One of the people I return to over and over again for clarity of thought is Joanna Macy. She writes plainly:
“Life on our planet is in trouble. It is hard to go anywhere without being confronted by the wounding of our world, the tearing of the very fabric of life. We are assaulted by news of tornadoes and hurricanes, fleeing refugees, an entire village buried in mudslides, thousands of bodies under the rubble, another species lost, another city bombed. Our planet is sending us signals of distress that are so continual now they seem almost normal. Reports proliferate about the loss of cropland and the spreading of hunger, toxins in the air we breathe and the water we drink, the die-off of plant and animal species. These are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us… In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” [World as Lover, World as Self p17-19]
Deep into her book she reminds me that our pain and despair for all that is going on in the world is our hope. Yes, our pain is our hope. Our despair is our hope. Why? Well, I guess because it means we can still feel. And if we can still feel it means that we are still alive. And if we are still alive it means there is hope. Much more despairing is an inability to feel despair. As Macy writes:
“Have we ceased to care what happens to life on earth? It can look that way. Activists decry public apathy. The cause of our apathy, however, is not indifference. It stems from a fear of the despair that lurks beneath the tenor of life-as-usual. Sometimes it manifests in dreams of mass destruction, and is exorcised in the morning jog and shower or in the public fantasies of disaster movies. Because of social taboos against despair and because of fear of pain, it is rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. It is kept at bay. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurrent response, produces a partial numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut.
The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. It not only impoverishes our emotional and sensory life – flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic – but also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies. Fear of despair erects an invisible screen, filtering out anxiety-provoking data. In a world where organisms require feedback in order to adapt and survive, this is suicidal. Now, when we most need to measure the effects of our acts, our attention and curiosity slacken as if we are already preparing for the Big Sleep. Doggedly attending to business-as-usual, we’re denying both our despair and our ability to cope with it.
So it’s good to look at what apathy is, to understand it with respect and compassion. Apatheia is a Greek word that means, literally, non-suffering. Giving its etymology, apathy is the inability or refusal to experience pain. What is the pain we feel – and desperately try not to feel – in this planet-time? It is of another order altogether that what the ancient Greeks could have known; it pertains not just to privations of wealth, health, reputation or loved ones, but to losses so vast we can hardly name them. It is pain for the world.
Pain for the world is not only natural, it is a necessary component of our healing. As in all organisms, pain has a purpose: it is a warning signal, designed to trigger remedial action. It is not to be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on “positive thinking”. It is to be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in. Faced and experienced, its power can be used. As the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw, new energies and intelligence are released.
The problem lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it. Our efforts to dodge or dull it surrender us to futility …
The prospect of uncovering our innermost feelings about what is happening in our world is daunting. How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face such grief and fear and rage without going to pieces?
It is good to realise that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is as essential to evolutionary and psychological transformations as the cracking of outgrown shells. Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski calls it “positive disintegration”.” [World as Lover, World as Self p 94-95]
In the sermon last week we touched on the language of Lament. Lament is the language that honours despair and therein lies its hope. By reading the book of Lamentations and many of the Psalms may our tongues be loosened to lament.