Things get worse before they get better, but that “better” part is worth fighting for.
The year 2020 has been a sort of preview. We have known for decades about pandemics on their way, for example. We have known for more than a century about climate change. We have known about racial and gender inequality. We have known about the cost of ignoring authoritarian regimes, genocide, and hate.
What more do we need to know? I don’t think it’s “knowing” that is the problem. It is human psychology that is our biggest obstacle. We are adept at being able to reject, deny, and distract ourselves from what we know. It is the one area in which human beings excel. With a bit of effort, I think we can harness this superpower to our advantage.
A few people have always spoken out. But most people still can’t wrap their heads around something so terrible, tremendously huge, and transformative as what now sits at our doorstep.
We don’t need to discard our rose-colored glasses but adjust them to see just enough reality that we can address it in tiny, digestible chunks. Our task, then, is to rise to be our best selves, to become the heroes for whom we long to save us.
But how do find ourselves? Many thinkers are realizing we need to find the strongest parts of our individual selves and plow forward with our brains, our guts, our hearts, and our bodies.
Your Body and Unprecedented Challenges
I am not writing this to frighten or alarm anyone. Well, maybe just a bit. Just enough alarm to shake people awake is the only real psychological tool we have to address the many challenges we face. As a psychologist, my take is this: if you don’t admit there are real problems, you are going to unwittingly contribute to the real problems.
The truth is deep in your gut, your mind, your heart. And your body. Mine it out.
Scientists warn that heatwaves, smoky cities, floods, famine, refugee migrations, and extinctions of supportive biospheres have begun. Some of us can already feel it, depending upon where you live. None of us live in the Great Barrier Reef, for example, but we should not ignore lessons unfolding there, now. Today.
If you detect a small gnawing in the pit of your stomach or a weird itching in the deepest convolutions of your brain, you are not alone. If you feel a strange and leaden weight in your heart as you see people grieve and struggle, that is a good thing.
It’s a good thing because you are reachable. It is a good thing because human empathy and compassion for other living beings are alive and well.
It is a good thing to be fully human. To feel, and to behave accordingly.
There are days when it’s okay to take a mental and emotional health break. But when you do, don’t hide your thoughts and feelings, own them, acknowledge them. Share them, even. Wallow for as long as you feel you must express, but then move on with the new found fortitude that owning truth and conviction can fuel.
I have days when I learn about fires and floods destroying entire ecosystems and human cultures. I sometimes feel a great rage towards humanity. I despair. On days like that, upon hearing about the burning Pantanal, for example, it’s okay to spend five minutes cursing the waves of humanity that allows magnificent creatures and unparalleled landscapes to die in agony. Extinction is forever. But that feeling must pass, in order for action to take its place.
Today, for the purpose of this essay, is not one of those days for me. I cannot curse humankind, even those annoying human beings who claim environmentalists “just want to see all people die off.” There is an alternative to seeing a huge crash in the human population. It is in believing that instead of all of us dying, we can find equality, balance, harmony, and equity. We, including the living biosphere of we, can live with one another more comfortably than we can destroy huge swaths of those we perceive to be “the bad guys.” We don’t have to be perfect, just wiser.
Let’s look at your human body as a whole. Look at feeling, which is largely felt in the gut, thinking, located in the brain, and compassion, centered in the human heart.
Go With Your Gut
Feelings and intuitions should not be ignored. Depending upon stress load, we can abandon our gut instincts for a while, but then take a deep breath and take stock of your gut. Do you feel dizzy, queasy? Unstable? Good. That means you have tapped into real sensations of human and earthly drama disturbing “the force” (for lack of a better term) of intuition. There may or may not be a collective human consciousness, as Jung saw it, but there most certainly is an interwoven dependency and life tapestry of which we are one thread. Food weaves us into the tapestry.
Nourish your guts. Eat the highest quality nutritious diet you can find and afford. Break bread with loved ones. Share nutrients with an eye toward sustainability, locality, and freshness. Really good food will strengthen your resilience. Think about zoonotic illnesses, and in what small ways you can empower yourself and your loved ones to avoid the foods that encroach upon wildlife habitat or destroy ecosystems through deforestation. It is human blindness that didn’t see pandemics coming, keep your guts yearning for healthier foodways and you will find them.
Don’t despair in guilt, but delight in finding nutrition and subsistence that feeds your wobbly gut.
Feed Your Head
Your mind is full of trash, just as sometimes your guts are. We are open to a steady diet of fake news, blaming news, and superficial news that doesn’t feed the mind. It’s okay to intake some junk. Just don’t give yourself permission to have an exclusive diet of lies, blame, melodrama, and rage. It is counterproductive. It just leaves people feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
Seek out knowledge. Seek out the many ways in which innovators are coming up with thousands and thousands of technologies, social tools (re-directing justice systems and defense, for example), information gleaned from Nature’s toolkit, and more.
When your head hurts from ingesting too much bad news, take a breath and go find an innovation or a new approach. A good place to start is Blessed Unrest, or Drawdown, collections by Paul Hawken that outline just a few of the knowledge-based approaches to coping with our modern challenges of climate crisis and social threats. More importantly, they can empower you to contribute in a meaningful way.
But knowledge alone is not enough. Also, seek presence and mindfulness — the ability to take in every sensation and thought that passes through your mind and observe it, embrace it, and own it. Then let it go. Use mindfulness with deep breathing, gratitude for sensing and feeling, and awareness.
Awareness taps into the strength and beauty of knowing truth. Truth is not always comfortable, but awareness that you are not deceiving yourself or being taken in by false leads is powerful.
Open Your Heart
Your heart is connected, of course, to both mind and gut. You will know when your heart is heavy, when it is touched, and when it is open to being vulnerable — and therefore capable of widening your capacity to love and be loved.
Blame is a huge problem in our modern world. We want to blame the other — the migrant, the nation of China (or Mexico, Russia, etc.), the non-believer, the zealot, the political partisan, the anti-vaxxer — and so on. So many people to blame!
Ask yourself just one thing, are these people, in fact, people? If your answer is yes, then count yourself too as a human, and therefore kin to all of them. Let’s say a hurricane strikes with fury in your area. Our first responders will administer first aid equally to a loathsome criminal, a crooked cop, a slimy politician, an innocent child, a senior, or whoever.
Let your heart, then, become an indiscriminate first responder. Respond first with kindness, humanity, and care.
As you widen your circle of heartfelt giving, move beyond the human being to the abandoned pet dog, stray cat, terrified cattle, distant critters, and forgotten land and seascapes. Know, with swelling empowerment in your enlarging heart, that you belong to something bigger than just our tight circle of friends and family.
Attending to your gut, your mind, and your heart is just the beginning. All of these specific parts are attached to your body. Your body is immersed into that greater, more glorious whole of which we are woven threads.
Therefore, for as long as there are forests, plains, deserts, wetlands, prairies, beaches, and more, get out there. Your whole body possesses dozens of senses from sight, sound, and hearing to thirst, gravity, balance, echolocation, senses originated in urges such as a sense to eat, or mate, senses that inform you of proximity, weather, and more.
In short, your body must periodically disconnect from the abstract and digital world. You must immerse yourself in the real world to find how you are a part of it, and how to reconnect to it.
Forest bathing (Shinrin Yoku), meditation, gardening, bird-watching, or any act or activity that allows you to feel sunshine, breeze, nature’s beauty, and diversity will work. It will heal you. It is proof that nature is resilient, creative, and endless in power and wisdom.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.