Melancholy Moment:  Restoring an Unmanageable World, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Aug



I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.  Edgar Allan Poe

He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.  P.G. Wodehouse

As the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.  Virginia Woolf

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.  Dodie Smith

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  T.H. White

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are confronting the end of another summer.  The heat and humidity persist but the days shorten, the trees and bushes have lost much of their vitality, and the time sadly wanes in which we might grab just a bit of rest and outdoor recreation, time to be taken up all-too-soon with fall preparations and duties focused on our families and institutions.

Even for me, for whom this current period represents the best time of my life, I now also breathe a bit of an “atmosphere of sadness.”  Like some who feel pangs of melancholy at dusk, I grieve that we might not have what it takes to address current threats from cold and darkness: the shifting climate that impedes any residual semblance of normalcy, the people falling further and further behind; the stresses that seem to come out of nowhere and linger far too long; and of course the search for better “answers” in policy and practice as our current stable of solutions seem too-often akin to searching for “the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle.”

How the world “wags” now is a mixed blessing at best.  It will take many noble deeds from many sustainable sources, many public displays of service and discernment, many acts of courage and discomfort, if we are to get through this precarious time and heal the emotions that we neither confess nor control, feelings of gloom that dampen enthusiasm for even those activities and relationships that were once reliably joyful.

At breakfast this week with my friend and colleague Wendy Brawer, we discussed a range of sustainability issues and concerns which have been our obsession for many years at Green Map – from pollinators and parklands to bicycles and food security.   When I asked her about issues that have not gotten sufficient treatment, she mentioned “climate grief,” the sense of sadness that comes from knowing that our current trajectory is not at all sustainable and largely absent clear markers regarding how best to bend that arc and what our role in that bending could be.

I experience a bit of that grief despite the policy-privileged position that I find myself in every day – near the center of discussions about which we have some modest impact on strategies for a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Being near the center is accompanied by its own melancholy, of course, wrapped up in the policy compromises that prevent people from having the basic security and prosperity which should by now be our common inheritance. But “having a say,” being one of the “somebodies” that can do something about what collectively ails us, creates its own positive energy.

We at Global Action always have plenty to do, plenty to share (some helpful) on issues which these weeks range from international law to ocean governance, from the dispute over Kashmir to state-sponsored violence in Cameroon.  And yet there is also that nagging sense that we are not doing enough, nor with sufficient wisdom and nobility, to ensure that this time of metaphorical dusk will not descend into a colder, darker time.  As one commentator noted, with respect to climate change, we seem now to be like a passenger in a car speeding towards a cliff that we don’t acknowledge and without a clear strategy for diverting our course.  This metaphor could equally apply to our refugees and our weapons, our biodiversity and our fresh water supply.

For those raising children, for those who are still children themselves, this race-car scenario doensn’t offer much in the way of comfort nor much in the way of a path to transform some of the current melancholia into sustainable action.

Of course, climate grief is tied to other sources of emotional discomfort, from the ofen-bewildering and regularly escalating complexity of our “modern” lives to the self-protective and sometimes vicious manner in which we, formally and informally, engage the rest of the planet.  We defend within our circles what at times we would do better to renounce, and this current iteration of defensiveness seems less about the other and more about coping with the spoiled fruits of our own melancholia, our own fear of personal fraudulence and social impotence.  We know that something is seriously wrong; we know that we are literally being besieged (largely through our hand-held devices) by those desperate to persuade or distract us; but mostly all we seem to know to do in response is to aggressively defend and protect what is closest, to hope that, somehow, the looming and severe storms will magically pass over our self-made havens without us getting thoroughly drenched.

This epoch of high stress and higher anxiety that we are living through inclines us to medicate but not mediate; to demand from others what we neglect to offer ourselves; to cling to policies and practices that have long-lost their flavor in part because we refuse to adjust our speed to the cliff looming just over the horizon and in part because we no longer completely trust the authors of policy to take account of needs and aspirations of more than themselves and their “interests.”

There is simply too-little health in us.

But there remains another path, of simpler living and clearer thinking, of services gratefully offered and received, of governance at all levels compelled to help us release from their bottles only the genies that can inspire our better selves. We haven’t had such inspiration in what seems like quite some time.  This current wave of xenophobia and climate-obscuring narcissism is not entirely a creature of our present but has deep and complex roots.  Save for too-brief periods and circumstances, we have long been encouraged primarily to pursue the interests of self – and then to “shoot” in one form or another anyone who seems to threaten our various domiciles and dominions.

That other inspiration — to the service of others and to policies that might actually save us from ourselves — is not a matter of moral virtue but of common survival.   We know this somewhere deep in the recesses of our being, in the places that we collectively allow to generate more anxiety and fear than determination and empathy.  It is time to own up to and shed light on our legitimate melancholy but also to the still-potent change capacities and aspirations to which those feelings remain tied, and to do so before the often-beautiful light of dusk turns into a deeper and more foreboding darkness.

These are tough times.  They need not be the end of times.

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