Blue ocean events. Wet bulb temperatures. Coral reef extinction. Global dimming. Food shortages. Floods. Fires. Hypercanes. These and other terms comprise the terrifying language of climate change, a source of major grief and anxiety for those of us who are paying attention. We feel powerless to stop the negative feedback loops already set in motion by centuries of shortsightedness, greed, and a rampant obsession with convenience and “progress.” We feel angry toward the generations of people who came before us and did nothing to prevent what now appears to be an imminent catastrophe. And our hearts break for the generations to come whose lives will be little more than a sweaty, scary struggle to survive — if those generations are even given the chance to exist.
So, what are we supposed to do? In many ways, the instinct to do something is what got us into this mess. Our fear of sitting still and doing nothing, of doing “boring” or repetitive things, or even just doing one thing at a time, has spawned some our most debilitating inventions. And the systems in place that maintain the ceaseless production of all that we have come to “need” are so massive and complex that I doubt the average citizen can effect the kind of change that’s required, no matter how much they vote, protest, reduce, reuse, and/or recycle. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do those things. On the contrary, we should all continue to act in ways that uphold our deepest values, because that is how we self-actualize and make the most out of the time we have left.
Facing a problem as overwhelming as the current climate crisis, many of us feel like a deer in headlights. We’re stuck in a freeze response, knowing we cannot flee (where would we go, if not planet Earth?), and not knowing whom to fight. Even if there were a discreet enemy to take outside and show who’s boss, maybe we’re not the fighting types. Some people are inclined toward activism, confident in their ability to wield the weapons of politics and policy. Others are not. And those in the latter category waste a lot of energy on guilt-ridden hand-wringing, thinking they should be able to go against their nature. Meanwhile, they neglect the actions more suited to their temperaments and specific talents, the fulfillment of which could give more meaning to their lives and better equip them to instill meaning in the lives of others.
Saint Francois de Sales, a mystical writer from the 16th and 17th centuries known for his goodness, patience, and mildness, said that our requirement as humans is a “faithful fulfillment of the merest trifle given us to do, rather than the most ardent aspiration to things to which we are not called.” He also said that the “dignity and difficulty” of an action only affect what’s termed its “accidental worth, but all its essential worth comes from love alone.” What does it mean to act with love? This is the question we must ask ourselves, the question we must embody every day. The answer will vary from person to person (and possibly from day to day), but in most cases, love imbues activities with a quality of being freely chosen, as opposed to compulsory or nonconsensual. When at all possible, if you cannot do something with love, don’t do it. As for the “merest trifle given us to do,” therein lies our freedom from the fear-borne shackles of climate change.
“More, more, more” has been our species’ response to the nagging belief that we are not enough — which we usually translate as not having enough and not doing enough. In thinking we should do everything (and all at once, no less!), we accomplish nothing. It may feel like a trifle, in the grand scheme of things, to do the dishes, fold laundry, pick up a piece of trash from the street, write a blog about eco-grief, etc., etc. But if we can approach these things as the tasks we have been given (i.e., as gifts), and do our best to fulfill them faithfully (i.e., with trust in their goodness and importance), then they will assume a sacred quality. With practice, we can approach all of life in this way, and thusly in touch with our most authentic selves, we can effectively pursue our values in accordance with our natural strengths. From that place, we can respond with expertise to the demands of the present moment, which is exactly what the climate crisis asks of us.
There’s only so much you can do. And what you can do will differ from what I can do. Maybe what we end up focusing on has nothing to do with climate change at all, at least on the surface. Regardless of the direction in which we channel our unique efforts, we must detach from the outcome of those efforts. We must do what would feel wrong not to do, with whatever tools we have been given. And all along we must be grateful. Each time I find my mind conjuring apocalyptic scenes in which everything I take for granted is suddenly, violently ripped away, I give thanks for the peace and beauty that still abound. Gratitude is the sweetest antidote to grief.