Purpose and presence
February 22, 2018
Have you felt depressed by the doom and gloom climate change? Yeah, me too. And I also wonder what the heck to do about it. Pretend it’s not happening? Hard to do when it hasn’t rained in California since November. Hope someone else is going to take care of it? Let’s just say that our federal government isn’t inspiring me right now (our state government is, though! Yay California!).
Well, there are others who are wallowing in climate change depression too. You and I aren’t alone.
With a perspective (said in my best KQED voice) on this, I’m honored to welcome Sara Moore into this space. Sara and I have been 21st century-style pen pals for a bunch of years. She wrote some posts that I published on the Open Space Council blog back in 2011. We share ideas and links with each other via email. And, well, we keep in touch and follow each others’ work, and well, here we are again. She writing, me hitting publish.
I invite you to lean in and read this piece by Sara Moore. Let me know what you think by hitting reply. I’d love to hear from you.
When Armageddon is your day job
In 2015 Esquire printed “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job” by John Richardson, provoking widespread discussion among climate change professionals. It detailed real-life stories of scientists coping with fear and anxiety driven by climate change. For example, coral reef specialist Camille Parmesan talked about being “professionally depressed.”
Well before this article I had noticed a low-level anxiety nearly ubiquitous among climate change practitioners at various conferences. This led to conversations with others who were also worried about the mental health impacts of climate change work, resulting in me organizing a session at the 2017 National Adaptation Forum (NAF) with some colleagues. At that session (described here) people working on the front lines of monitoring climate impacts in estuaries, coastal city flood managers, and environmental health workers on reservations shared their coping strategies and deeply held fears, most frequently the fear that all their efforts were ultimately futile. These were serious fears, potentially paralyzing.
In preparation for the NAF session I delved into the concept of “Transformational Resilience” as expounded by the leader of the Resource Innovation Group, Bob Doppelt, who comes from both a counseling psychology and environmental land management background. This concept challenges people to think not just about coming back to the baseline before a trauma, but using the trauma as an opportunity for growth, so that individuals and communities are improved – transformed – by their adversities. (Read more at the International Transformational Resilience Coalition web page.)
In November 2017 and in January 2018 I attended two “Transformational Resilience” conferences which gave me some practical tools for coping with the secondary trauma of working on climate change. Mr. Doppelt’s approach boils down to the need to develop skills in two areas: presencing and purposing.
Presencing is taking action to feel safe in your body, such as deep breathing, meditating, walking in the woods, eating healthy food, and everything else that reduces cortisol (the fight or flight hormone, which shuts down executive function and fuels maladaptation) and increases oxytocin (the trust hormone, which promotes pro-social behavior and fuels “virtuous cycles” – in which positive engagement with someone leads to helping behaviors which increases our own sense of well-being).
Purposing is the skill set that I found more novel. Mr. Doppelt points to social science that shows that humans need to feel like we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. Purposing in part entails identifying our core values and mapping out ways to adhere to these values through adversity, connecting to a larger effort that is in harmony with our ideals. The question of how you cultivate a sense of meaning and higher purpose in life even when everything is flying apart is one that I continue to ponder.
Purposing might mean disengaging from the struggle that most absorbs your energy and focusing on something else that gives you a sense of meaning. In my case I decided to cope with my feelings of helplessness around climate change by volunteering at Refugee Transitions, an excellent organization supporting local refugee and asylee families. Whenever I start to feel swept away by the latest round of dire climate projections, I can ground myself in the reality of my student, whose family has to take things day by day, learning through their adversity.
At the January 2018 conference, held in downtown Oakland, California, we did an exercise that has especially stuck with me. We were asked to think about a recent experience of adversity, and ask ourselves:
- How did you react?
- How did the people around you react?
- How did the people around you react to your reaction?
- What impact did your reaction have beyond them, on the environment? For example, did you go on a shopping spree? Drive your car really fast?
- Now, what are your top three core values that you’d like to adhere to through adversity? (Write them down.)
- Looking back, what would be your ideal reaction to the adverse event? How might that have affected the people around you differently? Or the environment?
I found fleshing out – step by step – an ideal vision for coping with a particular adversity a fascinating exercise. Transformational resilience asks: whatever knocks you down, do you want to come back 100% healed? Or do you want to come back better? What does better look like? What do you want to gain out of a particular adverse situation? Can you envision it? Now root this vision in actions that are tied to your core values.
Whether you are struggling with the bad news of the climate or other things that threaten your sense of connection to a positive future, I think developing some presencing and purposing skills can help you navigate to calmer waters. And if you are coming to the California Adaptation Forum in Sacramento in August 2018, we might be doing a rendition of our NAF session there – look for us on the agenda.
Sara S. Moore is one of the conveners of the new Facebook peer support group When Armageddon is Your Day Job, an Energy Analyst at the California Energy Commission, and a researcher and writer on a range of topics related to climate change adaptation. Read her adaptation blog The Past is Not an Option. Read her article about climate trauma at Ensia.