Breaking Through: Climate Grief and Hope

By Amalthea Aelwyn

Human kind has a complicated history, and for every generality, there is an exception, but please bear with me while I try to explore in some generalities, anyway.

We have a problem. We have utterly lost our way. Once upon a time, we had a more tribal, and then community-based identity with relatively consistent identity to whatever higher power we chose as our community. Sometimes madness or lust for power would create a rift and two things would battle for domination, but over much of human history, we were relatively in possession of the hope of a single right way, or a simpler choice between very few. And we were bound to the planet in a real way with every choice we made. When confronted with something truly foreign, we had space to flee or fight to destroy it in the context of fighting for other resources.  Hope was less hard to understand.

And then came the birth of the city-state, and the empire. And within roughly 1000 years, people all over the planet, from Egypt to Chaco, with little if any evidence of each other’s development, suddenly developed complicated intentional trading networks and the need to understand a multicultural world where hope reflected the many faces of God, the many paths and stories, the differences born of trying to connect with different biomes and cultural patterns.

And I would argue that we never figured out how to do the personal work to take the next steps and make this possible, or at least the few that did were not enough to balance out the many. We were stuck in the grief cycle of the loss of the past, whether we are describing the Romans throwing Christians to the Lions, the Jews forced to wander the desert, or the eventual collapse of Chaco at the center of the ancient puebloan people, or the hundred other examples I could name. The cycle of failure to integrate our conceptions of our vulnerability have led to collapse after collapse and genocide after genocide ranging from the Native Americans to the mess currently thriving in Syria.

In a loose way, this journey parallels the journey to adulthood. In young children, hope is a simpler creature. You hope for time with a favorite person, you hope for small gifts of those who care, you hope for a way to help and learn from the small sphere of people around you that are functional family and fairly homogeneous even in their deviations, you hope for an extra sweet treat. But with adulthood, we (hopefully) take on deeper kinds of hope, deeper challenges like protection and love of a child, even one who isn’t ours by birth, with the knowledge that you cannot truly protect them, but you must do so anyway. We accept a different, deeper sort of hope that requires embracing our utter powerlessness, and doing a thing because it is the right thing.

For many reasons, we’ve struggled to recognize the parallels or even really acknowledge this problem for the creature that it is. We instead wage religious and ethnic cleansing wars, we throw around a lot of blame, wallow in greed based consumption and comparison, and decide how much we must either defend being imperialist victors, or hate those who won the unnecessary extractive battles, who are causing suffering. We’ve turned commerce into violence, and the world into an extractive disaster killing us all as fast as possible.

We have globally failed to develop a rite of passage that would help us understand the vulnerability of our cultural adulthood, and accept and integrate it. We’ve gotten stuck in the stages of grief, never again returning to autonomy as individuals and as cultures, and mistaking power over others for autonomy and power over ourselves. We are a world of trauma victims, battling it out to not be at the bottom of the heap. We have refused to evolve our sense of hope, except in comparatively small and spectacular moments when a small number of us actually transcend our grief, and the Ghandis and the MLKs rise to show us how. But too few of us have been listening, and so it has been too easy to send a bullet for the leaders of this rise to cultural adulthood.

I exist at the intersection of a great deal of pain. I have never had the luxury of the appearance of safety as a child, and I have never had the luxury of the belief that this pain was related to a single kind of problem or harm. I have survived many hells, from abuse, to sexual assault, to various disabilities, medical abuse, fat abuse, narcissist abuse, extreme medical problems, being tortured by my peers most of my childhood, LGBTQI+ abuse, being gifted (yes, that too is hell), loss of financial autonomy and security, failure to have disability money available for the disabilities I have, financial abuse, adult financial dependence and many more.

I have been through a lot of therapy to deal with those things which should, by rights, have killed me many times over by now. And at the end of that journey of guilt and pain, I often find the only light of any kind to be frustration when people talk about hope. But I am finally coming to realize that the reason I feel that frustration is that we have so few models we recognize, and most people have not been as severely damaged as I was, such that they had to learn to see this forest among the trees to even be here today.

Often the specifics of what frustrates me is the focus on resilience as hope. Once upon a time, I needed that, when the marginalizations were many fewer, and I thought that was how I could survive. But Lyme disease swamped even that boat, and taught me that it wasn’t a reliable source of hope to think I will survive, and it keeps me shackled to weak forms of action. That left me adrift for a long time. But I think, maybe, I finally understand well enough to explain.

For those of us genuinely aware of the climate mess we are in, and looking for hope, too many are looking for a return to the hope that we held as children and as farm villages. We are looking for the simple hope.

Climate scientists tell us we have 5 years to end oil and gas if we wish to survive as a species. They tell us that by 2050, we will have an enormous national dust bowl from Kansas to California, at least. The coasts will be under water, forests will have burned up, nuclear facilities on coasts will most likely fail under water, and our only path out of this hell is to basically burn capitalism to the ground and with it, all of banking, big ag, and our current energy system. Starvation and drought will be our reality if we don’t, and collapse of international community. We will follow the pattern of the failure of the Roman Empire, and the failure of the Chacoan system. But the problem is that, because we’ve failed to have this adult awakening, while still adding all these people in a race to control everything, we have now created this as a species level extinction collapse, and we’re headed for the cliff at astonishing speed.

And those of us doing this work have realized that the only path forward, if one exists at all, involves not just the climate, but also solving a long history of many kinds of related violence in the process. The only way our army grows large enough to do this work, is if we admit that the racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and all the rest must be part of this war of civil disobedience and radical peace and structural and personal autonomy. Our only path forward is to genuinely embrace acting from love as a choice powerful enough to include the acceptance of the grief. And that is so big, it seems impossible to envision a path forward about, some days.

But I am here to tell you that I still have hope.

It’s not the simple hope of children who want something from the immediate family they know and expect. It’s not the hope of capitalism that I get mine and other people will worry about themselves. It isn’t hope for a lolipop or a token, because I don’t need more stuff, and I can no longer eat a lolipop, anyway, thanks to Lyme.

This is the hope of Ghandi and MLK. It is the hope that maybe this time, facing complete annihilation, the stakes will be high enough that the inevitable bullets will only cause another to rise to replace every one of us sacrificed to fear and greed and denial. It is my hope that finally people of every color, gender and nature will admit that we can rise to the adult challenge of integration beyond the stages of grief. (Stages of grief for those unfamiliar: It is my hope that we can choose to understand we must love and protect the child we can’t possibly love and protect all the time, or enough.

I don’t see many people talk about integration beyond grief, but there comes a place when you’ve faced your own death, where you decide that you are already dead to rights, and what time you have left is time you will spend doing the impossible, because you are vulnerable, even if it kills you. There is an integration phase that comes at the end of grief acceptance that isn’t just acceptance. It is a return to the ability to access the whole spectrum, to live without escape from the pain, to no longer have the grief cycle chosen for us, but rather to have access to all of its tools when we need them, based on the audience we face and personal willingness to choose that tool. It’s a little like resolution of a dissociation of personalities. I can access my anger, but I can also choose to let it go in the moment, and to frame it inside of love, where the grief process didn’t allow a choice as we first worked through it.

We have done such a terrible job of talking about women’s issues that we have never fully addressed that the process of becoming a mother is the process of grieving and loss and acceptance and integration. We have the model for this. We are the model for this. It is a woman’s process to adulthood most of the time, the world over. The women must lead this revolution. The women must teach what we live as the transcendent act of vulnerability and unrelenting hope that it is. It is programmed into our biology more closely than it is for men, and whether we have children or not, every woman who has had sex knows what it is to intentionally take on vulnerability as hope. We live this every day. We are hope manifest, but we must understand and embrace it.

That integration, that acceptance of of our helplessness, and choice to face it anyway is where adult hope lies. It is also where the healing of the complicated spiritual and cultural and biome and resource clashes lie. Our answer is in feeling whole, in taking back autonomy from your own death, already accepted, choosing our vulnerability as our power, not instead of power. Hope is in doing the impossible, because it must be done, and because you’ve let go of a simple hope and found a deeper one. We do this across every religion and no religion, every culture clash, and as an act of personal as well as community healing, not because the impossible can be done, and not just because you’re more resilient than you thought, and not because you have any illusions. You do it because you know you are disposable, but that another woman will rise when you fall, and will carry this living-beyond-your-own-destruction the next step forward. I choose the impossible, knowing I have survived my own end several times already, and the time left is a gift to reach for meaning, no matter the outcome, and from that action, real and sustainable hope was born.

We must live in the vulnerability of the paradox that our task is impossible, but we’ve done the impossible before. We have birthed babies. We have left violent men. We have killed men who tried to kill our children, despite their size. We do ten impossible things before lunch time, every day. We must live in the paradox that we are utterly necessary, and yet disposable, each one of us may be martyrs to a cause, but can’t fail to undertake it anyway. We must choose our vulnerability, when others pretend it is weakness, and show them that it is the only strength that matters, the only strength that is truth. Women, we have this. We can do this. And even if we fail, we will respect ourselves at the end for choosing the only path toward wholeness. It is part of who we are. We just need to understand ourselves and our pattern, and that we are hope. We are real and complicated hope made manifest. We have been sacrificing ourselves to this idiot system for too long. It is time that we choose sacrifice for our children’s children.

Those of us willing to integrate ourselves beyond grief, to live beyond the fear of death, having accepted it already, are the leadership this world needs. We do the impossible every day. It’s past time we do it for the right reasons, to create love and self respect in everyone, and reconnect with our biomes and our worlds.

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