Blog article

Wellbeing of misfortune

Today we are closer to the catastrophe than the alarm itself, which means that it is high time for us to compose a well-being of misfortune, even if it had the appearance of the arrogance of a miracle.'
Rene Char (cited in Bataille)

The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) has developed an intimate interweaving of the three strands of the political, the psychology of unconscious process and the science of climate change to understand our culture’s responsibility for and capacity to respond to planetary catastrophe. In this article I want to re-imagine what might prevent us sinking into a helpless despair as our world falls apart. And the world as we have known it is rapidly changing. As the French poet Rene Char suggests, actual events may be overtaking the scientific warnings. If the probable increase in temperature becomes 4C degrees rather than 2C, our civilisation is likely to collapse.

Rather than putting our efforts solely into attempting to avoid this catastrophe, I want to explore what happens psychologically if we were also to accept it. My conjecture is that our acceptance of the feelings accompanying terrifying fantasies about ecological disaster can transform our experience of the actual event.

Climate Psychology takes account of an intimate relation between our psyche and the world in its exploration of the meaning we give to climate events. As deep ecologist Wendell Berry has said, “The world that environs us, that is around us, is also within us. We are made of it; we eat, drink, and breathe it; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”. (1993: 34) Despite the illusion of separating from outer nature and living largely within our domesticated socially constructed world, climate events such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and earthquakes are threatening in symbolic as well as literal ways. It can feel as if we are under attack from nature.

I suggest that our present crisis is as much a problem of the degradation of our feeling and thinking as it is about literal environmental degradation. As psychotherapist Harold Searles (1972) says, “This outer reality is psychologically as much a part of us as its poisonous waste products are a part of our physical selves”. To maintain our safe domestication, we have split off much of what feels dangerous onto our environment while at the same time suffering from contamination of our air, water and food from industry. What if we could reverse this projection and learn to take responsibility for our inner nature? This will not make the external difficulties disappear but we may be able to better engage them.

One of the pressures in this complex idea of climate change is the cultural hopes and aspirations for a future that maintains the comforts of a Western way of life. These are often egged on by such erroneous political messages as that of George W. Bush (2002), “We need an energy bill that encourages consumption.” Despite these alluring attempts to maintain the status quo, the external realty is impinging. Whether it is economic stability, migration control, cultural identity, religious beliefs, food and energy security, water abundance or travel availability to name just a few, none is certain. Our myth of progress is unravelling. This social and cultural turbulence reflects what scientists are telling us about the climate. We are beyond the tipping point (Wasdell 2014) where positive feedback effects lead to runaway climate change of disastrous proportions resulting in a different planet.

Even with this scary scenario, Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes (2015) points out in What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, there are many inspiring and heartening examples of meaningful actions to improve our quality of life, such as clean air, renewable energy and new approaches to animal welfare that are welcome news to most people. Re-wilding is another positive venture if more controversial with local people. Focusing on these positive messages rather than on very threatening scientific stories, can lead to communication that is likely to be taken on board by those who might otherwise shut down and defend against the catastrophic news.

While focusing on positive examples is an excellent strategy and fits well with what George Marshall (2104) writes about narratives and social norms in Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, it does not grasp the nettle of the human destructiveness that underlies the race towards ecocide. It is clearly more helpful to communicate stories of green innovation than to rant about climate change and ecological disaster but there is a danger in being silent about our destructive propensities. Silence invokes that sense of taboo.

What we are afraid to speak of falls into the shadow and becomes unspeakable and unbearable.
As Paul Hoggett (2011) writes in Climate change and the apocalyptic imagination,
"The two world wars, the Holocaust and the Cold War, with its attendant possibility of nuclear warfare, can be thought of in this light – each left an imprint on the collective psyche that could not be assimilated in some way. The growing recognition of the reality of anthropogenic climate change faces us with the same collective psychic predicament – how can we think in a realistic way about something whose implications are unthinkable? Like nuclear war, climate change threatens the imagination with excess."

Understanding the psychodynamics of defence against this felt threat has been spelt out in the anthology Engaging with Climate Change, edited by Sally Weintrobe (2013). It helps understand how unconscious processes such as denial prevent us thinking about climate change because the threat is too great – one analysis suggests that we may experience extreme climate events as punishment for our ruthless exploitation.

In his chapter, Clive Hamilton compares our present situation to that described by Camus in The Plague in which the citizens of Oran deny the increasing signs of the plague, because they ‘did not believe in pestilence’. Their initial avoidance of facing the truth gives way to terror as the reality of death becomes pervasive. Paul Hoggett commenting separately on Camus’s The Plague writes,

If we move from the literal to the metaphorical meaning of the story then we can see how The Plague is an exploration of the infection of the social body……… So this is the plague that Camus speaks of. This pestilence of paranoia, hatred, denigration, despair, righteousness and moral outrage, othering, scapegoating, silence and turning a blind eye. As he says, ‘everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no-one in this world, no-one, is immune’.

It is this infection of the social body that makes it so difficult to speak out because the social norms create a taboo. George Marshall (2104) makes a comparable point in clarifying how social norms create a conformity about what to do or not do – the so called ‘bystander effect.

To face the difficult truth, to not be complicit in this infection, takes determination and moral courage. I can sometimes see these challenges being played out in a client’s dilemma. They want to take a challenging line of action – leave a marriage or a job that is false or dis- honouring - but cannot actually bring themselves to do it. On the surface it seems they are being faint-hearted or being over concerned with the opinion of others - yet when we explore deeper, we find that there is often an unconscious pay-off to their staying where they are. They are used to the comfort; they do not want the responsibility of living alone; they secretly like being dominated.

The denial of climate change may hide a collective fantasy of ecocide as an escape from facing into the harsh reality of our destructiveness. The collective outrage following the killing of Cecil, the handsome lion in Zimbabwe, holds both a conscious disgust but also a guilty displacement of the pleasure of killing. While we may brand wolves ‘cruel’ in how they take their prey, the human capacity for ruthlessly exploiting other species, killing for sport and wantonly destroying of our holding environment is in a league of its own.

In his last book, A Terrible Love of War, James Hillman pointed out that war is not an aberration but a constituent of human life. It contrasts with what many feel as the banality of everyday peace. Soldiers describe their love of war through the thrill, the glory, and the 'erotics’ that surpass other experiences in intensity and triumphal pleasure.

Apocalyptic fantasies of war have permeated the imagination of our culture through films, video games and real time news reports. In the absence of risk such as war in our increasingly manic Western culture, many young people operate in a hyper-aroused or dissociated state. Self-harm is common as a means of managing unbearable feelings. Asserting a right to cut one’s own body can be read as a powerful rejection of cultural norms that disempower and a perverse ritual of sacrificial initiation. (Gardner 2014)

Michael Ortiz Hill also perceives a collective rite of passage in his fascinating book, Dreaming the End of the World. Through studying hundreds of apocalyptic dreams, he sees the necessity of entering deeply into archetypal fears as a means of transforming a literal apocalypse into a potential initiation. Through coming to know these fears, they no longer bind us to acting out our unconscious reactions and an initiatory connection can ensue. In the face of the numinous, Hill writes (2005 XIX), our soul is stripped bare. “It suffers the raw truth of the moment, its conundrums and heartbreak, and witnesses the death and rebirth of the self/planet.” Strangely facing into the dream images of annihilation, of environmental disaster and ecological collapse can be liberating. He quotes from a woman who is an anti-nuclear activist:

"It was weird, but in the dream the feeling was – well, this is it. It was not like we were freaking out. It was very ‘Zen’. This is it. I feel like in my dreams, I’ve progressed from panic and denial to accepting that the Bomb is ‘in me’. Out of that, I feel empowered to meet it."

What would an acceptance of ecological disaster look like? It would be a release from trying to escape the inevitable collapse of western industrial culture or from heroically trying to fix it. Acceptance is not a passive resignation to fate nor is it intellectual recognition. Acceptance is the engagement with the difficult feelings we have previously been unable to bear. We become fully present with events just as they are so that we no longer wish that they were different. Facing into and accepting such a challenging reality as ecocide with integrity may bring profound transformation.

Camus’s narrator, Dr Rieux demonstrates such active acceptance in sticking to his commitment as a doctor despite the inevitability of his own death from the plague. Clive Hamilton draws on Nietzsche’s distinction of different forms of pessimism: pessimism of strength and pessimism of weakness. He characterises the strength of Dr Rieux as the acceptance of not being able to stop the looming catastrophe and yet not giving into this.

This dichotomy between strength and weakness may be too polarised; splitting the heroic character that endures suffering from the martyr who seems like a victim. If, as in a therapeutic situation, we substitute ‘vulnerability’ for ‘weakness’, we shift from a negative sense of surrender, as in being overcome, to the power that comes through letting go. This letting go is not of the past but a letting go to an unknown future. Typical clinical examples would be from those who have suffered a tragic event, such as a car crash, loss of a loved one or serious illness and have found through therapy that this creates an unexpected opportunity. The apparent misfortune opens a different door. This is the initiatory threshold that leads to a different life despite the defences against pain and re-traumatisation. As a species, we humans seem to be hesitant to open this door as if a cultural complex is attempting to defend an old collective trauma.

Through the Door
If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to reopen, one would have tell the story of one’s entire life. (Bachelard 1964)

Interestingly, climate science has adopted the term ‘vulnerability’ to mean:
the extent to which a natural or social system is susceptible to sustaining damage from climate change, and is a function of the magnitude of climate change, the sensitivity of the system to changes in climate and the ability to adapt the system to changes in climate. Hence, a highly vulnerable system is one that is highly sensitive to modest changes in climate and one for which the ability to adapt is severely constrained. (IPCC 2000)

So after millennia where we have treated the Earth as invulnerable, exploiting her resources and using her as a dumping ground for our waste, the scale of our misuse has reached that unexpected tipping point where we finally realise she is vulnerable. Getting it - that our overconsumption is injuring the ‘inexhaustible’ planet we grew up with is difficult. Although common with many indigenous peoples, recognising that we can and do injure the earth is a significant shift in awareness.

This slow recognition of an apparent ‘invulnerable’ other’s actual vulnerability has parallels in psychotherapy. I can painfully remember enduring weekly attacks from a client who ridiculed and denigrated my attempts to say anything. I knew I had not only to survive her bile but also to continue to offer interventions even though I knew they would be scorned. Eventually she asked me in a concerned voice, “How are these sessions for you, Chris?” I knew immediately it was a significant shift that opened the way to our reflecting together on this terrible passage in our journey together.

The importance of bearing such attacks is highlighted in Winnicott’s much quoted sentence, “Hullo object. I destroyed you. I love you. You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you”(2005: 120). It also reminds me of the shock and subsequent relief when a participant in an ecopsychology training declared with passion, ‘I hate Nature’. In that setting, it took courage to speak such an unspeakable utterance and it relinquished any illusions that we were simply lovers of nature. Recognising our ambivalence towards the Earth – both our love, our adoration and our envious hateful feelings that are so often in the shadow – is an important if salutary acknowledgement.

Coming to terms with our destructive actions and Earth’s vulnerability can leads to grief and remorse. We witness this regularly in the out-pouring of remorse from participants in ecopsychology courses. It is also witnessed by Antonio Machado is this poem:

The wind, one brilliant day,
called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
"In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I'd like all the odor of your roses."
"I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead."
"Well then, I'll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain."
The wind left. ……And I wept. And I said to myself
"What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?"

Melanie Klein pointed to how children may symbolically attempt to make reparation to the mother after a hate-filled action. We could characterise this as the positive face of guilt that leads to remorse and the desire to repair rather than guilt as an experience of failed responsibility for being an agent of extinction. While we will not be able to repair the damage done to the body of Earth through our ruthless technological exploitation, we can act to mitigate its effect. This need for reparation links with social and environmental justice where exploiters can be brought to trial.

The trouble is that, as Camus said, “No one is immune.” Large scale reparations for ecocide will need the framework of the law but we can make small acts of atonement, facing into difficult feelings, quieting our own hearts and act as an antidote to despair. Such conscious soothing of our troubled feelings rather than indulging in the escapist comforts on offer from our dissociated society may allow us to engage living (and loving) in a world quite different than the secure one with which we are familiar. We might even forsake our role as spectators, as tourists on the outside of this planet and become inhabitants of earth! Then this would indeed be a ‘well-being of misfortune’.

Bachelard, G., 1964. The Poetics of Space. NY: Beacon Press.
Bataille G, (1994) The Absence of Myth. Verso, London
Bernstein J. (2005) Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma. London: Routledge.
Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gardner, Fiona.( 2013) Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach. Routledge
Hill, Michael Ortiz (2005) Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage. Spring Publications
Hillman, James (2004) A Terrible Love of War. Penguin Books
Hoggett, Paul (2014) The Plague.
Hoggett, Paul (2011) Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2011) 16, 261–275.
Klein, Melanie (1998) Love, Guilt And Reparation. Vintage Classics, New York.
Machado, Antonio (1983) The wind, one brilliant day. Translated Robert Bly
Marshall, George (2104) Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury, New York
Olmos, Santiago (2001) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report 2000 quoted in ‘Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change: Concepts, Issues, Assessment Methods’
Sealers, Harold. Unconscious Processes in the Environmental Crisis. Psychoanalytic Review, Vol 59(3), 1972, 361-374.
Stoknes, Per Espen (2015)What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. Chelsea Green Pub
Wasdell, David (2104) Beyond the Tipping Point: Positive Feedback & the Acceleration of Climate Change.
Weintrobe, Sally Ed (2103) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. Routledge
Winnicott, D. ”(2005) Playing & Reality. Routledge Classics

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