The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

As If

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A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my teacher.

To be clear, I’m not currently taking any classes, nor am I in a training program of any kind. There are simply some people who remain one’s teachers no matter what. I have two, and I sent an email to one of mine the other week, more or less just to say hi.

He asked how I was. I confessed I was not well; multiple people I care about have cancer and a president named Trump. He made the appropriate sympathetic noises (we’ve never talked much about private matters with each other) and then reminded me that “especially in politics, this too shall pass.”

I suspected him of being blithely ignorant, though of course I didn’t say so. The forces that would see the Earth burn so they can make a buck seem to be winning, and he tells me it will be ok? Yes, this, too, SHALL pass; in twenty million years, biodiversity and climate stability will likely have recovered, but that’s supposed to be comforting?

Actually, it is comforting. As I think I’ve said before, I find great comfort in Ursula K. LeGuin’s line, “No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars.” The character who speaks this line is talking about the literal end of the world. “There” refers to the land of the dead. That no matter what we humans do, the Earth will probably be able to repair itself in a few million years is a kind of good news.

Beyond that, “this, too, shall pass” is not necessarily a note of hope in the ordinary human sense. The idea is not necessarily that things will get better (though they may), but simply that things are transitory, that the current situation is not the only context, and not the permanent context, that can apply. I have heard it suggested that the way to really internalize and believe “this, too, shall pass” is to make a point of saying it when things are going well.

As a Buddhist might, I can take refuge in the simple truth of impermanence.

I suspect my teacher would be on board with all these interpretations, but could he also have meant what he initially seemed to mean, that yes, indeed, things will be alright? This isn’t the end of the world?

Back when he was more obviously engaged in teaching me, I became fairly sure this man was always right, that things he said were true because he said them. Even before I finished grad school, I’d modulated that stance somewhat. Yes, he could be wrong (though it does seem to be rare), but it was more interesting, and ultimately more educational, to begin with the presumption that he wasn’t. The principle here is a bit like that of a Tarot deck or a zodiac–the process of figuring out how the oracle applies to your question is a wonderful source of insight, whether the oracle actually applies to your question in a literal sense or not. Rather than wondering is my teacher right? I made a practice of asking myself what if he is right? What can I see from the perspective he is offering me?

(I mean this principle within certain limits, of course. Clearly, treating individual human beings as totally infallible could cause problems)

So, I decided to return to that practice and ask myself what if things aren’t as bad as I fear that they are? What does the world look like if the anti-environment plutocracy we now face is simply transitory?

The thought echoed one I learned many years ago–when faced with a challenge, don’t ask whether I can succeed. Assume that I can, and seek to discover how.

And from my teacher’s vantage point of hope and optimism I looked out and saw…a spaghetti pile of possibilities that I find utterly overwhelming. I don’t know about you-all, but I find it very difficult to choose among equally valid options. Faced with a to-do list of five quick items and an afternoon to do them in, I not infrequently end up spending the whole afternoon playing on Facebook because I can’t decide which one to do first. Occasionally I have actually asked my husband to pick a task for me. He complies with good humor.

So, I seem to be paralyzed now, not by the awesome awfulness of Trump (who, after all, will pass, one way or another), but by the difficulties of my own brain. But while awesome awfulness seems like a very big problem to tackle, I have at least some hope of learning to operate my own grey matter. It’s a start.

What about you? What lies in the way of your own action? What does the world look like if you assume you’ll succeed?

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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