I am at the stage of life where my children are entering the world. After twenty years of childrearing and householding, in some sense, I am reentering it with them. A lot has changed since my eldest was born in 1999.
Before I had children, I knew we humans were on a dangerous trajectory. However, I believed the fatal consequences of our consumptive consciousness and behaviour were several generations away. I thought we had both the time and the ingenuity to turn it around — just like humans have always done. It’s not that I was in full-blown denial, nor did I hedonistically believe I could feast on the world and leave the mess to upcoming generations. I genuinely didn’t know I belonged to the front-line generation who would raise children in the apocalypse. I thought we were in the eleventh hour, not a minute to midnight.
So, yeah. That’s been a bit of a surprise.
Now that I understand we’re well inside of a mass extinction event and that the climate is already changed, I’m feeling the worry and grief that comes with knowing what I know. And I wonder, if I knew then what I know now, would I still have had children? Would I have them today? Do I think they should or should not have their own?
My eldest son came home for the summer. About a month into his visit, he commented on the severity of my mood. He said that I only seemed to connect with anyone on the issues of climate change. If he wanted to engage with me, that was his only through-line. It was a blow to the gut.
Through an uncomfortable tear-filled conversation, I explained that from a sense of love and responsibility to him and his generation, I was doing my best to address the issue. I lamented on the mistakes and the choices I made as a parent. I shared with him my grief of it all — the species loss, our hubris, how I hadn’t prepared him for what was ahead.
He said he admired and felt comforted by my commitment to stay with the problem, but he needed my presence, specifically, my joyful presence. Without it, he said he felt abandoned. He also reminded me that no one is prepared, yet he’s still happy to be alive. While life is good, he said, he wants to enjoy it. My well-meaning worry and increasing despair were hurting him. He who embodies the very world I am trying to ‘save.’
By their mere existence and the love we have for them, our children invite us to be the very best of ourselves. Many of us strive to deliver without too much compromise. I heard his need but wasn’t going to discredit my knowledge of the world to put on a happy face.
I didn’t think it was possible to hold the aching awareness of our suffering planet without sliding into either despair or denial. But for the love of my children, I decided to try.
I spent much of the summer in unknown territory. I wasn’t going to forget that ‘business as usual’ is driving us towards a cliff, but I did loosen the death grip it had around my joy. To do so, I needed to find a more nuanced context to life than ‘we’re all doomed and going to die a horrible death.’
Michael Meade, the renowned scholar of mythology, speaks of three worlds or layers that house different awarenesses of existence. The first layer he describes is the status quo. It is the world of rules and obligations, knowledge and procedures. It is predictable weather patterns and systems we have come to count on. It is where children strive to get good grades and make the team, and a world where parents prepare them for worldly success. It was in this world that my children got to know me, and now see me up against.
The second layer lies underneath. It is the place where our individual and collective misgivings are acted out. Here, our disconnected emotions take the stage in acts of anger, fear, jealousy, venom, revenge, deep grief and despair. It’s also the layer that gives rise to racism, misogyny and hate. According to Meade, the chaos and violence usually masked by layers of polite behaviour are quickly becoming the new status quo. In other words, this second layer is becoming the first. The repressed is becoming more and more visible. Perhaps this layer carries the consequence of cultures who misalign human nature with the greater workings of the world.
The third layer Meade describes is a state that most of us have sensed, and may even inhabit on an ongoing basis. It is a mythological world: a place of stories, interconnection, soulfulness and unmeasurable creativity. It is the Anima Mundi, the soul of the world, where all living things are connected and relate to one another through the unseen and creative forces that make up this planet. According to Meade, it is where the dream of our own lives link up with the dream of the planet. Herein lies the possibility of creating cultures in relative harmony with nature. The good news is reinvention, restitution and reconciliation are possible. The bad news is we have to go through the second layer to get here and many people don’t even know this unified layer exists.
With the request from my son, the place I could immediately feel joy was in this third layer. I can’t be joyful in the face of extinction, cruelty and the rise of facism, but I can utter my grief while joyfully reimagining our place in the world. It is wholly possible to remove the requirement that my culture be worthy of my joy before I express it. The birds are still singing me awake while my dog licks my face. Grief and delight are both portals to the soul of the world, where a potent creativity and a deep sense of belonging await. The invitation is open no matter what the headlines say.
The world, as we know it, might be ending. Our culture is built around theories of separation and fierce competition and is proving destructive beyond repair. For those of us alive now, it is conceivable to feel curious and excited about all that we do not know about Life’s regenerative properties and all that we don’t know about ourselves.
Life’s astounding intelligence is woven through us in ways we have not even begun to cooperate with or comprehend. Earth willing, we alive now can participate in dreaming something else into being.
Is it OK to be happy?
What if it’s critical?