It's Christmas, time to emerge from my darkness
It’s getting to that time of year when we stop work for the Christmas break. It’s that time too when we look back and ponder our feelings about the time since January 1st ticked over a year ago. Like the first sip of a new wine, we try to judge how it’s past. “A great year,” we salute, joyful or perhaps, “No, it was awful. I hope next year’s better.” Oh well. Nothing much to do about it either way but the expression of hope, rather than certainty, that next year could be better is some acknowledgement that it is not, anyway, completely within our control.
Resonating with this, my good mate Phil sent me through an interesting article, “Why the quickest route to happiness may be to do nothing.” It presents sound conclusions based on good research that confirm something I feel intimately; that the more we strive to be happy, the more we chase it, the greater our chances of being unhappy.
It reminded me of a lovely 2013 presentation by Australia’s philosopher cartoonist Michael Leunig to a conference on “Happiness and its causes”. I watch it from time to time, to give me pause and to remind me, happily, that being in the darkness is an important part of our journey to not only happiness, but to creativity and regeneration, to joy; I think to hope and to action too.
I’ve spent a good part of this year in darkness.
Having stepped aside as TFT CEO at the end of 2015, my task up to the end of 2017 really was to help our new CEO take up the position, to make it his own. There were other things too but that was my main job. It’s gone well so by the start of this year, the question blowing in the wind for me was, “OK, what now?”
Part of the answer has evolved through the year with the work I’ve been doing with another good mate and colleague, Julien Troussier. Together, we’ve developed a retreat format to help people connect with and live truly to their values, to what Leunig calls our “direction finding Duck.” It’s been the essence of my experience with TFT that big change only happens when people really connect to that place, not to what’s going on in their heads. We’ve hosted a number of these through the year. They’ve gone really well and we’re getting great feedback from people describing a deep and intimate experience that is helping them profoundly in their work and personal life in equal measure. That feels good.
On the down side, I’ve long known that we weren’t doing well in our “fight” against climate change, framing it as a battle is part of the problem, but mid-year this was brought home to me in stark terms. I learned about INTHE, Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction. It’s the idea that it’s inevitable that within the lifetime of most people alive today (within the next 30-50 years), climate change will be so apocalyptic that humans and many other species will go extinct. I have to say, it threw me.
When your life’s work has focused on protecting and healing the environment and people, being told that it was all for nothing is bad news; yes, disconcerting. It throws the “OK, what now?” question to a much broader, existential context that invites you to wonder at the point of it all. If we’re all going to die grim deaths in the not-too-distant future; why get out of bed and go to work? If humans are indeed going extinct, shouldn’t we just bunker down and prepare for it? It can create a “do nothing because there’s no point” despair.
I’ve felt that despair, often deeply. As an action oriented person – there’s a problem, let’s fix it - my question really has been “what should I do in the face of this apparent inevitability?” I’ve tried to fathom whether it really is inevitable. Inevitability is a one or zero question, you can’t be half inevitable, but maybe there’s a way out? Bright minds suggest it is. Others skirt around the question, and don’t answer because they might invoke fear.
Every time I’ve pulled at a thread, I’ve found myself drawn to the edge of a dark abyss. All roads have led me there, to this very dark place, these past months. I have two boys; I wonder at their future. I love forests; this year I’ve seen them burn like never before. Ocean corals are dead, etc. etc. There’s grim news after grim news and people just keep doing things to make turning away from the abyss ever more unlikely. CO2 emissions are still rising, after all our efforts, after all these years for goodness sake! It’s a mess.
But then…a light emerges. Friends share their perspectives; others’ actions inspire me. I’m reminded by Michael Leunig’s words toward the end of his presentation on happiness (do click on the link to watch it, there is Yoda wisdom there). Leunig says,
“There are passages in life when happiness departs and I have found in my own work that there’s times of disillusionment, you can’t get an idea, you panic, you go into a despair and it’s a time when you’re down, you’re not wanting to make cartoons for the world or anything like that and then you set out to make a cartoon and it all turns into a mess. You have no sense of humour, no happiness, you just feel terrible about your abilities. After all these years you still haven’t learned really how to do it and so you start to get into this appalling mess.”
This has been me these past six months. I’ve been disillusioned and in a panic. I’ve struggled to fathom an approach to impending climate tragedy. I don’t want to do nothing, that’s not who I am, but what should I do? What would be meaningful? What might help, what might make a difference? Is there a difference to be made? Leunig continues about his creative process,
“And then you give up and you stay with the mess and you stay in the mess and you start to play in the mess because everything’s lost anyway. It’s all ruined and so you stay with it and then at that point, you start to create, you start to break away from yourself because your ego is in ruins. All the self-image that you are a fine, funny fellow is in ruins. You realise you’re infantile and hopeless and accepting that is a lovely thing, just for a moment. Of course, anybody looking in on the process would not recognise that I’m falling apart inside. I try to look composed etc. True panic doesn’t look like panic and so, I come out and then I find the solution in this. I’m starting to make a mess and draw things I don’t really understand and soon I see things in it that I haven’t realised. Eventually, any piece of work worth doing seems to be like that in the world of creativity. Having an ambition, losing the ambition, it crumbles, finding a mess, staying with the mess, finding the mess of your own ego and what’s before you, some sort of happiness, some joy of breaking free and so there seems to be, in my life, this cycle of “if I’m disillusioned, if I’m down, if I’m not happy’” I seem to have learned that disillusionment seems to precede creativity, seems to precede some epiphany, some small moment of epiphany and I learn not to be afraid of my disillusionment and the loss of self. It’s not this grim holding onto self because you know it’s a sort of inner crucifixion going on and there will be a redemption and an arising up. Not always, but usually.”
Not always but usually. Leunig’s words give me hope. It’s OK to feel this despair, to see everything as a mess. It’s only by passing through this, by holding these feelings of terrible loss, of grief, sadness, despair, fear, anger, this total loss of ego, that we might find a way forward, a way to action, to create a different future because create it we must. I’ve passed through these emotions these past months but now I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel an epiphany coming. Leunig concludes,
“So the loss that comes with unhappiness, sometimes is clearing the decks, making fallow ground for something also, this total grief and loss, and to stay in that and to create in that is to regenerate in that and so I think we move through these cycles of loss, grief, mess, regeneration, new things growing, epiphany, joy.”
And so we emerge. I feel myself finally regenerating, finding purpose, new ideas are growing.
Back in September, I wrote an email to my TFT colleagues to share my feelings about INTHE, to discuss what I was grappling with, what I was trying to do in the mess. I boiled it down to “being kind”, to the importance of treating ourselves, others and all of Nature with compassion. I stressed that feelings of despair need not freeze us. Indeed, being OK and holding our despair can help us be truly whole and from this wholeness, we might find a good way forward, whether INTHE ends up being inevitable or not.
One of my wonderful colleagues, Anne-Marie, wrote to let me know my email had helped her. She battles this despair too, this sense of loss, of utter hopelessness but has found her own way forward. I want to share it with you,
“I was asking myself, “How do you believe that it is too late (which I mostly do), and yet you spend your days at work trying to protect and heal the Earth, and you spend your evenings loving and feeding your diverse neighbours into loving and caring for each other as one common human family?”
And then I realised it! I immediately had the image of my grandmother, Carmen, who had a degenerative auto-immune disease where she deteriorated slowly over 30 years, needing more and more care. We knew she was dying. Not once did I ever think of giving up on her, of stopping to care for her, of stopping believing that she still deserved the best life possible and was deserving of all my love, care, attention, compassion.
This is how I feel about the Earth! And subsequently, about all of the beings that live on and with Her. The Earth, the world, is my beloved Grandmother (or Mother), who is (most likely) terminally ill. Of course I can’t and won’t give up on her life! Of course, even though all signs point to her dying, to humanity dying, I will not stop loving, caring, fighting. How could I?
It is not nonsensical to devote my life to caring for, fighting for, loving my dying Grandmother. It is my greatest honour. This loving shatters my heart into a million pieces almost every day, and at the same time, my heart expands to encompass loving more and more species, more and more humans.
All of this is true for me at the same time.”
I was so grateful for Anne-Marie’s words and I think they provide a way forward. It may indeed be too late – but it may not be – but regardless, we have to keep moving forward, we have to keep acting with love for ourselves, for each other, for Nature, for Mother Earth. It is not nonsensical.
So, happily, I’m finding happiness again. I’m emerging from the mess, regenerating, having found my epiphany in Anne-Marie’s words about her love for her grandmother. As I look back over the year past, I can see beyond the mess of climate change and INTHE. I can see the good times with my family and friends, the joy of walks I’ve done, the time spent with my deaf dog in forests above my home, times I spent overseas working to save forests, to help people. These are things I must do more of in 2019, how could I not?
So I will. I must act but in looking back over my 2018 and as I reflect on Leunig’s beautiful description of his creative process, I think perhaps there’s a lesson there for us all.
Grappling with complex problems like climate change is, at its core, a creative process. It’s my creative process. It’s your creative process. We own it because we’re each implicated in causing it. We can’t look to others to solve it or, if it is inevitable, to cope with the climate tragedy that will unfold in the years ahead. We must look to ourselves. We must each lose our ambition to solve climate change, the ego that tells us we can. We must descend the stairs of our own despair to the bottom of that dark abyss. We must get down there in the terrible mess and stay there a while. We must wallow. We must suffer the loss of self, of ego, of our belief that we’re clever, that we can solve any problem, even climate change. As we wallow, with everything in ruin, we must play, explore ideas and then we might, as Leunig describes, start seeing things that we hadn’t realised. Patterns might form and perhaps only then might we find a path emerging out the other side, back to the surface, to happiness, to action that makes sense, freed from ego, regenerated in the darkness. Only then might we find the epiphany that there is a way to keep going.
This has been my lesson in the second half of 2018. In 2019, I’m going to keep going. I’m going to keep loving humans, all other species and Mother Earth just as Anne-Marie loved her Grandmother all those years she was slowly, inexorably deteriorating. If our extinction proves indeed to be inevitable, so be it but I also sense that only by adopting such a creative process might we find the miracle, the path that actually leads us out of this most unhappy of situations.
Happy New Year!