February 18, 2013

When the Fight for the Environment Feels Hopeless. ~ Jared Michaels

Medicine for Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Environmentalist’s Malady.

In the middle of almost every open-hearted conversation I’ve had about climate change, I hit a wall.

After each person asks, “What can I do?” and lists responses given by environmental leaders, we usually feel defeated. We doubt their strategies will work.

We must open a dialogue about the psychological impact of running into this wall time after time, we must also address steps needed to dismantle this wall. It’s about normalizing how incredibly hard it is when we become aware of what we’re doing to ourselves on this planet, and it’s about what we can do that will actually help.

Here is my story. I tell you to illustrate the difficulty of engaging in this work and to introduce the best medicine I’ve found for this difficulty.

For years, as I watched us transforming Earth into a radically different and inhospitable place, I struggled with a range of painful emotions. As I witnessed us speeding our way into the Sixth Great Extinction (and the first due to a single species), I felt overwhelmed with guilt and I was ashamed for all of humanity. As I learned about us burning our way past the tipping point of runaway global warming, I considered the impact we were having on future generations of all species, and I felt despair.

I tried to be a hero many times and wake us up.

I am a Zen priest, and I co-led what was probably the first ever traditional Zen training period on global warming and Buddhism. I am also a psychotherapist-in-training. I formed support groups for environmental activists. I read books, studied what the leaders of the movement had to say, wrote articles, taught classes and posted hundreds of things on Facebook.

I did every single thing I could think of doing. I tried to evaluate whether or not my contributions were successful. It seemed to me that, for the most part, they weren’t.

The world was just too big and I was too small.

It feels vulnerable to describe my reaction to this sense of constant failure, but I’ll try. Protecting all the living creatures on this planet meant so much to me that our continuously killing them and setting the stage for their widespread demise wounded me on a deep level. Helpless, I regularly went into a dark place.

Eventually, I would struggle to get back into to a happier state. Then I would repeat the cycle again, and again.

“Pre-traumatic stress disorder” is an unofficial diagnosis that some people are beginning to use to describe this new phenomenon. In Carolyn Raffensperger’s article, “A Prescription for Injuries of the Soul: Healing the Earth Healing Us,” she gets to the heart of the matter. She says, “Essentially, pre-traumatic stress disorder, the environmentalist’s malady, is a result of our inability to prevent harm.”

While taking a brief, much needed vacation from my environmental work, I stumbled upon a person whom I now greatly admire, Charles Eisenstein. I watched a few YouTube videos of him speaking and read one of his books, Ascent of Humanity. His work is essentially about our collective evolution. He believes that we are in a time of profound transition. We are in the midst of a rite of passage from a stage of adolescence to adulthood.

Although this point is not original, it was refreshing to hear. He also said something quite new for me, and while he admits that it’s not politically correct, I agree with him that the idea still has merit. He said that all the pain and death of this era, while tragic, is Gaia’s or perhaps even the whole universe’s way of helping us evolve together.

Human beings are not evil or bad. In fact, we have an important role to play, and perhaps all this suffering is happening so that we will hurt enough to grow into it. The saying “no pain, no gain” comes to mind.

While absorbing these messages, something weird and wonderful started happening to me. I began feeling excited and powerful. I found myself re-channeling a lot of my stress into helping, truly helping, which was such a relief.

Again, Carolyn Raffensperger defines trauma as our inability to prevent harm. That night on vacation, I started to heal because I knew that I was preventing harm. I’d like to explain my breakthrough.

Having reflected on this experience for a while, I now think that there are two parts to this medicine that I am offering to you. One is having an accurate perspective and the other is having agency, and the first part is the foundation for the second part.

For hundreds of years, and perhaps since the dawn of humanity, most people have lived with the perspective that everything in the universe is separate from everything else.

There are profound consequences to this kind of thinking. Our whole society is centered on this assumption. Our culture is based on individualism. Everything else in the world is to be dominated, defended against, or used to bolster the individual.

If we face this critical moment in time from a standpoint of separation, we will only feed the same kind of thinking that got us here. We will not aid our collective evolution if we think of ourselves as, for example, tiny David battling against the system that is Goliath. In my opinion, a more mature perspective—which is very much in line with Charles Eisenstein and the teachings of Buddhism—is that we are interconnected.

If we engage with life knowing that we are the dynamic, ever-changing universe itself, we will find tremendous agency.

Once we understand that we have been part of a massive hallucination based on the illusion of separateness, we see that waking up personally and collectively would be immensely beneficial. We spontaneously begin to stop being afraid, to start waking up, to stay awake, and to help others wake up.

As we open our minds and hearts in this way, we can tell that we are becoming catalysts for what the venerable environmentalist Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning” and what Charles Eisenstein calls the “Age of Reunion.” In short, we become aware that we’re truly helping.

This is not to say that waking up to our interconnectedness is all we must do right now. We must also transform our political, social, and economic systems with great creativity. Waking up to our interconnectedness and facilitating the Great Turning is one thing that we can do that works. That alone is a real antidote to the trauma of believing that we can’t prevent harm.


Jared Michaels has a deep desire to protect all life on Earth, especially in these perilous times. He is a psychotherapist-in-training and a Zen priest with many years of monastic training. He founded a spiritual community for environmental activists called Earth Sangha. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and newborn daughter.


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Assist: Sara Crolick
Ed: Brianna Bemel

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