What does it mean to know something?

As a therapist, I spend much of my time in the space between knowing and not knowing. It’s not that I know something before another, it’s that I know that there is more to know and I hold that space.

Mortality falls into this category. We all know we’re going to die. And yet, by and large, we don’t think about it on a regular basis. We both know it and don’t know it. The knowledge of our mortality seeps in with age-hopefully slowly-as we lose pets, grandparents, parents, and spouses. The reality of our mortality means we are vulnerable. Knowing just how vulnerable we are, can be too much to know.

The climate crisis makes us vulnerable.

Sudden, traumatic, unexpected losses overwhelm our senses. You’ll hear people say things like, “This can’t be!” “No. I don’t believe it!” “This is not the natural order of things.” While of course, the person knows the loss has occurred, their words, if taken at face value, suggest they don’t know. This is our autonomic defense system at work, protecting us from realities too great to know. These words help us deflect the pain so that we can slowly integrate our loss, our vulnerability. Listen the next time you hear a shocking piece of news. Listen to what you or others around you say. You’ll hear it too. You’ll likely deny this new fact with your words while also knowing it is true.

What does this have to do with the climate crisis you ask?

We both know it and we don’t know it. Some people know it more than others. And they are usually angry, afraid and scared. Understandable. There is another group of people who don’t know it, or “deny” it. It’s easy to be upset by this apparent ignorance. And then there are those who come in and out of knowing. This is probably the majority of us, each with our own ever-changing mix of knowing and not knowing. Sometimes our actions reflect this knowledge, and sometimes they don’t. We appear to contradict ourselves.

What is we had compassion for ourselves and for others for our not knowing? What if we understood this as a normal psychological defense to devastating information?*

*Before I go on, I should clarify. Please understand that I am suggesting compassion for individuals, not large companies or governments; not entities that have power over others, but individuals. I am not talking about oil companies that had information about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in the 1970s and chose to hide the data. I am not talking about government leaders who are failing to act. This is abhorrent behavior. To know and to hide the truth. To know and to not act. There is so much blame to go around but at this point, I am not interested in “how we got here” or “why.” That’s a problem for another day.

It is part of the government’s job to protect us. And our government has failed us. This is devastating knowledge for many. So devastating some of us just can’t know it because it calls into question everything about who we think we are as a people. There are groups in this country that know this betrayal all too well-Native Americans, African Americans, Immigrants, Women, Muslims, etc. Shall I go on? No. Hopefully, you get the point.

I believe that anger, fear, and sadness are all reasonable responses to not being protected; and therefore to the climate crisis. I feel these things regularly. And, as a therapist, I also see how denial can also be a reasonable psychological response. I believe that people who deny the climate crisis are trying to keep themselves safe-physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually-safe from this terrible knowledge. Given the current state of the climate crisis, this might sound crazy to you. But again, if you think about how we deal with our mortality, this is the same process, on a grander scale. This has been a form of collective denial to not see, to not know, how we as humans can and are harming the planet, and ourselves.

When someone feels threatened or is scared, showing them anger or disdain does not help them change. Yelling at them makes them hide more, dig in their heels, stand their ground and defend their position or belief. On the other hand, collectively protesting, striking and demanding change from the government or large corporations can be effective. It’s a different dynamic. The protestors have each other. They have the validation and support of the group. They are not alone. As a group they have power. And their courage and strength can motivate others and help others see.

The truth is we are all at fault. We are all guilty. We all use or have used fossil fuels, most people eat red meat, we all have smartphones and computers and wear clothes. And of course, we are all mostly good. We feel remorse. We don’t want to see how we have hurt each other and the planet. But we must. We must integrate both our own bad and good, our own love and hate, or our conscious acts to protect the earth and unconscious acts to protect the status quo. If we want climate deniers to integrate the knowledge of the climate crisis, we too need to acknowledge the inherent conflicts we all are experiencing. We need to break the frame of good and bad and move to a more realistic and integrated view of humanity as the brilliant and flawed beings that we are.

There is so much blame to go around. But we cannot afford to get stuck in this place. We cannot afford to get stuck in rage or despair or denial. We must grieve. The climate crisis is the biggest loss you can possibly conceive-and not yet conceive. Grief is not just one feeling. It is an emotional process that takes time, involves an array of feelings and experiences and ultimately helps bring about a regenerative state of being. People in active grief will say they “feel crazy” because their feelings are always changing. Grief includes shock and denial, anger and bargaining, guilt, sadness, and despair. It also includes hope, curiosity, humor, resilience, acceptance, regeneration, and growth. Grief is not a straight line, but a spiral, moving us in and out of feelings over and over as we resolve our losses and take in our new reality one small piece at a time.

On the other side of grief is the desire to live. The ability-the necessity-to act. Let’s grieve together so we can get on with the work of protecting life on earth.

If any of this sparks your curiosity, please join me for the next community gathering on climate grief scheduled for March 15th. 5-6:30 pm.