Today we continue a series of posts where CEM Core Group members consider what various “big emotions” mean to them in the context of the Climate and Ecological emergency.
We welcome any responses to these posts, be they published here or elsewhere.
I think I’m always living with this emotion in some form – that’s not to say I’m always consumed by it, but it’s certainly always there in the background. That doesn’t surprise me considering the all the horrors we have created as a species on this planet. I find fear can have both positive and negative consequences – I’m going to recall some of my recent forays with it. I sometimes try to avoid it through distraction, but I know most of them aren’t going away anytime soon because it’s all in my mind and there’s no escape. I sometimes try to contain or manage them when I think they are starting becoming a problem as I know how damaging it can be. For me managing fear is part of keeping healthy – it’s something I know I need to do in order to keep sane, not neglect myself or potentially harm people I love and care about. For me this takes two approaches – preventative things or when it’s there and isn’t going away, using it in a constructive and creative manner.
Last August I became somewhat overwhelmed and consumed by what I think what could be described as fear mainly about my own and the planet’s future existence. This followed the passing of an elder of the family at a time when I also experienced a brutal few weeks at work, where I felt like I was being pulled apart at the seams. I found it increasingly difficult to get much sleep and was getting more and more emotional about the wicked problems that our society and planet are facing. This fear coupled with grief made me eventually take some time off work as I was getting increasingly irate with the absurdity of the work being demanded of me from bosses and clients. I was privileged enough to have private healthcare via my job and managed to quickly get professional help as the sleeping thing was wearing me and loved ones down. After talking some of my fears and emotions through with a therapist it was described to me as an extended ‘flight or fight’ response.
However, it wasn’t all bad. That time has given me much better perspective of life – I learnt that I should be taking much better care of myself and not doing things to hurt those around me. This gave me some confidence in allowing myself to feel that I don’t need to be dictated to and to make some bolder decisions about how I want to live my life with more integrity, less impact and to try to change my little bit of the world. So I’ve quit that job, become more politically aware of what is going on locally (including joining the Labour & Cooperative parties), decided to get more involved in local activism and adopted a retired racing greyhound called Rudy. I also found myself trying to work through that fear with a creative energy and a lucidity of thought that I didn’t really know existed within myself until I found it really helped to get it out of my system and to embrace the ideas coming out. So I’m now more ready to embrace the fear and any natural response to it with a creativity and love whenever it comes again. The story can change, no future is certain, what is there to fear?
Fear is evolution’s way of trying to stop us becoming lunch for something bigger, stronger and faster than us. It’s part of what kept us alive in earlier, simpler times.
Now, at least in the rich global North, many people have little to be fearful of – or at least, that’s what they tell themselves. And in many ways, it’s true – many people have (more than) enough to eat, their children rarely succumb to the killers of only a generation or two ago.
And yet…if we are paying attention, we know things are unravelling around us. We are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a rate that likely has no precedent at any time in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. We cut down a nation’s worth of forest every year. Huge ships scour the oceans for protein, and on land the poisons we use to protect our food from “pests” are killing far more than their manufacturers ever dreamed.
Are you afraid yet?
I wonder if many of us have become too used to a life without fear. Lacking the practice to deal with it, fear stops us facing up to the dire state of things – and hence we don’t act, because to acknowledge this reality is too painful; and unlike the razor-toothed predator that might have terrorised our distant ancestors, there is no escape from our collective fate, whatever it may be.
Maybe some reading those words “…whatever it may be” are right now shouting at their screens “we’re fucked, there’s nothing we can do anymore”. I believe that fear has trapped them, too – a fear of a loss of certainty about the future, of living with a state of intense possibility, even in the face of our awful predicament. What does it tell us about ourselves, that so many would choose to believe in certain doom, rather than imperfect and damaged life?
Perhaps the Bene Gesserit were right. Fear is the mind killer – something that we must (again, for some) learn to live with both as individuals and as a society, if we are to respond meaningfully to the interlocking state of crisis that will increasingly characterise the 21st century.
Fear sometimes kicks in belatedly for me. But when it hits, it can serve as a course correction.
To think about fear for this piece, I tried to pinpoint moments in my life when I would confidently label the primary emotion I experienced as fear. Emotions usually come all tangled up. Attempting to distil one is a necessary simplification. There have been several (thankfully few) instances in which I have faced grave physical danger. I felt fear. What did that consist of? The sensation definitely had a physiological element. A tightening of the back of the throat. A number of the symptoms that would appear in any medical handbook. And a strange sense of everything else receding into the background as my next immediate action became very clear.
Does this bear any resemblance to my emotions about the climate crisis? (Appreciating all the differences between the situations; the less immediate, and more certain, planetary threat). For a long time, probably not. Growing up, a more common emotion might have been ‘worry’. That maybe befits the times and the mainstream terminology of the 1990s: greenhouse effects, ozone layers, global warming but not heating, change never crisis. All put through a concerning, but not frightening, Blue Peter filter. Acid rain did sound scary, but fortunately we soon stopped that.
Later, learning more and pushing back harder against the still dominant optimism, the worry grew. It began to gnaw. Some people writing in this area offer conversion narratives, or ‘Rachel Carson moments’. I can’t point to one single announcement when I felt something more akin to fear. And my baseline knowledge and worry meant that there would be no lightbulb or ‘flick of a switch’.. But I do know that there were a series of readings, images and conversations – many of them ‘truth-telling’ as much as fact-sharing – that brought about a more embodied, viscerally uncomfortable sensation similar to the clearer cut fear-stances that I set out above. And like those experiences I felt certain that I should respond, even if I could not guarantee that would help.
That’s not how I feel all the time. I’m not sure fear can or should be a sustained emotion. The rest of the time, maybe what lingers is a version of the widespread ‘anxiety’ that many others have spoken of or reflected on well. But I need fear’s horrible rushes occasionally. They galvanise me to do more.
There’s a movie – After Earth- by all accounts terrible, starring Will Smith and his son. The tagline is ‘danger is real, fear is a choice.’ Sure, it’s cereal box philosophy, but nonetheless, there is something in it. On one level we (middle-class people) in Manchester have – historically speaking – almost nothing to be fearful of. The usual things that would kill you – epidemic diseases, a simple infection, childbirth, a actively malicious rather than merely cosmically incompetent state, a violent person nearby, wildlife with fangs, famine – simply aren’t factors. Barring accidents, and bad luck, you could reasonably expect to live out at least three score and ten. And yet here we all are drenched in fear, or blotting it out with the usual God/Mammon stuff.
The fears come from the Future (it is murder, as Mr Cohen sang) and perhaps the realisation of our individual insignificance and the coldness and vastness of the Universe. The struggle – surely too much for any human – is to acknowledge all this and still function, find joy (but no hope, obvs) and to construct meaning (you don’t find it, because it doesn’t exist- you have to construct it).
The trouble is, of course, that not only do our fears of an environmental collapse become more real every day (and our own complicity, albeit relatively small) become harder to blot out, but that there’s nowt that we can do to either slow the juggernaut or brace for impact. So we find forms of busy-work (petitions, consultations, and, yes, ‘citizenship’) to distract ourselves, soothe ourselves. And fear- converted to anger, which this essay keeps struggling not to turn to – has the unfortunate capacity to strip us of the things we cherish – our capacity for love, for compassion, for generosity, for finding not just solace but actual pleasure – in small and large gestures. Oh, and of our intelligence – fear uncontained, unprocessed, can lead to a “Helmet fire” at either/both the individual and collective levels. Stupid decisions get us killed.
“Cheer up,” the old line goes, “it may never happen.” But it almost certainly will, and soon. Learning (from others?) to function, and helping ourselves (and others) to function – regardless of the inevitability of individual and societal Armageddon is an element we probably all need at ninja level. Mostly I just pretend, mostly I just ignore. Fear, as another adage goes, eats the soul.
In some ways I feel adequately equipped to offer my own thoughts and experiences on ‘fear’, but also deeply unqualified at the same time. I’ve dealt with anxiety and panic for as long as I can remember, and in that personal regard fear is something I’m more than accustomed to. On the other hand, I’m also a white person living in a rich country, and evidently the worries I have are comparatively minute to those of many others throughout the world, particularly those in the Global South. When you examine your own situation and position in the world, fear starts to seem ever more relative, and I try my hardest to be aware of this.
Of these (relative) fears that I have, I can quite easily divide them into two categories: founded and unfounded. The unfounded fears are those I’ve come to associate with the generalised anxiety I co-exist with- this isn’t to say that they aren’t legitimate, as I can attest that they affect my life on a day-to-day basis, but these are the fears of certain social interaction, of my academic worth, of my relationships, among others. They are fears that may well be afflicting, but in the times where they’ve been even momentarily surmounted, I’m able to comprehend this fear in a wider context, and realise that the anxiety I’ve dealt with is so often unfounded. To begin a really tiresome and overused metaphor, this worry is akin to the realisation once you’ve stopped flailing that you were in fact drowning in a paddling pool. It’s the anxieties that are founded in objective truth that are far harder to grapple with. These are the fears that truly threaten to engulf you.
If you’re reading this, then presumably and hopefully you’re of the same opinion as me that climate breakdown is, unfortunately, a matter of objective truth. The notion that not just you, but everyone you care about and the entire planet being royally fucked is a truly suffocating realisation, and the raw unadulterated fear that comes with it is something I know I find hard to bear for sustained periods of time. This is the kind of fear that sometimes hits you like a wave, but at other times leaves you treading water, always just out of reach of the shore. It’s an immersing, exhausting process.
It should go without saying (and yet it doesn’t) that this underlying fear is still very much relative. I know that the constancy to my personal anxiety is in fear of things to come, rather than for my immediate state of survival- it’s an inherent privilege not to be fearing for your individual life on a daily basis. For climate activism in the Global North, our rational fears of climate breakdown should be viewed in the context of our relative privilege, and they mean that we’re afraid of losing the things that we hold dear- and having so many things left to lose makes us so comparatively lucky.
Our views are not individually or collectively our “last word” – our thoughts on these emotions are a momentary snapshot in time and always open to revision, reflection.
Some of the reading here may be of help in dealing with “big feelings”.
If you’re really struggling, and we’ve opened a can of apocalyptic worms, please get help – preferably from a professional. There’s zero shame in that at all. We’re living in a very challenging time.