When we look back at history, we see that the greatest catalysts for change, especially in social justice realms, rarely get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Usually, as with Martin Luther King, Jr and his “I have a dream” vision, it’s quite the opposite. Spark lighters tend to get assassinated long before their dreams are ever realized. Becoming aware of how slow the long arc of justice actually is can lead to helplessness, hopelessness, overwhelm, paralysis, numbness, apathy, and lack of action.
This morning, on a text thread with my wonderful extended family, we were talking about how our children are losing hope in the grown-ups. They are angry, feel helpless and powerless, and in the case of my daughter and one of her cousins, they’ve decided it would be unethical to bring children into a world where the powers that be don’t give a shit, profit motives have more power than environmentalism or social justice measures, global disasters are becoming the norm, and the future looks bleak.
If you’ve been tracking the pop music our young people are putting out, you’ll hear songs like If The World Was Ending by JP Saxe, Till Forever Falls Apart by Ashe and Finneas, and I Don’t Want To Watch The World End With Someone Else by Clinton Kane. Yes, my generation went through the Cold War and had similarly bleak outlooks. Generations before ours watched our species exterminate each other time and time again. But this time, we might be past the point of no return to undo the damage we’ve done. We may, in fact, be the first species to exterminate ourselves.
So why bother, you might ask? If our kids are so nihilistic they don’t want to procreate, if the scientists are right and things are only going to get worse because the powers that be aren’t insisting we DO something- STAT- then how are we to cope without spiraling into hopeless despair? How do we orient around a world where a very small majority of powerful (mostly wealthy white male) leaders make choices that impact all the rest of us and leave us feeling helpless? How do we help our kids deal with this? How do we deal with this kind of fatalism ourselves?
My family was talking this morning about the role of God in all this. I said, “With all due respect, I get irritated when spiritual or religious folks say ‘God will handle it’ or ‘Let’s just pray and meditate.’ God never promised to rescue us from the natural consequences of our bad choices any more than a good parent would try to stop their child from hitting rock bottom so they learn to make wiser, more mature choices. We are not children of a patronizing paternalistic God! It’s time for humanity to grow up. We need grounded activism and action- and we need it now! Pray- and then DO something! The reality is that we need to make sacrifices on behalf of our children. Yet too many people at the top of the power hierarchy are too selfish. We are dying of our own self-absorbed entitlement.”
My very wise family followed with their own points of view, feelings, and reflections, and one of them brought up the question of how to help counteract the hopelessness of our children.
I said, ” I hate to say it but I think their hopeless feelings are warranted. I don’t try to silver lining my daughter’s hopelessness. Instead, I try to just sit with her rage and grief and try to co-regulate her so she can handle feeling it deeply. Anything else feels like a spiritual bypass to me and I don’t want to harm her the way my mother and the church harmed me. I’m praying that, from the depths of my daughter’s own deep and painful feelings, she finds hope in her own spiritual power to participate in real change.”
My cousin asked me to say more, so I wrote, “Sure. What I mean is that when religion or beliefs are used as a way to try to keep our kids from FEELING something painful, we risk developmentally arresting them. They need to be able to tolerate intense emotions, including pandemic despair, climate anxiety, and hopelessness if they’re ever going to be functional mature adults who can be part of the solution. If we try to skip over those legitimate feelings by offering them false hope, we handicap them. From everything I know about developmental psychology (and developmental trauma), instead of silver lining things, we need to help them feel more deeply so they can handle the intensity without getting overwhelmed, flooded, and paralyzed by those feelings. If they’re not paralyzed, then they can tap into the deep reservoir of spiritual power within all of us and mobilize it to DO something. DOING something actually alleviates the anxiety and hopelessness, because they’re actively participating in the solutions.”
I told her that I think often about the Indigenous elder women I met in Byron Bay Australia. Every morning, they walk at sunrise to the beach and they wail together. They wail because their culture is being destroyed, their planet is being destroyed, their husbands are all at the bar by 10 am, their kids are up to humbug, and they’re sad, despairing, and angry. But they need to feel. So they feel TOGETHER. And then they mobilize that spiritual power and go back to the village and do what needs doing that day. We have lost the power of wailing, and I’m trying to make sure my daughter knows how to do that, but it’s hard in a culture that promotes numbness, distraction, addiction, and spiritual and emotional bypassing at every turn. Grounded hope comes from doing something, not just believing something, from my understanding of healing trauma.
My good friend Doug Abrams just wrote a new book with famed environmentalist Jane Goodall called The Book of Hope, and I highly recommend it. She lists the four reasons she still has hope for our future and expands upon each one of them:
1) The energy, commitment, passion, and sometimes courage of young people once they are aware of the problems facing us, and are empowered to take action
2) The genius of the human brain
3) The resilience of nature
4) The indomitable human spirit.
Jane also added one reason for hope not included in The Book of Hope: Social media. Yes, we know social media has its destructive qualities, and I, for one, am thrilled my daughter is not using it. Even still, social media has the power to rally people together- whether for damaging acts like insurrection or positive movements, like Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and other social justice, environmentalism, and activism causes.
In a blog Jane Goodall wrote, “For years I have been saying that every individual matters. I say to you now, your voice matters – and now you have a new way to let your voice be heard. So please do make use of social media. Do tweet or Twitter or use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and all the other tools available through social media, to get your message out, to join campaigns that you are passionate about. It is by acting together, in this exciting way, that we can involve thousands – millions – of people, and this is what is going to change the world. This is how we can stand up to the giant multinationals that are harming our planet to satisfy their lust for immediate profit, never thinking of those who will inherit the world that they have so degraded.”
And so I will close with the words of Daniel Schmactenberger that I included in my new book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Healing, which you can now preorder (link to Amazon preorder page.)
“Every negative emotion is a response to care and love. If you feel angry, find what it is that you hold as sacred and ask, ‘How is what I hold sacred getting violated?’ See the sacredness in it and ask, ‘Am I willing to make sacrifices to protect that sacred thing?’ That’s when it’s appropriate to use your will, aligned with what you love. To do this, you’ll need your mind, your heart, and your gut. Your mind needs clarity on what it is that you love and hold sacred and are willing to protect. Your heart needs to feel heartbroken because what you care about is being hurt. Your gut will give you the courage to do something about it. Think about and feel into what is most sacred to you. What will still matter after you’re dead? What are you devoted to and willing to sacrifice your comfort for—because it matters so much and you love it so much? Ask yourself, ‘If this is really what I care about, what should I be doing to be congruent with my own self, my own deepest values? What am I doing now that is different than that? How do I close that gap?'”
So I ask you…what is it you really care about? How is what you’re doing different than that? How might you close the gap?
Sure, it’s true that those who light the spark might not get to sit by the fire, but can’t we at least try?
*The photo is me and Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv, Harvard psychiatrist, author of CURED, and client of literary agent and author Douglas Abrams, posing in front of the Harvard Coop with our mutual friend Doug and Jane Goodall’s new book The Book of Hope. You can order The Book of Hope at all major booksellers
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