelter, learn some of the emotional skills that are required for collaborating with others and living in community. This includes communications and skills in dealing with conflict. Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication appeals to many. My own favorite is the work of Arnold and Amy Mindel of the Process Work Institute in Portland
- Humble Plying: Humility may be a recognized virtue, but it seems to be a rather quaint artifact of the past. Although varying somewhat by country and sub-culture, in modern contexts, we are constantly expected to demonstrate our personal competence at school, work, and elsewhere. Technology–particularly social media–accentuates the emphasis on personal expression. In more traditional cultures, trying to show how clever, capable or otherwise unique is frowned upon. Humility is not just an archaic artifact. It demonstrates an openness to others as well as to continual learning. To put it succinctly, if you feel pretty certain that you “know” how to make the world right, well, you’re probably off target.
- Gratitude: This may seem like a very tall order as one sees modern life unraveling and the attendant suffering that comes with it. Gratitude is not denial of suffering and loss. The latter needs to be acknowledged and felt. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but you can still experience gratitude for your partner, children, friends, community, or the astounding beauty of nature. Maybe you can even manage gratitude for this difficult time when nothing can be taken for granted, and there is the opportunity to create something that may help the overall survival of our people in the future. In a culture that is heavily analytical and dominated by consumerism, the default is often ‘what is lacking.’ Humility is like an under-used muscle to be exercised. Finding even small things to be grateful about can be a tremendous source of strength in the face of adversity.
- Play: Make room for creative expression and the enjoyment of it. Stories, poetry, and music are essential tools for survival as they feed the heart and spirit when the times seem darkest. Spend at least some time regularly just doing things for sheer enjoyment.
- Monkey Mindfulness: Look for practices that calm the mind and help you to find the “still voice within” that is a signature of the heart. This can include activities like yoga, meditation, spending quiet time in nature, and for those who feel drawn to it–a spiritual path. In my community, we meet regularly around the fire. There is so much that can be said about this practice alone. Suffice to say that it is very ancient and that because fire is the energy of heart, any activities around the fire are excellent for facilitating emotional expression, connection, and equanimity.
- The Last – Laugh: Cultivate a sense of humor. If you cannot laugh at yourself and your own earnestness to save the world (And I myself am certainly challenged on this score!), then you are probably not at your most effective. Like pretty much anything, humor can be a form of avoidance. (Just think of the well-known comedians who turn out to be quite dysfunctional.) But being able to access humor in the most difficult of times can help you be more present and ‘emotionally supple’ for whatever comes your way. Extreme circumstances can call forth extreme humor.
However the future unfolds, a good way to prepare is become emotionally fluid. Minds are good at solving problems, but making life into a problem is…well, problematic! We are most alive and resilient when we and our communities allow for good emotional expression. As we feel, express, and find ways to move the anger, grief, and fear, there is room for other emotions. There is space for sympathy and compassion for even for those who see the world very differently. With good emotional expression comes the ‘meta-emotion’ of joy. Not necessarily happiness, but a kind of acceptance to whatever comes. Life can be very difficult, but there is something to be said for being alive, challenged, and having a sense of purpose. Emotional expression is a necessary prerequisite for re-discovering our passion for life. That passion brings strength for whatever may come.