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Photo by Sam X on Unsplash

Something is awry. For years now I have been wrestling with the specifics of it, with its name and its origin, and only recently has it begun to clarify and settle into understanding. There has been a palpable sadness coiled so deep within me that it feels as though it must be a part of me — it must be mine — even while I understand that it is not of or from me. It is a deep sense of loss that at first must have been grief for my beloved grandfather; then, when that no longer seemed to fit, must have been depression. Even as I did everything I knew to stave off this sadness — and I knew a lot about this, as a practicing psychologist with eight years of practice and over a decade of post-secondary behind me — it still remained. Every act of self-care and healthy lifestyle change and round of cognitive restructuring I attempted proved fruitless. Even the anti-depressant medication didn’t touch it. Not really.

The sadness still lingered.

I am on the older cusp of the Millennial generation, the leading edge of a massive swell even larger than the Baby Boomers. My generation has seen record-high levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health ills — the highest rates in generations. That is, except perhaps for the generation that follows ours — Generation Z, the even-more distraught youngers to our troubled elders. There are myriad theories about why my peers and our juniors are suffering — poor economic conditions, the ubiquitousness of technology, the impact of social media — but none of these quite resonates for me. Various experiments in lifestyle changes that lessened the influence of these nefarious factors in my life have proven not to touch upon the sadness that resides within me. I am a born optimist, a high achiever, I have proven to be a resilient and ever-grateful person through life-altering challenges, and I benefit from many intersectional privileges that have made my life much less difficult than it could have been otherwise.

And yet, the sadness remains.

It only dawned on me recently. As I read through yet another comments section on another dire news article providing me yet another point of focus for my sadness, it crystallized for me that my emotional state does indeed have a name. My sadness is a deep, existential sense of loss. As it turns out, I am grieving after all, but it’s not for a loved one as I had initially thought. What I am feeling, and what I suspect others in my peer group may be feeling as well — especially the more emotionally sensitive of us — is a visceral understanding that everything we know is dying. Our known political systems and long-trusted sources of information are failing us. There is evidence that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction (the last one ended the reign of dinosaurs about 66 million years ago), given the notable collapse in the number and variety of plant, insect, and vertebrate species around us. As the apex species on this planet, we are hastening our own demise through the irrational prioritization of immediate economic gratification over literally everything else, including the long-term sustainability of pretty much all things that support human life on earth (i.e., fresh water, clean air, healthy food, meaningful social connection, etc.).

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Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

I say this not to arouse motivation to change what is, but to acknowledge the losses I am mourning. As a psychologist, I am in the business of change, and the deep sense of grief wound deeply through my body knows that we will not find the motivation to change until it is much too late. We are beautiful, brilliant, flawed creatures, and I know we do not change until the pain of staying the same becomes worse than the pain of changing. In order to motivate the revolutionary changes that would be required to slow our demise, the pain of staying the same would have had to be felt already, and revolutionary changes already begun. My sense is that the pain of staying the same will reach a level of intensity that will demand our acknowledgment at some point in my lifetime, and by then it will be much too late. So for now, I can feel us sliding towards the death of humanity, the death of everything we know, and it is much too big and much too late to stop it.

And so I grieve.

I grieve the loss of security that will come with greater global conflict over smaller and smaller pools of resources. I grieve the collapse of our economy as we know it. I grieve the loss of democracy as graver political contexts give rise to more authoritarian regimes. I grieve the loss of comfort that will come as we become less capable of sustaining ourselves. I grieve the loss of humanity that will come as people become more and more scared and respond by self-isolating and turning on each other. We are already acting scared, just focusing our fear on the usual suspects — the Other — rather than the actual threat. I grieve the loss of life that will come.

I do not anticipate seeing any kind of apocalypse in my lifetime, but I believe we will continue to slide precipitously towards our own end. I anticipate being alive to witness the moment when people begin to realize this, and realize it can no longer be helped.

The 1998 Don McKellar movie Last Night has been on my mind lately. I feel as though I am caught in its storyline, knowing that the meteor is crashing towards the Earth and that everything will end and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. It just is. And for this, I feel an existential depth of loss that I have only recently understood cognitively, even though it has been growing within me as a felt knowledge for years. Last Night reminds me what is important to embrace now as we drift helplessly towards the end, which is what has really been the only thing that has ever been important in the history of humanity: connection with others. Love. The answer is so absurdly obvious it smacks of saccharine cliché, but perhaps it is so pedestrian an answer for a reason. It is plain and obvious and boring because it is so self-evidently true. The unsustainable systems in place, the extinction in progress, the flaws in reasoning and psychology that we have as a species — these things are so far outside my control that it is comically futile to believe I can change them. But what I can do is embrace closely the ones I love the most. I can be kind, I can be generous, and I can find ways to connect with and express my humanity while I can.

There is no way out but through. So I will try to make it through whatever comes next with acceptance of what is, acknowledgment of my grief and the purpose it serves for me, and with explicit awareness of the love that exists in my life. Everything else is just distraction, an escape from the pain of what is and what will be, when the only way out is to turn toward it, breathe deeply, and bear through it the only way we can: together.

Dr. J. Lauren Johnson is a psychologist working in private practice in Edmonton, AB (Canada).

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