Images of the Gulf spill weigh on me, as I know they do on many people, no matter how we distract ourselves. What can we do, we ask. Asking such a question in the face of an enormous environmental disaster can bring on mental paralysis, even despair. The difficulty, says local deep ecologist Doug Hitt, isn’t that we feel the despair, but that we have no context for expressing it. “Culturally we process grief in the form of a funeral,” he says. “There are no funerals for brown pelicans and marsh ecosystems. Within the industrial growth paradigm, where humans and nature are seen as separate, such grieving is trivialized.”
I know firsthand that my urge to do something rather than feel stems from this fear of despair. I worry that if I acknowledge my feelings, they will drown me. “The opposite is true, and we know this therapeutically,” Hitt says.
The first thing we need to do, he says, is acknowledge our feelings as evidence of our sense of interconnection with the beautiful and now suffering living system in which we find ourselves. “When you step on a tack and you are so insensate that you don’t lift your foot and say ‘ow,’ it’s a sign something is desperately wrong with the system of your body,” he says.
Hitt has drawn strength from the writing of general systems theorist Joanna Macy, especially her book “Coming Back to Life.” “Before we plunge into anxious activism, we would do well to claim our grief and acknowledge that it is a wholesome and healthy response to the pain we feel as part of this larger body of life. Sensations of grief, despair and emptiness, like a foot recoiling from a sharp object, signal the system’s intelligent response to injury. One part doesn’t suffer without the other part suffering. It’s an ancient metaphor embraced by Christianity, Buddhism and the other wisdom traditions.”
Unless the grief is expressed, it does its work elsewhere in our bodies, resulting in stress-induced illness. If we see our pain as evidence of our interconnection — as a part of a healthy system responding to real injury — then we aren’t intimidated by it.
Rather than prepare to respond to a tragedy, denying our pain deactivates us. One practical way to turn attention toward the feelings and then to articulate them is to find a safe partner or a supportive small group and express what Macy calls open sentences. For example, you might say, “Feelings about this catastrophe that I carry around with me are …” or “Ways I avoid these feelings are …” Hitt points out that being able to express your own feelings and allowing someone else to express his or hers is the most basic of therapeutic interventions.
What can result is community and solidarity instead of isolation. When pain as well as gratitude and celebration are expressed in a community, whatever its size, its members are collectively activated as whole people, fully grieving and fully grateful.