Something I have been thinking about and has come up with more frequency recently is the importance or shunning of negative emotions such as anger, pain, and sadness in the context of our environmental situation.
There is a notion proposed and supported by many that as a society, and even individually, we should not linger on the unpleasant aspects of environmental destruction. I have been told that I shouldn't make my work sad or "depressing" because people already feel helpless about the plight of the natural world.
"People don't want to feel sad and helpless."
"There is so much negativity in the world already."
This opinion has come up in the context of art for adult audiences and children of all ages. Although I think there are certain situations where you may not want your audience to feel negative emotions around the state of the world, they are few.
Excluding the very young and projects with a fundamental focus of celebration and hope, I do not see the benefit of excluding sadness from the discussion about environmental issues and our situation. We, as a species, as certain cultures, have caused incredible harm on our planet and the other living beings we share it with, let alone what we have done to each other. One might argue that through technological advances, our society has improved the lives of humanity over our species' existence however, the overall impact we have had on the stability and strength of Earth's ecosystems has been disruptive and degrading.
Our human population has shot up at an astounding rate and within our current framework, improvements in our standard of living requires more and more resources. We have polluted our lands and waters, stripped land of forests and mountains, spilled toxic waste into sensitive ecosystems, systematically killed species for "our safety" and trophies, and other's by mistake, we have altered the very make-up of our atmosphere, and have initiated the sixth mass extinction.
We live in the Anthropocene, which really says it all. We are as powerful as a geologic force.
For humanity, we have done amazing things. We have created beautiful art, loved each other, mastered incredibly complicated intellectual subjects, and discovered so much it boggles the mind, but for the rest of life, we have, and continue to through human-caused climate change, decimate our one and only home. And this, is incredibly sad.
If one allows themselves to really let the fullness of this sink in and meditate on its implication for a while, t is painful and difficult, and can easily leave them with a feeling of helplessness.
When we do stop to think about all this, and feel the heavy truth, it can be very hard. If you let it, it can bring you to tears. I think it should, and I think we should let it.
Far too often people are afraid of feeling the pain and sadness to actually let themselves feel it, or even anything at all. They numb themselves with distractions and apathy, throwing their hands up renouncing their ability to improve our situation.
This numbing and refusal to allow ourselves to really, fully sit in the depth of sadness that is our situation, is just as dangerous as continuing to burn fossil fuels at present-day rates. If we do not allow ourselves to feel fully, how could we, why would we, ever make the difficult changes to our society to solve our problems?
In The Greatest Danger -- The Deadening of the Heart and Mind chapter from Coming Back to Life a book by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, the authors speak about refusing to feel the sadness and anger about our world's situation and the repercussions from that numbing. Below are a few passages I particularly appreciate:
"We may try to protect ourselves from feeling pain for the world, but that very effort costs us a great deal. We pay a high price in diminished awareness, understanding and authenticity.
"Repression takes a mammoth toll on our energy and dulls our perceptions of the world around us. It is not a local anesthetic. If we won't feel pain, we won't feel much else either -- loves and losses are less intense, the sky less vivid, pleasures muted.
"The instinct for self-preservation, recognized as the most powerful drive in the biological realm, is essential to the preservation of our species and the ongoingness of life. In the ancient Hindu chakra system, this drive is identified with the base chakra or muladhara. It represents and feeds our instinctual nature, source of our claim on life itself.
"To be afraid to look at and respond to that which threatens all life constitutes a blocking of the muladhara, cutting off primal intelligence and energies essential to survival. This chakra not only represents a last line of defense in the protection of life, but it also feeds the erotic currents of our days and years. Opening the base chakra __ and thereby our full will to live __ means opening ourselves to the repressed tears and rage of our pain for the world.
"Silencing our deepest responses to the condition of our world not only fosters a sense of futility, but also mires us in it. Each act of denial, conscious or unconscious, is an abdication of our power to respond. It relegates us to the role of victim, before we even see what we can and want to do.
"Our pain for the world, including the fear, anger, and sorrow we feel on behalf of life on Earth is not only pervasive. It is natural and healthy. It is dysfunctional only to the extent that it is misunderstood and repressed."
So yes, shedding the veils of illusion and looking at our very difficult situation with courage and honesty is incredibly hard. It is hard to be honest with ourselves sometimes. It is hard to open ourselves up to the the feeling of helplessness, guilt, and despair. Yes, that is hard, but no one said we lived in an easy time. No one said righting our wrongs and solving our complicated challenges would come smoothly and naturally, but that should not hold us back.
Call it as it is, and lets get on with it.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
-- Nelson Mandela
"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life"