I don’t want to make it seem like I have mastered the art of Facing the Truth and Taking Action without feeling despair. Far from it. This is a practice; acknowledging and dealing with responses like despair, depression, grief, anxiety, fear, and anger is an ongoing part of the process. On this podcast I’ve already suggested a number of things you can do to help free yourself from the grip of negative thoughts and emotions without going into denial, including adopting a determined, wartime mindset, and cultivating Active Hope and Faith in Humanity. You can find my episodes on Staying Strong on the Categories page at climateandyou.com.
You can’t have too many ways to stay strong, though, can you? Today I want to talk about how despair, to some extent, is a failure of our imagination. When we’re caught in despair, we’ve allowed our minds to be limited to the possibilities currently on offer in our world. We’ve fallen into what I’ve called in another podcast episode the trance of adulthood and we find ourselves convinced this is the way things must be and nothing ever really changes.
It’s tough, though, because things don’t change just because we can imagine them changing. And no matter how noble our dreams and how passionately we pursue them, we have little control over how and why society undergoes radical shifts in perspective and function. Countless people before us have fought for peace and justice and died before they saw their fight succeed.
Still, nothing would have ever changed for the better if some people hadn’t had the ability and courage to imagine the change. In his book The World Could be Otherwise, Zen teacher Normal Fischer writes:
Imagination expands our hearts and minds. It brings forth all forms of innovation – artistic, scientific, social. It spawns myth, culture, religion, material progress. All idealism and moral vision depend on imagination…
All ideals are imaginative projections. Though we can conceive of them, they can’t exist in this imperfect world. Yet they are valuable nevertheless. We need ideals to propel us forward into better futures, to inspire us to be better people in a better world… Without them we slowly lose energy. We become boring, small-minded, and eventually depressed, as life’s natural entropy overcomes us. Ideals lift us up.[i]
In between the times when I get bogged down in details or discouraged by our lack of progress on our climate and ecological emergency, I am inspired down to my core by beautiful ideas. Ideas that shake the foundations of what I think I know. Ideas that call to me with a profound sense of home. When I am exposed to these ideas, I am often moved to tears.
I’ll share with you an example of such an inspiring flight of imagination. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the author of an incredibly informative and beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, she shares many deeply healing, challenging, and inspiring ideas based on her experience as a botanist and as a member of an indigenous community. I will definitely talk more about her book on this podcast. One of her main messages is this (my take-away, not her words): You thought human beings could be nothing other than a scourge on the earth, but that isn’t so. In fact, for tens of thousands of years human beings have been a part of nature.
One of the parts of the book that particularly sparked my imagination was this:
After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”
… can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore? What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make a home?[ii]
If you are staying in a place, you treat it much differently than if you figure you’re only there temporarily. Especially if the place contains many riches, and it’s not illegal to steal them and accumulate wealth from them and then move on. Especially if you don’t view the place or whoever might see themselves as belonging to that place as important. Then you can trash and pollute the place and leave your mess behind. If you recognize there are natural systems operating in the place, it makes no difference to you if you extract everything you can from them and break them in the process, because the place is not your home.
Of course, where are we going to go now, now that we exploited, trashed, and broken everything? Even the wealthiest on our planet are running out of options.
On the other hand, the thought of finally allowing myself to belong to a place, as a white American descended from immigrants, is incredibly moving. A majority of us in both North and South America are effectively homeless, alienated from where our ancestors were once indigenous, if only by a couple hundred years of interbreeding. There is no place it would make sense for us to return, even if we wanted to, and no place that would welcome us as their own. We’re conscious of the violent and genocidal arrival of white people on this land and can’t imagine it ever loving us. Alienated from the land, we think only of our short, individual lives, or maybe of the grandchildren we live to know. Further than that is beyond our imagination. No wonder we act as if we’re not staying.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Actually, it can’t continue to be this way. Imagine you belong. Imagine the remaining indigenous peoples and their land welcome us – after we properly acknowledge and atone for all that has been done. Imagine we reestablish harmonious relationships with nature. Imagine we have a place. Imagine we have a home – not just for the next 10 or 20 years, but for our lives, for the lives of all our descendants, for humankind. As they say in adoption agencies, our “forever home.”
Such beautiful ideas often feel at great odds with reality. It can feel like the better world we can imagine is nothing more than wishful thinking. Yet we can be sure of two things:
- A better world will never come about unless people imagine it.
- Eventually things will change – even in our wildest imaginations we can’t picture what the world will be like in 20, 50, or 100 years. We really should know this, deep in our bones, if only because of the change we ourselves have already experienced. And yet we often feel entrenched in our current situation and conclude there is no way for it to substantially improve.
The fact that human societies radically change over time reminds me of a passage I recently encountered in the book Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson:
Of course attempts are always made to divide the past into periods. This is always an act of imagination, which fixes on matters geological (ice ages and extinction events, etc.), technological (the stone age, the bronze age, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution), dynastic (the imperial sequences in China and India, the various rulers in Europe and elsewhere), hegemonic (the Roman empire, the Arab expansion, European colonialism, the post-colonial, the neo-colonial), economic (feudalism, capitalism), ideational (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism), and so on. These are only a few of the periodizing schemes applied to the flux of recorded events. They are dubiously illuminative, perhaps, but as someone once wrote, “we cannot not periodize,” and as this appears to be true, the hunt is on to find out how we can best put this urge to use. Perhaps periodization makes it easier to remember that no matter how massively entrenched the order of things seems in your time, there is no chance at all that they are going to be the same as they are now after a century has passed, or even ten years. And if on the other hand things feel chaotic to the point of dissolution, it is also impossible that some kind of new order will not emerge eventually, and probably sooner rather than later.[iii]
Sometimes it is comforting simply to remember how limited is our current view of the world, even if we can’t imagine what the future might hold. Climate activist Greta Thunberg calls this “cathedral thinking,” saying, “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”[iv] Too often we can think only in terms of what is possible given our current situation. When this is the case, despair is almost inevitable. Actively engaging our imagination can be an antidote to despair, because we start with what is right and good, and then figure out how to make it happen – no matter how long it takes, and no matter how hard the struggle.
Incredible, positive changes have happened many times over the course of human civilization. To offer you one more quote, this one from author Ursula K. LeGuin:
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”[v]
[i] Fischer, Norman. The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2019. Chapter One (Imagination)
[ii] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass (p. 207). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future (pp. 123-124). Orbit. Kindle Edition.