BY JULIA MACINTOSH AND STEVE THORP
PART 3: ON GRIEF AND USELESSNESS
This, our third Climate Minds dialogue was written at the invitation of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), as part of their November newsletter. Under their headline, Facing Difficult Truths, the CPA “provides a forum for people wanting to make connections between depth psychology and climate change, as we all face the difficult truths of climate change and ecological crisis.” This latest dialogue was offered to CPA members as a thought piece to complement and develop themes that preoccupy our work in these troubled times.
There are clear overlaps between the concerns of Unpsychology Magazine and the CPA, and we were very pleased to be invited to contribute this piece — and to extend and continue our ongoing dialogue that starts HERE, continues HERE, and also runs through the Climate Minds edition of Unpsychology Magazine which can be downloaded FREE from: www.unpsychology.org/latest-issue
Steve Thorp & Julia Macintosh, November 2018
Note: submissions for Unpsychology Magazine Issue 6 are now open — see at the bottom of this piece for information.
Steve: Hi Julia,
In our last dialogue a few weeks ago, we were talking about grief, death and the inevitability of endings. You were, as you often do, holding polarities — between the personal and the collective, the material and the imaginal, the serious and the playful, the sad and mad and the deeply sane — and you came out laughing!
I’m writing this at the end of a month that saw the latest stark warning from the IPCC. Even Nicky Campbell on BBC’s Radio 5 Live’s morning phone-in got in on the act. He sounded concerned — at times a little hysterical — as he posed the question: “What are you doing?”. Callers talked about driving less, electric cars, flying less, using less plastic, eating less meat, veganism, green shopping and the like. A few went further and talked about the need for fundamental economic change, but the focus was definitely on greener consumerism and the difference each one of us can make in the current system.
At least there was a conversation. But nobody talked about death (perhaps understandably!) or of something (our civilisation, our species…) coming to an end. Everyone seemed to be hoping for a magic wand that would mean we all go on living, if not quite as-we-are, but without too much pain. Yet pain is where it’s at for many people right now, and death is where it’s at — and has been for some time — for ecosystems and species and indigenous populations and people living in poverty in places hit by environmental degradation and disaster.
It’s easy to get lost in the guilt and shame — and the anger and grief — but we sometimes need a different and, yes, more hopeful perspective. I found this in amongst the plethora of frankly depressing climate articles that we progressives and psychologists search out, read and agonise over — a grumpy little piece in the Guardian entitled: ‘Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists’.
I do like a bit of grumpiness, and was particularly drawn by a couple of phrases in the article by Matt Hern and Am Johal: “Individualising responsibility is one of capitalism’s prime defensive strategies: reducing ecology to just another consumer decision and isolating governments from culpability”, they wrote, “Blaming the choices individual people make in the context of limited options and grinding employment pressures is a fool’s errand”. And this clearly has a psychological, as well as a political implication.
I immediately ordered their book, the wonderfully quirky ‘Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life — A Tar Sands Tale’. In it, Hern and Johal go much further, describing their journeys around the Tar Sands regions of Canada, talking to people from both ‘extractivist’ and indigenous communities alike, they point out the ecological and economic scale of the problem we face, and locate social, political and psychological approaches to Global Warming in land rights, social justice and ecological connection. It’s a stark and funny book (illustrated throughout by political cartoonist, Joe Sacco) that is as critical of environmentalist assumptions as it is of neo-liberal capitalism. And at the heart of it is the idea of something beautiful and surprising in the human endeavour to face the shadow of this threat. They write:
“Calling for urgent action on global warming tries to compel people to care about places far removed, to take immediate action for the distant future. This disorientation fuels a sense of impotence, both specifically and generally and tends to make people feel politically useless. Uselessness, however, can be tremendously powerful. Uselessness can become a politicised and active humility if it refuses to default to the state or capital or apathy …Uselessness becomes meaningful when it insists on ethical action rendered as a form of humility… Uselessness is only useless if it retreats into passivity.
I love the idea that uselessness (which they put alongside a politicised, affirmative version of love and what they call the sweetness of life) could be at the heart of our response to the climate crisis! And so I wonder, Julia, if we put aside our sense of being USEFUL — having a grandiose human purpose or agency — could this being freeing, allowing us to actively reconnect with and embed ourselves within the human and more-than-human world?
Julia: Hi Steve,
I can’t think of a more politically charged call to arms than that: embrace uselessness! If our western culture is predicated on anything, it is on making oneself useful to the system. Subverting that tendency amounts to rebellion.
Uselessness isn’t the easy way out; on the contrary, it is uncomfortable as hell. We’re itching to jump up and move, to fix the problem, to get with the programme. Uselessness means letting go of the reins entirely and seeing our insignificance in its full stark truth. It means understanding — deeply understanding: taking on board — that life will continue just fine without humanity, thank you very much. Uselessness brings humility to fruition.
Buddhist wisdom advises us that ‘the obstacle is the path.’ I would suggest that the primary obstacle for civilisation has been and always will be discomfort. The overall enterprise of civilisation has been to eliminate discomfort and inconvenience, that is its siren song. Never mind that civilisation has only ever meant the comfort and ease of a privileged minority, at the expense of the immiseration and exploitation of the natural world and the majority of people around the world. But the highest ideal, the driving purpose of advancement has only ever been to increase human comfort — physical, emotional and psychospiritual. The quest for ultimate comfort colours all our fantasies regarding salvation, whether it be the triumphs of technology or the pamperings of heaven.
But the Buddhists address that too, in the well-known koan:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Salvation doesn’t take us elsewhere. There’s no way out of here — we’re in it together whether we like it or not. The challenges we face in existence cannot be eradicated through any project of human ingenuity or divine intervention. Solutions bring their own problems. Life is imperfect, this is the human condition. Yet that doesn’t preclude enlightenment.
Being alive contains such a rich diversity of experience, along the scale from joy, ease, fun, happiness, contentment and cooperation, right through to fury, resentment, frustration, sadness, self-pity, fear and conflict. We simply cannot cherry pick for the comfortable options — not without creating massive psychological dissonance. And as all those working in the psychotherapeutic realm must know: psychological dissonance will have its out, one way or another.
As perverse as it sounds, discomfort opens up a whole dimension of understanding. All the faith traditions share this as a premise, that suffering brings gifts of growth that mere comfort never can. Consider this advice, offered by actor Michael Caine: “use the difficulty.” He tells the story of rehearsing onstage, making an entrance and stopping because he found an unexpected chair in his way. His director asked him why he had stopped, and suggested that the chair be incorporated into the character’s entrance — either set neatly aside, or kicked out of the way — some action that developed the character. He said that he had taken this on as a philosophy for life: use the difficulty, to demonstrate who you are, to express your essence.
The dilemmas we face in the converging crises of civilisation, the immense difficulties we are creating for ourselves, these are opportunities in their own right. We will only learn their gifts as we go along, step by step and moment by moment.
You know me, Steve, and you know that I love a good paradox. For all that I’ve just invoked the hidden promises of discomfort, I now turn to the subject of ease. Might I propose that comfort and ease share a similar relationship to passivity and uselessness? That comfort implies a lack of effort, while ease implies involvement and responsiveness?
Nancy Kline, author of the ‘Time to Think’ series and creator of a discussion model called the Thinking Environment, says this: “Urgency keeps people from thinking clearly…. Ease is a deceptively gentle catalyst. Ease creates. Urgency destroys.”
Uselessness then invokes ease, that is, a slow pace and a spaciousness that allows reflection and critical appraisal. Again, it demands rebellion of us. Nowhere in our prevailing cultural norm are we given permission to stop moving and just be. We are expected to keep moving, and by moving I mean working, spending, consuming, and striving to solve problems. Doing nothing is framed either as unforgivable laziness or as a curious form of leisure (in other words, a brief and conditional reward for work.)
Given the seriousness of impending climate change and its connected threat of societal collapse, do we really have time to do nothing? Ironically, I think that’s in fact all we have time for. Again: “Urgency keeps people from thinking clearly… Urgency destroys.” As difficult as it may seem, embracing uselessness may be the one response which allows us the time and space, the ease to shift the paradigm sufficiently to make a difference. Difficult it may seem, but let’s use the difficulty.
Steve: What caught me in your reply, Julia, were the paradoxes you love so much and tease out so eloquently.
Our civilisation (and much of its ‘psychology’, it has to be said, with its quick fix therapies, internalised pathologies and ten-point personal development programmes!) is predicated on urgency as opposed to ease, and requires — even demands of us — an urgent usefulness. We can see this in our disastrous onward and upward economic culture, as you point out, but also in our yearning for healing and happiness and in our responses to climate change itself. Even those of us (especially, those of us…?) who recognise the crisis, emergency or breakdown that global warming represents are wanting and trying to address it usefully and urgently!
That’s what the recent IPCC report is about and the responses it has triggered. Climate Activists and ‘Climate Psychologists’ like us — thinking people all — want to find the holy grail: that alchemical combination of political will, cultural change, economic shift and psychological transformation that will make a difference and turn this thing around. We avidly read the next book or article, go on marches, attend meetings, have conversations and fight the good fight. And we do it because of the optimism so cogently summarised in Rebecca Solnit’s recent article: ‘Don’t despair: the climate fight is only over if you think it is’, and her reminder to us that “the future hasn’t already been decided”. This statement, on its own, might be a good enough reason to stay hopeful and keep on fighting. To stay with urgency and usefulness, in other words. To use the difficulty.
And yet, and yet, I’m not at all sure… and I’ve got two things to say about this uncertainty (you know me, Julia, I like a good dose of uncertainty!):
A decade or so ago, when the Dark Mountain Project was launched, many environmentalists attacked the position taken up by the Mountaineers. They were accused (by writers and activists like George Monbiot no less!) of being overly pessimistic and nihilistic, of giving up on climate change ‘change’ and accepting that our carbon-fuelled civilisation was effectively doomed. Now everyone is saying it, and the pessimistic ‘end of civilisation’ commentary is popping up everywhere.
What is interesting though are the positions since taken up by many ex-Mountaineers (like you and me, Julia). Many of us have retreated a little from urgency and are inhabiting positions in which we are (having perhaps accepted our uselessness!), working in the nooks and crannies of our cultures and communities with our art, writing, music, community organisation and carnivalesque events to bring a different perspective to the party. Some have stayed engaged with the ‘mainstream’ of social and ecological activism and thought (a foot in both camps, perhaps), but are concerning ourselves more with gently, catalysing new and connected ways of human being, than responding to the urgency of the 24-hour news cycle (Trump, Brexit, aaaggh!) and the endless opinion pieces on the climate crisis that suddenly seem to be flying out in the media — mainstream and independent alike.
And despair and grief, whilst they are always there under the surface, don’t seem to overwhelm these pioneers, despite the pessimism. We (yes, I’ll include me and you here) stay engaged and somehow keep believing that by keeping with the stories — the new stories we will need to live into the future — we can make a difference; perhaps through something like what Hern and Johal call: “ethical action rendered as a form of humility”.
One more thought, and here I’m returning to death, and to another paradox that comes through Stephen Jenkinson’s work. He writes about our ‘personal’ death and dying, but also the cultural underpinnings of these, and I think his words are pertinent to what we’re dealing with here. He writes, “…ours is a competence addicted culture, and savagely so”, and this is reflected in our education system, our economy, in our dying and in our almost pathological need (it seems to me) not to be ordinary. We MUST be good at doing things, in other words — including, perhaps, fighting human-caused climate change! But maybe, in this culture, we only get to be good at some things: “Being good at hurting or suffering”, he asks, “what would that look like?”
Perhaps it would look like not always trying to be useful; not trying to be competent; not trying to know what to do; not trying to find answers. To accept and welcome our uselessness, in other words. And as Jenkinson points out: “It takes a towering courage in the face of everything that passes for love and compassion, and mental health to stop trying”.
Julia: The courage to stop trying — I can already hear the howls of protest! But what a difference this is from never having tried! I am reminded of the deathbed and of loved ones giving a person permission to die; permission to let go and stop fighting their illness. To stop trying is to let go, to step aside and succumb one’s will to nature itself. It is an act of compassion.
At some point, our culture of dominion will understand its hopeless position. Will a skyscraper withstand a Category Six windstorm? Will six billion people be able to survive when the entire food chain has been decimated by insecticides, ingestion of plastic and the adverse side effects of genetic engineering? Will open heart surgery mean anything in the wake of a nuclear accident? We may have won some battles of wit but nature will always win a full scale war. So why on earth are we fighting her?
Richard Heinberg wrote an interesting book called ‘The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies’. His metaphor of the party suggests that we have been drunk on cheap energy for the past century, and are now waking up to its consequences. Civilisation as we know it simply will not continue, as we hit the barriers of what this planet can cope with. Regarded as extreme when it was published in 2005, even now the bearer of bad news, this argument becomes increasingly reasonable as we witness global warming taking hold.
We might say that civilisation is headed for the most serious hangover ever. So what do we do? Consider the advice of Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler movement. His books are shelved in ‘Humour’ but like all good comedy they speak truth to the human condition. He writes:
“In my own case, I know that being hung-over can be a time of loose, giggly laughter and fun if you can simply sit through it with pots of tea and a group of friends. The problems of the hangover stem partly from the fact that generally we are trying to behave as if we didn’t have one; we are working in the office, we are in meetings, we are doing things and we are doing them alone. Avoid any useful activity, then. Embrace the useless. Plan for the hangover; don’t fight it.”
He goes on: “As with all aspects of idleness, we should resist the pressure to reject the elements of our lives which do not fit into the productive, rational, busy paradigm that society and our own selves impose upon us. Learning how to live can involve learning to love the hangover.”
Learning to love the hangover. Learning to love the consequences of our actions. Learning to love the challenges and difficulties, the spiritual growth contained therein. Learning to worship nature rather than dominate her. Matthew Fox has written that “In our worship, we ought to be awakening the sense of awe — and awe includes terror — with reality.” Rather than avoiding our terror, we might allow ourselves to feel it in all its full awful strength. Quite frankly, that terror should stop us in our tracks. That terror should inspire in us the courage to stop trying.
We belong to nature, nature does not belong to us. If we were to stop fighting her, and instead committed ourselves to learning from her — respectful, worshipful learning — we may actually find grounds for hope. Again, this involves letting go. Letting go of trying, letting go of usefulness and letting go of our ego’s tight grip on self-preservation. This beautiful autumn afternoon tells me as much: letting go isn’t the end.
Let’s finish this dialogue with your lovely poem:
The storm is dying
A light glows
in the corner of
it illuminates my
comforts me in
the storm outside
the wreckage it
a whisper of
I thrive on
the sky will
clear and leave
a question –
what will be?
Only the ravens
can tell me and
they will not return.
(Poem: Steve Thorp, 2018)
Unpsychology magazine issue 5: Submissions open
Submissions for issue 5 are now open until 31st December and the new edition will be published in the Spring of 2019. The theme of issue 5 is Earth Songs: sweet soul elegies and dancing the blues.
Even in the bleakest of times, music uplifts and comforts us. It touches upon the beautiful edges of the human experience, and brings us together gently, invisibly. We welcome work that addresses how the deep, psychological implications of social and ecological connection, equality, inclusion and social cohesion can be addressed through music.