Today, I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious, in large part due to the state of the world and my country’s political mess, and I’m therefore feeling a great urge to zone out and do nothing. Particularly, a well-researched science explainer or current-events commentary feels out of reach today, meaning I can either delay writing a climate post or I can write a personal post about the inside of my own head–but looking over the history of this blog, I can see that I’ve done the latter many times. I must be starting to sound like a broken record.
If nothing changes, nothing changes.
So, it’s time to launch a series of posts about changing something. Maybe the series will be useful to others who find themselves playing a single repeating note and are likewise tired of it.
The Anatomy of A Problem
I’m sure reasons for sitting around paralyzed vary, but while my reasons may not be universal, I doubt they’re unique, either. Hence this article–my intention is that people in a similar situation might find something they can use.
So what is my situation?
As far as I can figure, I’m dealing with a mashed up mess of executive function deficit, a deep sense of empathy, and a lot of climate grief and fear and I don’t really deal with very well. But it’s a personal motto of mine that problems have solutions, and if you can identify and understand the problem, you might be able to find a solution.
“Executive function,” as I understand the term, is essentially decision-making ability. Not necessarily big decisions, such as whether to marry a certain person or whether to put one’s house on the market, but the minute-by-minute decisions that make life happen. It’s related to focus, but I can focus just fine–I don’t have the longest attention span in the world, but it’s not the shortest, either. I can spend a couple of hours doing something, if I need or want to. I can even tackle long-term projects, like writing books and earning college degrees.
The problem happens when I have to choose which of several equally-important tasks I’m going to do next. Logically, I know I should just pick one and do it, and then when I’m done pick another, but what I tend to do instead is to panic. Just the thought of choosing one makes me worry about the ones I didn’t choose. If I do start on one of the tasks, intrusive thoughts about how I should have made a different choice become distracting, sometimes to the point that I can’t complete the task. I often dither or seek distraction until the problem resolves itself–either the opportunity to do ANY of the tasks passes, or one of them becomes an emergency in one way or another.
Emergencies are useful. They make choosing simple.
All of this is worse for high-stakes tasks, so you can see how it’s a catastrophic problem for a would-be activist. There are lots of things that can and must be done to combat climate change, but how do I decide which of them to do this afternoon? I generally can’t.
“Executive function deficit” is a real problem for which I have not been tested. I don’t like such tests, and I like dealing with my insurance company to get them paid for even less. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then maybe reading up on ducks might be helpful?
Empathy means feeling something because someone else feels it; you see someone get poked with a needle and you flinch. The concept has been adapted by some to cover a form of telepathy (Star Trek fans will remember Deanna Troy), but the paranormal isn’t necessary. In fact, real empaths aren’t necessarily any better than anyone else at knowing what someone else really feels–the empath reacts to their perception of the other person, whether that perception is right or not.
Empathy is something most–or perhaps all–humans have to varying degrees. It is said that psychopaths lack empathy, but I don’t know if that’s really true. Sociopathy is generally described as a less extreme form of psychopathy, and I did know someone diagnosed as a sociopath. He certainly felt less empathy in most situations that most people I know seem to, but he did have some capacity to empathize. In contrast, I seem to empathize more often and more deeply than most. For example, when I hear a crying baby in public, my first reaction is generally to feel sad for the baby, whereas most people seem mostly irritated by the noise.
But if empathy is not a form of telepathy, what is it? I did some reading on the topic in college (I’m not taking time to dig up citations today, however), and it turns out, it works largely by unconscious mimicry. When you see someone smile, the muscles of your face that produce smiles tighten slightly. It is that hint of your own smile that lightens your mood slightly (the old advice “smile, you’ll feel better” mostly works). Your body subtly mimics what you perceive of other bodies, producing hints of the same feelings others seem to have.
The same mechanism also results in unconscious mimicry of body postures, gestures, and mannerisms. When two people are “on the same wavelength” in an in-person conversation, often what has happened is that both are unconsciously imitating each other, producing harmony in their body language and in their moods.
Why is all this relevant?
Because I’ve noticed I tend to take on the priorities of the people around me, and since the people around me are mostly less radical than I want to be, the result is I treat climate change as less important than I know it is. Why do I do this? Could empathy be the answer? Could the mimicry mechanism that drives empathy also have an intellectual component?
Grief and Fear
Climate grief is a real thing. So is climate fear. There is a scale of loss and potential loss going on that simply staggers the mind. My typical response to grief and fear these days is to think of something more pleasant instead, but obviously an activist can’t use that technique very often without a certain loss of effectiveness.
A Plan for a Solution
So, now we know the nature of the stumbling blocks, what do we–or at least I–do about them? When I was an undergrad, I used the structure of academic study to tackle a problem of similar magnitude (“How to live a meaningful life”) to good effect. The key was to break the question up into subquestions, then make myself a reading list and a schedule. The other key was to have other people, notably my professor, expecting to see results.
I already have some tools to work with, as I’ve discussed in several other posts (please see here and here). I don’t use them as diligently as I might, but there is no sense in pretending I’m starting from zero here.
The following is a summary of some of the suggestions I’ve posted before for dealing with the mental “stuff” that makes activism difficult.
Honor Personal and Situational Limits
We’re all limited in one way or another. I wish I wasn’t, or that I was less limited, and I waste a lot of emotional energy trying to tackle more than I can do and then castigating myself for it. Why? It makes much more sense to focus on doing what I can do.
As general advice, if you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.
Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How
I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.
Don’t ask whether a goal is achievable–ask whether it is worth achieving, and then find a way to achieve it. If an approach seems impossible, that’s worth acknowledging, but try a different approach.
Remove the Arbitrariness
As I admitted earlier, I struggle with staying on task if other tasks seem just as worthy. One option is to make the choice seem less arbitrary by creating some accountability. For example, I post to this blog on Tuesdays. I’m the one who set that deadline, and I could have set a different one, but it’s not arbitrary anymore because you know I post on Tuesdays and you’re expecting a post today. So I can stay focused on writing this post without being distracted by thoughts of other things I could be doing.
I’ve heard some people get good results by betting money that they’ll get something done. It can also help to deliberately form good habits, a topic I wrote on some time ago
Don’t Dis Despair
A friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.
I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.
As a related point, it’s OK, even necessary, to feel awful in other ways at times. Weep, worry, get mad…be where you are.
It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
Take Local Action
Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
Demand Political Action
Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
A Plan of Action
So, I know certain things already. It’s not enough. My plan is to research climate grief, executive function, and empathy, both through reading and by discussing these issues with my friends, while also using the tools noted above–and then to report back here.