Maybe you couldn’t come to the Creative Medicine Lecture I gave on October 14th. I thought you might like to see the basic words of it. Throughout the week I’ll post the collaborative climate anxieties and alternate histories that people wrote after the talk. Thanks to Jay Baruch, Kit Salisbury, the Cogut Center for the Humanities and everyone who asked such good questions.
In the fall of 2013, I read an article predicting the near-future extinction of coral reefs, and by the winter of 2013, I started feeling very bad all the time. I had no language for how bad I was feeling and why. When people asked me what I was crying about, I said, “I’m crying about climate change and ecosystem destruction,” and they were nice about it but they looked at me funny. One person said it wasn’t normal to feel as bad as I did about it, and that made me wonder if other people were feeling the same way, or if they were hiding it, or what was the thing that felt like this to them. I tried to think how I could find this out, and I thought of Lucy’s booth in Peanuts—I’m married with a cartoonist—and that’s how Climate Anxiety Counseling was born.
I now know that a lot of people are anxious about climate change, both from people who talked to me at the booth and from articles that people have written since then. Psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren described it as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” with anger and panic and obsessive, intrusive thoughts. Climate scientists are expressing their anxiety at a website called Is This How You Feel?, and in interviews with Rolling Stone and Slate. Adults feel it, kids feel it. Organizations have sprung up to address it–the Rhode Island Dept of Health hosted a talk with someone from the Resource Innovation Group’s Transformational Resilience Program who spoke about the stresses of climate change, its effects, and the knowledge of it. There’s the deep terror that goes beyond fearing your own death, fearing the world will not go on without you. There’s the human-apocalyptic scenarios–food shortages, infectious water, desperate people turning violent. There’s the feared discomfort of hot summers, the inability to sleep. There are questions that feel aesthetic but that I think are actually our way of acknowledging our interdependence with the species and systems of our world–will we still have the crisp fall weather that I love, in which I can feel the world I live in saying certain things to me? Will this bird, which I’ve never seen in mutual personal presence, but which I find so beautiful, survive? And with all that there’s the helplessness, the sense that there’s nothing I, or I, or I can do to slow this down, to stop it, to reverse it–that it’s out of our hands.
People brought all of these up to me at the booth. They also, as I pretty much expected, brought up a lot of other sources of worry and anger and fear that might have the same roots as climate change but didn’t have to do with it specifically. Many of them already have no safe place to stay, already don’t know where their next meal is coming from, are already angry and potentially violent or the targets of violence. Many of them, many of us, live within a fearful state of mind and being, one that shrinks and hardens our personal borders–there are so many things to which we’re vulnerable no matter how hard we resist, and so many barriers that are raised against so many of us, that it’s tempting to raise barriers wherever we can.
From the very beginning I knew that I wanted it to be easy for people to talk to me, and that I wasn’t going to try to control too much what they said—I wanted them to be able to talk about whatever was pressing on their minds the most. I wanted to create a shared language for talking about climate change, and I also wanted to figure out what might prevent people from worrying about it and, thus, acting to try to minimize it—not that I really had any idea how they would do that. What might be paralyzing them, or causing them to feel stuck, as I did.
People told me all kinds of things, both climate-related and not, and if you want to know more about what they were you can definitely look at the project website where I keep a record of all the booth sessions, but what I want to focus on for the moment is the fact that I was there at all, and that they told me things at all. There were two things that happened with the booth—interactions with people I know, who were mainly there because it was me, and interactions with people I didn’t know, which mainly happened because they were intrigued or appealed to. Both of them resulted in me listening to and asking questions about things that I doubt they would have shared with me in any other context.
I made the booth small so I could move it without a car and so it would be nonthreatening, and I made it at all because I thought it would provide a framework, a kind of mini-room, for our conversation. Something that protected me, that armored me, but not completely; something that revealed me, that made me available, but not completely. Sort of like a doctor’s office, except that you don’t have to wrangle insurance or get yourself to an appointment or prove you need help. All you have to do is encounter me, by accident, in the space you inhabit, and decide to talk with me. If you don’t need to talk to me, fine—I won’t bother you. If you do need to talk to me, here I am, sitting behind a plywood-and-cardboard construction. And while you are talking with me, you are my focus–my attention is yours, and your distress is close to mine.
So that’s one thing the booth made me think about that I didn’t expect, which is how we can take care of each other differently by turning some of the dials of expertise, intimacy, effort and protection to different levels. My expertise is really low, but the sunk costs on both sides for talking to me are also really low. Talking with me at the booth is not a big investment of anyone’s time or energy or money. The booth’ s drop-in structure means that some of the things that are exhausting or demoralizing about feeling like you have to “keep up with” your own care are absent. It’s clear, because of what it’s about, that it doesn’t “all depend on you”—it can’t. If anything is happening, if anything is working, it’s happening while we’re talking at the booth together, in the moment of the interaction.
But what is it that’s happening and how do we know? I know that for me, becoming the person I am at the booth is good for my mind and body. That person’s fuse is longer; she asks more questions; she listens better. She’s more alert to interaction. Who does the person talking to me become, while they’re talking to me? Do they know that person, like that person? Do they feel eased? Our interactions are fleeting. It’s an upside—they’re low pressure. It’s a downside: I don’t know if they matter outside of the moment in which they take place. I don’t know if they allow anyone else to feel better, be kinder, be braver—these are the things want, the kinds of things I’d like to see happen, to enable if I can.
I do know that there may be people here in the audience who when they hear “easier access” or “fewer boundaries” or “availability” freeze up—maybe you can’t imagine giving more than you already give, have already carefully calibrated what you CAN give, or have had bad experiences with being “available” and “accessible”?
So much of the way we talk about care is the way we talk about food and land and water and space and time: a language of scarcity, of being grabbed at, protecting ourselves from a thousand hands. In some ways this is true and in some ways it feels true. Another way to say this is that there are more needs than any one of us can meet, and that each person who talks to us about one of their needs is bringing us all of their needs–a tremendous weight balanced on a tiny point of contact. And I think this is especially true when the pain is really bad, and it’s especially true when it’s been really hard to get to the person who you think can help you, and it’s especially true when that is or seems like your only chance for that kind of help, and it’s especially true when you think of yourself as alone, beleaguered, beset.
In my little cardboard ramshackle booth, I don’t look like I have a lot of power over other people—I don’t look official—and I think for some people that might be what frees them to stop, and to speak. On my side of the booth, it seems like the fleetingness and strangeness of the interaction also protect me–it shelters different parts of me than, for example, a receptionist might, or an obligation to serve a certain number of people each day. It allows me and the person speaking with me to share a different kind of moment, maybe more direct, less threatening–I have more power than some of them, but I have no power over them in that moment, nor am I responsible for them in the way I imagine I would feel if I had an ongoing, official relationship with them. The structure of the booth–and also my own great social good luck, the fact that I get to go home and eat something and that my home is relatively safe and filled with love–helps me walk between peace and intimacy, detachment and involvement.
So is all of this fake, then, just fake and feel-good? Calling something art sometimes makes people feel relieved, like, “Oh, it’s just a movie”–that feeling. The “gallery wall” feeling. Am I signaling to people that talking with me is enough, putting a stupid band-aid on energy that we could use for action and change? Talking with me about your addiction doesn’t help to ease the pressures and pains in your life that make that addiction appealing. Talking with me about your fears for warming seas, ecosystems gutted and homes washed away isn’t going to dismantle the economic and social practices that contribute to global warming, toxins entering the water supply, deforestation.
Saying that you miss and long for your mother doesn’t bring her back, but it acknowledges that the burden of her loss was never wholly yours to carry. Acknowledging those things together, even just saying them out loud, can–it does for me, it’s one reason why I keep doing the booth. I’m not saying it definitely works this way for everybody, but it does feel right to me to talk about our losses and our fears, even though I also totally hate it and resent it and wish it would go away–I do this because I know it can’t go away. Roy Scranton, who wrote Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, speaks of setting aside time and space in his day to fully, darkly imagine the worst, and the way this frees him to be more present, active and powerful in the rest of each day.
Just as we use art to matter and not matter, we use it to deal with what we can’t deal with. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that “fiction says in words what cannot be said in words.” And it can also help model and imagine what we could do that we’re not doing right now. If moments like the ones I sometimes have with people at the booth were more widespread, more frequent, more possible, would we see a change? What if such moments, such structures, were a recognized part of a complex network of ways of dealing with your mind in the world that might also contain—depending on your life, your needs—family, doctors, religion or meditation, medication, education/learning, changes in other aspects of the world itself?
You might still be having a hard time, because some things are terrible, but maybe there would be room for you. Maybe some days the point-of-service counseling would be enough, maybe there’d be walk-in services in several places, maybe a guaranteed basic income or a single-payer health care system would make it easier to see someone with deep training. The booth is not set up for deep healing–if anything, it offers microhealings, sort of the opposite of microaggressions, things that are small on their own but that I hope have the potential to add up. Maybe because they are small there can be a lot of them. Maybe if they could be combined with access to deeper, more painful or joyful practices, they would free a person to engage in that deeper kind of healing–including for a person who already monitors and facilitates deeper healing for others. What kinds of structures, what kinds of houses, can we build for these various interactions? What kind of edifice, what kind of pattern, what kind of time?
These “maybes”, these imaginings are part of how I extend the booth: I write alternate histories, imagining near futures where the sources of people’s anxieties are undone, removed, changed; stories that show us shifting our social priorities, stretching out our hands to benefit different people and structures than the ones we benefit by default right now. If we can imagine it, maybe we can build it. A good thing to remember here is that how we feel is inside us, but how we act is outside of us. Responding to the feelings that climate change and other forms of distress instill in us is good, but responding directly to the distress is good too, if we can. The booth feels like action to me, but insufficient action, but maybe a way to model habits and interactions that can make our present more livable, more open, whatever it does for our future.
These ideas and practices are weak, partial, meant to be critiqued and picked up and adapted and adjusted and reimagined by other people. Nothing we do alone matters, but we don’t do anything alone. And we have the luxury of being in this room together, of shared space and time. So before we do questions, I want to take a moment to respond to each other’s climate anxieties. I’ve left a piece of paper and for each of you, and I want you to write your climate anxiety on the paper, at the top. Then pass it to your neighbor–all you need to do is end up with one you didn’t write–and write a vision of a future in which their fears are no longer necessary and their needs are met. Change whatever you have to to do that.