Grief is a funny thing. The seven stages of grief are: disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance/hope.
This line-up works pretty well for a person or a pet who was close to you and has died. But what about the kind of grief associated with society? Are there stages to the grief you feel when you see children with wounds from bombs? Are there stages to grief when you realise that we are irreversibly damaging our planet to fuel a life that is far from perfect?
I think a more poignant question is: can you grieve something that isn’t unchangeable?
Can you practice acceptance of a future not set in stone?
I’m a thinker. I’m an idealist. Most of the time, I’m relentlessly optimistic. Except for those days where I fall apart and it feels like the world is too. On those days, there’s no point in trying to change the world. On those days, our future has been decided by the generations of the past and there’s nothing we can do to stop climate devastation. On those days I don’t want to live in the society I live in, with the privilege I have been given. I don’t want to talk to people, to open their minds to what I am experiencing, because I cannot bear to dwell on it myself. On those days I hate this world, and even more so my place in it, because I understand fully what is happening to our people and our planet and my heart and my mind crumble under the fear of what is to come.
The first six stages of grief gel with my feelings of climate change and other world issues.
Disbelief: I find it hard to believe (or rather to wrap my head around) the fact that our climate is already going to change drastically and that there is no going back from this for at least a century.
Denial: I am in denial that things are as bad as they are. I am in denial that my life is unsustainable. I tell myself that I am not impacting the world. Other people, sure, but not me, not me all by myself.
Bargaining: I tell myself that if I recycle, I can drive a car. I tell myself that if I preach environmentally sustainable living, I don’t have to practice it. I tell myself that I might not be able to fly in the future, so I should travel now while we have the fuel for it at a low price.
Guilt: I know that I should be doing more. Why can’t I get my ecological footprint down to 1.0 Earths? Why can’t I take the time to buy local food? Why don’t I advocate sustainability every single day of my life?
Anger: I am angry at society for putting these blockades in my way: these social systems and structures I cannot remove myself from, this consumerist and capitalist world that stops me from eating local food and cycling to university and living without Facebook and working without a salary.
Depression: When these feelings mangle in my head, I sink into depression. I lose myself and any vision for a good future that I once held. If my feelings alone are this complex, there’s no way we can convince the world to work through these issues in search of a truly sustainable solution. I cry, and I sleep, and I numb my mind with television. I try to remove myself from the world that I can’t fix.
What’s different about climate grief, or grief over the future, is that these stages are not distinct. They do not follow a linear order. They all happen randomly and all at once, at completely inappropriate times of the day, while you’re having a non-fairtrade cup of coffee, or you scroll past a picture of another dead refugee, or when you’re trying to get to sleep in your comfortable bed in your nice house that gives you negative motivation to change the world.
And then there’s acceptance. What is there to accept? If someone dies, they are dead. You have to accept that to move on with your life. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. But I am trying my darndest to reduce the impacts of climate change in a world that can’t agree on how much effort they should put into doing something about it and I don’t know what the outcome will be. I don’t know if climate change will lead to a 2 degree or a 10 degree global average temperature increase. I don’t know if the entire human race will be wiped out, or just the poorest in the global south. I don’t know if we’ll lose all of our animals, I don’t know if there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 20 years, I don’t know if the Maldives will be underwater by 2050.
How could I possibly know?
And how can I accept anything that isn’t certain?
That’s what makes the future such a difficult subject to grieve. It’s like your child has gone missing and you’ve been told you won’t know for 30 years whether they’re dead or alive. A parent in that situation could never practice acceptance fully, with the thought that their child might be out there somewhere. They would do everything they could to find that child and bring them home, whether dead or alive, because at least then there is a definite, unchangeable outcome.
And that’s where hope comes in. The seventh stage is sometimes called acceptance/hope.
At this stage I feel like I need a golden ticket. I need a great thing or a great opportunity to come along and present itself to me. Something that will make the world stop, and think, and change. Something that will induce real and fast action, because we’re getting closer and closer to a runaway climate scenario. And I have hope for this, somewhere.
But there’s that voice in my head that says, where are you going to find that? If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen in time. The world won’t wake up and realise what’s going wrong until it’s far too late. And I want to accept this, somewhere.
When grieving a loved one, acceptance and hope intertwine and complement each other. They make sense together. But grieving a future leads to hope and acceptance being stacked against one another. Hope is a symbol of possibility, the possibility that something will change. The possibility that I can change the world. Acceptance is the opposite. It’s saying okay, let’s go live up a mountain where the rising sea won’t get us and the climate will be lovely in 20 years. I’ll learn to grow food and make clothes and I’ll be fine. I should focus on looking out for myself.
Frankly, the worst thing is that all of this plays out in my head. All of this is just thought. I cannot predict the future any more than the IPCC can. I know as much as they do and no more. And that’s not really much. This cacophony of thought is my brain trying to react to simultaneous imaginings of all the futures I could have. I am forcing myself to live out all of these futures in different parts of the world at the same time, all the while existing as a body in the present moment, in a single location.
And I think: there has to be more.
More than my thoughts as a moral compass. More than living in the future and the past instead of the present. More than having these fights with myself in the middle of the night. More than this life.
This is one of the driving forces behind selfless living.
I find that it helps me immensely to remind myself that I am a part of society. I am a part of the planet. I am not separate from the rest of the world, no matter how much my ego tries to convince me that I am. The inner self that I experience is simply my brain trying to make sense of the world. I do not have to listen to this crazy inner dialogue every minute of every day.
In rare moments, I feel as though I am truly present and free from thoughts of the past and the future. And in these moments, I can act. I can see myself sitting in a room, typing on a laptop at midnight while my street sleeps. I can remind myself that if I went out onto the street and screamed, someone would hear it and look out of their window, see that I’m fine, and tell me to ‘shut the fuck up I’m trying to sleep here!’.
What this reminds me is that I can and do have an impact on the world. I am a part of the world and therefore if I change, the world changes. Moreover, I can communicate. I can incite change in others because they do not see my crazy, messy, abstract thoughts. They see a distinct being in the world that they can choose to listen to. They see the author of a paper or a blog post that might inspire them to make their own changes to the world. The best inventors, philosophers and writers were not god-like creatures; they were individual people too (who also often suffered from myriad mental health issues).
Selfless living for me has two sides. It includes both escaping the notion of ego (the constant stream of thoughts that feels like a person in your head) whenever possible, and living in a way that benefits others rather than putting yourself on a pedestal. This can be interpreted in any way that makes sense to you. For me, selfless living is a guide for those sticky situations in your mind and in the world. It reminds me to keep pushing, to keep moving forward and to do my best as a single human being. I’ll explore what that is in future writings.
This piece of writing is an accumulation of a few months (or probably more accurately years) of those crazy, messy thoughts causing me to go round in circles. The film I watched tonight enabled me to give my crazy, messy thoughts enough structure for an introduction to a website I’ve been working on all summer. I’ve been wanting to introduce it in a way that’s accessible to everyone, but at the end of the day I don’t know how everyone feels. I don’t know how anyone except myself truly feels. And so I went with my story.
I hope this website helps you and I change the world.
NB: This piece was originally created for one of my many spontaneous website ideas, all writings of which are now collated on finding chirsty for your (and my) convenience.
Inspired by we the uncivilised – find out more here.