The Yoga of Despair

This was a sermon or homily I recently gave at Beverly Unitarian Church, in Illinois, and First Unitarian Church of Hobart, in Indiana, on two consecutive Sundays. I began by showing the clip below, from the HBO series, The Newsroom. In the scene, a deputy director of the EPA is being interviewed by a news anchor.

I love that video. It’s funny, but it’s also accurate.  Except for the part about permanent darkness, everything the EPA director says in that video is true.

I especially get a kick out of the reaction of the producer, when the EPA director says, “The person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.” And she says “What did he just say?!”

I had my own “what did he just say?” moment a few years ago. I was participating in a protest at the tar sands refinery in Whiting, Indiana. I was part of the group that was planning an act of civil disobedience and planning on getting arrested. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org was speaking. At the end of his speech, he said,

“I wish that I could guarantee you that we’re all going to win in the end, the whole thing. And I can’t, because we don’t know. The physics of climate change is pretty daunting at this point. The momentum of it is pretty big. We’re not going to win everything. We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.”

I heard that and thought, “What did he just say?!”

Bill McKibben is probably one of the top five names in climate activism today, right up there with Al Gore and James Hansen.  So to hear him say, “It’s too late to stop climate change” is pretty disturbing.

At the time, I put it out of my mind and busied myself with my activism. Since then, the predictions have been getting worse and worse every year, almost every month. According to even mainstream news sources, whether we survive the next couple of centuries (and some people say even the next few decades) is an open question. It will require more than switching to renewable energy. It will require a reduction in consumption that would make the Great Depression look trivial. Radical restrictions on travel, diet, family size, and more. Our civilization is not going to make that change, at least not voluntarily. Someone once said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. And I think that’s true.

My purpose today is not to convince you that we’re doomed. Even though I think we are.

Rather than trying to convince you or reciting statistics about how bad it is, I want to invite you to just ponder the question, “What if it is already too late?” I think most climate activists, and even most people who watch the news about climate change, have asked themselves this question at one time or another. Though we all ask it, it is taboo to ask the question out loud–especially among climate activists. Because it’s thought the question can lead to hopelessness, and hopelessness can lead to inaction, and inaction is a cardinal sin for activists.

And that is where I found myself about a year and a half ago. Despairing. Suffering actual depression. Which is an actually an increasingly common problem for activists, especially environmental activists. There’s even support groups now for despairing climate activists.

Eventually, though, I learned that despair is actually a step forward. It’s one of the stages of grief.  And I realized that I had been going through the stages of grief.

The first stage was denial. Some people deny that climate change is real. But many activists like me are in denial too. We don’t deny that climate change is happening. But we deny how bad it really is. We tell ourselves, no matter how bad things look, there is still time to turn things around.

After the denial stage, comes anger. Anger at elites and policy makers is on full display at environmental rallies and marches.

Then bargaining. Bargaining with nature, promising to switch to renewables if only we can keep our lifestyle, or at least some of it. Promising to give up this or that first world luxury, if only it will save civilization or humankind.

And then comes the depression. And after the depression, acceptance.

Yes, I think we’re doomed. But I think the reasons have less to do with parts-per-million or degrees centigrade than with human psychology. I want to suggest that maybe the reason we are in the predicament, this climate crisis, is precisely because we are in collective denial. I’m not talking just about climate change denial. Climate change denial is just a special case of a much broader and much deeper denial. A denial of our connection with nature. A denial of our limitations. A denial of death.

I suspect some of you here are atheists, who do not believe in individual immortality. But if you’re like me, you replaced the hope for heaven with a faith in human progress. We console ourselves with the thought that, though we will die, human civilization carry on.

But history teaches us that civilizations die too. Human history is not a straight line. And there have been many dark ages, not just one. Civilizations die from familiar causes: overpopulation, soil degradation, extreme social inequality, climate change. Those should sound familiar to all of us.

We have a misplaced faith in the inevitability of human progress. This myth of progress has driven us to consume like there are no consequences, to multiply like physical limitations don’t exist, to worship growth like it is an unequivocal good. All of this because we deny our limitations, and especially the ultimate limitation—death.

Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, explains that a basic human motivation is a need to deny that we are going to die. We deny death by engaging in what Becker calls “immortality projects,” which attempt to transcend death. Religion, art, science, war, politics—Becker sees all of these as immortality projects. All of civilization can be understood as a collective immortality project, a giant, complex attempt to deny our connection to nature, and hence our mortality.

The problem, Becker says, is that these immortality projects are maladaptive. They sever us from the flow of life—of which death is a part. And ironically, they end up hastening our deaths. So we consume like there no tomorrow in order to convince ourselves that we have all the time in the world, and in so doing, we rush toward our own demise.

In my activism, I often found myself asking, “What is it going to take for human beings to change?” I think maybe it would take dying. Or at least accepting, really accepting, that we—our civilization, and maybe our species—is going to die—probably sooner rather than later.

Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, suggests that we need to learn how to die well. What does it mean to die well? One suggestion which resonated with me comes from Donna Haraway. She suggests that to die well we need to learn to become compost. What is compost but dead matter which gives rise to new life? Becoming compost means dying, but in a way that makes fertile soil for new life.

I want to suggest that we consider the example of the patient who has a terminal diagnosis. They may pass through some or all the stages of grief. They may give up hope. They may despair. They may even seek an early death to avoid pain.

But others find a kind of peace on the other side of despair. A peace born not of hope, but of love. They may decide that they want to live more meaningfully and intensely with the time they have left.  They may decide to focus on healing their relationships with others or creating new ones. They may devote their time to leaving something positive behind for those who will live on. In other words, they start turning themselves into compost.  Rich, productive, life-giving death.

Roy Scranton, writes in his essay “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World,”

“The dire and seemingly unsolvable fact of climate change—just like the unsolvable fact of our own mortality—doesn’t signify the end of ethical thought but its beginning, for it’s only in recognizing the fact that our lives are limited, complicit, imperfect, and interdependent that we begin to understand what it means to live together in this world.”

We’ve been given a terminal diagnosis, for our civilization, and maybe our species. Despair is a natural response to this news.  But I think despair isn’t something to be avoided. There is a wisdom in despair. It can be a teacher.  Despair teaches us about our limitations.  Despair teaches us where we belong and who we belong to. Despair teaches us what matters most.  Despair teaches us how to live.

Father Bede Griffiths says that despair is a yoga, a path to enlightenment or awareness. There is a kind of clarity that comes with despair. Priorities come into focus. And strangely, a new feeling of power emerges out of surrender—not power over nature, but power with nature.

Most people equate despair with paralysis. We avoid it, suppress it, medicate it.  But despair can be liberating, rather than oppressive. Rather than paralyzing us, it can spur us to action—not the desperate, anxious action of those who are trying to save themselves.  But a calm, centered action of those who know they are doomed, but also know that there is still beauty, and joy, and love in the world. And who know there is still important work to do—not for ourselves, but for all the other living beings on the planet.

Eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote that “We will not save what we do not love.” I can think of no better explanation for the current course of human civilization than that. But knowing that we will die, embracing that truth, can help us learn to love this world. Just as knowing that we will die causes us to cherish our family and friends even all the more.  And what do we do for the people we love?  We try to lessen their suffering.  We try to deepen our connections with them in the time we have left.  And we mourn them when they are gone.

Maybe truly radical love is only possible when we give up hope for ourselves.  What would it take for us to truly love this place and the human and other-than-human beings who live here?  Maybe it would take dying.

This is where I am right now. In my despair, I am starting to discover my love for the place where I live and the people—human and other-than-human—who live there. And I’m trying to find small but meaningful ways to lessen suffering, to enjoy beauty, and, yes, to mourn.

None of this will save the planet, or the human species, or human civilization, or even my own life. I think the idea that we could ever have saved the earth is born of the same kind of hubris that is destroying it right now. Instead, I am going to try to find a small piece of the world, maybe just one species, and try to save them. And if I fail, maybe I can at least ease their passing and mourn them when they are gone. In the process, at least I will have learned to love them.

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