It’s OK to feel OK: Balancing grief and joy in turbulent times

Find ways to be a part of solutions while living in the midst of all the crises surrounding us

BETH MCKINLAY – I’ve been at many social events this summer where people have started talking about climate change and other crises. It seems like they’ve been holding it all in, and given the least bit of encouragement, a dam bursts and they express how overwhelming this all feels.

Being blanketed by smoke from wildfires, learning that the hottest temperatures ever recorded occurred this July, and witnessing the damage caused by powerful storms have helped people realize that climate change is happening here and now, even in southern Ontario, a location that has experienced comparatively milder impacts.

I hear deep grief expressed over the losses, intense anxiety about what might happen next, and so much sadness at the injustice of it all. Those who suffer the most have often contributed the least — children, marginalized folks and the natural world.

I hear frustration as many people want more effective climate legislation from all levels of government. And I hear anger when people learn that the fossil fuel industry is using record-breaking profits to sow doubt, encourage denialism, and lobby against government action.

I hear guilt as people reflect on how their choices contribute to the problem, and I hear their concerns as they seek alternatives and try to live more simply.

These emotions are normal responses to the climate crisis. Some people can use the energy of these emotions to drive their climate action, but other people feel depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, lethargic, and some find themselves unable to respond. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge how all of this impacts our physical and mental health, and our ability to function effectively.

So, what to do?

If you’re like me, you want to find ways to live your best life and be a part of solutions while living in the midst of all the crises surrounding us. None of this is easy and the following suggestions are not meant to minimize the challenge of finding ways to cope. Seeking professional support might very well be part of the mix. I’d like to share strategies and perspectives that have helped me.

Each time I hear distressing climate news, I remind myself that these consequences are waking people up to the urgency of this situation. I also recognize that being alive in these transformative times is an incredible opportunity to contribute to new systems that bring climate justice to all.

I realized that getting involved in climate action would help me cope with my emotional reactions. I was very choosy because I wanted to do so in ways that left me feeling effective, empowered, enthusiastic, and happy. Research now documents that positive mental states allow us to be more creative, resourceful, adaptable, and resilient. At the same time, I want to be a realist — I don’t want to engage in toxic positivity or spiritual bypassing.

I’ve learned to balance the one-sided “Doom and Gloom” story of climate with the reality that there are millions of small groups and individuals devoted to climate justice. We are moving in the right direction;; however, we need to do more, and we need to do it faster. The transition to a healthier planet touches all aspects of our lives and needs every skill and ability that people have to offer.

It can still feel like too much.

I do get those days when I get burdened by “all the feels,” and it’s too much. It helps me to remember the words of Indigenous biologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes that she intentionally chooses to focus on joy because, “Even a wounded world is feeding us … holding us, and giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair, not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the Earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”

Julian of Norwich came to a similar conclusion. She lived during the Black Plague hundreds of years ago. That pandemic killed 50 per cent of the population of Europe. Stressful times indeed. She counselled people to “hold the grief and joy equally in both hands.” I’ve come to see that regularly taking time to do the things that I love is a good antidote. I often pause in my day to ask myself how much time I have been devoting to the grief and the joy, and I adjust my plans accordingly.
There are many times in life when we’re not able to control a situation, but we do have the freedom to choose our response. Spending 20 minutes in a “sit spot” or walking mindfully in nature can shift your mood to a more calm and peaceful state.

I chose to get involved with a local climate group as a way to be part of the solution. I was drawn to the well-informed approach of For Our Grandchildren. It’s a great place to share concerns and learn from others about effective climate action. I enjoy planning and co-hosting the monthly online meeting, 4RGmeets.

I chose to train with to be a forest and nature therapy guide. I learned about evidenced based techniques that underlie mindful nature connection practices (a.k.a. forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoku) and that effectively facilitate well-being. Their program offers a forum to explore the applications of forest medicine research, neuroscience, and mindful self-compassion, especially with populations experiencing high levels of stress. There are many times in life when we’re not able to control a situation, but we do have the freedom to choose our response. Spending 20 minutes in a “sit spot” or walking mindfully in nature can shift my mood to a more calm and peaceful state.

I’m able to reframe situations and remember that I have the strength and capacity to do hard things. And it’s such an easy way to connect with joy. The photo gallery on my phone is a testament to the truth of Mary Davis’s quote, “To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.”

You can experience a taste of forest bathing and learn more about the impact of climate on our natural environment by joining a fall hike with For Our Grandchildren on Sept. 30.

We’re living in unprecedented times. Mindful awareness and self-care are powerful tools. It helps me to connect with and learn from others who care, to monitor how much attention I give to the negative, and to always make time and space for all the things that bring me joy. I hope you can too.

Climate Chaos Update

Hope – Although climate disasters are happening all over the world this summer, there is some positive news. On July 24, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released a framework to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Canada is the first G20 country to do so. Last week, Ottawa also unveiled its plan to bring Canada’s electricity grid to net-zero by 2035. Finally, in the first U.S. ruling of its kind, a Montana state court has decided in favour of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels. More rulings like this are likely to come.

Carbon dioxide – The atmospheric CO2 reading last week was 420.59 parts per million (ppm), compared to 417.36 ppm a year ago. The readings are taken at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. It’s a cruel twist of fate that Hawaii, the state that monitors CO2 for the world, has now had one of the world’s worst climate-related disasters

Photos courtesy of For Our Grandchildren (4RG)

This article was originally published in the Peterborough Examiner and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

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