I couldn’t recognize the feeling until just now. I’ve been dragging lately. It’s been hard to motivate, whether writing, sending notes, even doing karate. It’s that feeling when you just want to quit.
Of course, with all the news stories about “COVID burnout,” that’s the easy answer, but it was a feeling I recognized from long ago—something a bit different, more fleeting. Then, finally, it clicked.
It’s that feeling in the last mile of a cross-country race. Before you can see the finish line and start the final sprint. Before the adrenaline kicks in but after your muscles have been exhausted. You just want to stop running. You don’t care about winning, or frankly, even finishing any longer. Except that little part in your brain that says, nah, it’s easier and less embarrassing to finish, even if you slow down, than to just walk off the course (which gets you far enough to be swept up by the final dash).
It’s been so long (decades) since I ran a race that I almost entirely forgot this feeling. But it makes sense. As I felt this, I had just set up my first COVID shot, but weeks in advance. (The vaccine opened to me on April 1st and after a couple of days of effort, I got an appointment for April 27th).* That meant 3+ weeks to go, plus another four weeks for the second shot and two more weeks after that to build immunity, which all felt like the long and exhausting last mile (though after talking to a European friend my age, it sounds like she will not be able to get vaccinated until the fall, so I acknowledge upfront that I’m whining about nothing).
But still, I certainly feel the fatigue. And now that there are no more scenic ravines, sheep pastures, or fun stiles to scramble over (I ran one year in English farm country) or even an ambiguity of how much longer I have to go, the exhaustion is setting in. Much of the race has been run. I don’t really want to keep running. But there’s no choice really. You can’t just stop. You gotta keep going, as your team is relying on you.
And yes, if we’re going to step out of the metaphor for a moment, you can just stop in life: declare email bankruptcy, quit your job, veg out in front of video games, but not without consequences to you and your family. And if you quit permanently, committing suicide, well that is a possibility—a topic worth exploring in depth sometime, but not today. Like Albert Camus argues, the one question worthy of philosophy is whether to live or not. But having answered that in the affirmative, I continue to run my race.
Recently I read a New York Times column by David Brooks that described his end of the race, though in different terms—what he called “a sluggish just-getting-to-the-end.” As he noted, this year more of us have been socially isolated, and lonely, and it’s been harder to live purposeful lives, arguing that purpose comes as much from “small acts of hospitality” we exchange each day, like refilling a guest’s glass at a dinner party.
Hmm, hard to even imagine a dinner party any longer. But I’m not sure I agree that’s where purpose comes from either. I certainly miss having friends over, and seeing everyone via Zoom is admittedly a bit two-dimensional, but the year of the pandemic happened to overlap with the first year of building the Gaian community—new friends who I have formed a deep spiritual connection with. So while it’d be nice to have a beer with them in person,** I feel joy that I now have them in my life (and whether they would have been so open to connecting with this fledgling community online outside of the pandemic, I’ll never know).
But Brooks’ point about purpose is important. On the one hand, the pandemic has made it difficult for climate activists to be purposeful—demonstrations have moved online or have faced limits imposed by fear of disease or state restrictions. Then again, many have argued that lockdown is what helped spark new energy and purpose into the Black Lives Matter movement. In a pandemic that makes it hard for people to breathe, the brutal murder of George Floyd by cutting off his breath while he pleaded “I can’t breathe” (while everyone was home to watch and then go out and protest) has led to a renewed push for social justice (also fueled by continuing injustices).
So while we’re more lonely, more exhausted, more afraid, perhaps in some ways, COVID has or at least can spark more rather than less purposefulness.
What point am I trying to make? Well, in the final stretch of the race, one’s thinking isn’t the sharpest so I might be less coherent than I’d like. But here’s the crux: our purpose need not waver and hopefully purpose invigorates you even in this long final slog through the last mile of the pandemic, or during the next lap if COVID picks up again (and that’s certainly a possibility due to variants and our increasing abandonment of restrictions, social distancing, and even masking), and especially once the race is over and you’re sucking on some orange slices and getting applause from your teammates who finished long ago (I never said I was a good cross-country runner).***
At the April Gaian book club, one participant asked, ‘as Gaians, what should we be doing?’ I’m not sure if he was asking for a prescription of how specifically to best use his energy to make political and social change or expressing the worry that anything we try to do feels like not enough.
On the latter point, Gaia certainly needs us to do more. To keep running—as hard as we can manage without hitting the wall.**** When the pandemic is over the race starts in earnest. But not necessarily on the set course. Perhaps we need to run straight through the woods to a different destination altogether.
As for the former, I grapple with this myself. Frequently. There are clear ways we should use our life energy. Not one way, of course, but of the energy we have for activism, for learning, for community building, how best should we use it? While not a comprehensive list, here are six possible paths.
As an XR activist, or a Friday climate striker, you’re definitely not following the set course. In fact, in the latter case, you’re literally sitting down during the race—making a race of not racing. Fighting against climate change is an important calling, though ideally while also bringing a deeper understanding of limits and the need for degrowth to this community (which are currently lacking).
Earth’s Rights Advocate
This is a topic I should explore in more depth, but Earth’s Rights are the next horizon of jurisprudence—and if enacted would be truly revolutionary. Reading The Great Work, Thomas Berry eloquently advocated this—and perhaps even sparked the movement. This is a fledgling field, but it’s clear that Gaians should be leading proponents of Earth’s rights.
We should be aware of the hundreds of dangerous sores festering around the world: nuclear power plants and waste sites that, if (or more accurately, when) societies fail, we will no longer have the resources to maintain them safely. Choosing to be a nuclear guardian, both fighting to reduce this million year threat and to pass on wisdom and knowledge to the generations that come after, is a noble pursuit that so few have sought.
Consumer culture will fail. That is not a prophetic pronouncement. The science very clearly reveals we are beyond the limits, and still growing our populations and our consumption; collapse in one form or another is inevitable (especially as, even now, we are trying to grow our way out of our problems). Of course, we don’t know when, but we have many case studies of how things become when systems fail: in ancient times, in hyperinflationary developing countries, in the former Soviet Union. Developing valuable skills now—from midwifery to permaculture, from karate to carpentry, from wilderness first aid to nature foraging—will help in enriching/increasing the resilience of your community when that time comes. Plus they’re fun to learn and fun to teach, including to children.
Doing all this piecemeal is not the same as doing this in an organized, community-supported way, whether through a Gaian Guild, a Transition group, or your local church. Bringing people together to fight, to learn, to meditate, and above all to support each other (now and through the difficult times ahead) can and should be a key purpose of Gaians.
And absolutely not a consumer
Along with one or all of the above, we should be pushing ourselves to consume less. That’s good for Gaia and also good for us—whether travel, luxury items, energy, or even food. Since October, I’ve incorporated fasting on full (and now) new moon days. This has helped me reduce total calorie consumption and vices (like sugar). And it keeps me grateful for the gifts Gaia provides. But it also helps me ‘make a friend of hunger.’ There will be shortages in the future, and building up a tolerance to that now is a valuable mental exercise.
Of course, none of these six are really on the course set by the dominant consumer culture. But this is what Gaia needs right now. As Berry notes in The Great Work, the true political divide is not capitalist vs. socialist (which are both “committed to ever-increasing commercial-industrial exploitation of the resources of the planet”) but developer vs. ecologist. That is shorthand for the division between those who put the human first versus those who see “the integral Earth community (including the human)” as primary, “while human well-being in itself is seen as derivative.” (p. 107-108).
These are not the same races being run. And there is no shame in leaving the marked trail of the race you started to follow a better course. There is only shame at not running your best race. For yourself and for Gaia.
*On the first day I only found a slot for July 31st! But after reading a Hartford Courant article (on 4/13) where Governor Ned Lamont was quoted saying you could now get a vaccine scheduled for same day, I tried and got an appointment for 4/14, shaving two weeks from my wait time. I feel like I’m cheating in the race, but as this is published, I have had my first vaccine shot (which went very smoothly) and am now much closer to the final sprint.
**Though that would open up a different issue of the carbon costs of traveling!
***Obviously, even when fully vaccinated, we should all keep masking in solidarity and to avoid any inadvertent spread, especially to the many youth and immunocompromised who are unable to be vaccinated.
****Remember that this race is a marathon, so sprinting early (e.g. doing too much too fast and burning out) is not ideal.