Three construction workers were yelling something from their truck across the other side of a busy intersection, near where I was holding one end of a fossil fuel divestment banner. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but their tone was clear enough. As they sped off I caught the words “ya homos!” They were yelling at me, and my group, but the sky was a brilliant blue, I was in a good mood, and I really wasn’t bothered by the construction workers rabid anti-environmentalism and homophobia. It’s what happened next that disturbed me, and made me think.
I brushed if off by making an off the cuff remark to a fellow activist, saying “I’m sure they’re friendly deep down.”
“I don’t think so.” Said a white middle aged woman standing close by, waiting for the lights to change. We got into a discussion, which concerned me much more than the construction worker’s verbal abuse. “Why are you targeting ANZ bank?” She asked. I explained that ANZ had 13.5 billion dollars invested in fossil fuels, and that we need to keep coal in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. “We’re all funding it, so what do you think you’re going to accomplish.” She replied. I explained to her that we weren’t alone, that fossil fuel divestment is a highly successful international movement, and that we hoped that by putting pressure on ANZ to change, we could persuade all of the major NZ banks to divest from fossil fuels. The lights changed, and she moved away from me, making a few more negative comments, and shaking her head, unconvinced.
Why, I asked myself, would someone who cared enough about environmental issues to stop and engage in a conversation, and who didn’t sound like a climate change denier, be so negative about making the easy and financially sensible decision to divest from fossil fuels? More disturbingly, why would she actively try to persuade others not to act, but instead to join her in her position of powerlessness whilst there is so much that can be done?
I was already familiar with ideas of climate despair. When we don’t face our emotional responses to climate change such as grief for the immense loss of life, terror about the scale of the problem, or anger at those (including ourselves) who are causing such devestation, we are likely to collapse into numbness and despair. But despair can (and often is) a quiet state. This woman wasn’t just keeping her despair to herself. She was exporting it to others, like a contagion. She hadn’t made me despair, but how many others might have been affected by her, and others like her?
The hidden ingredient that turns climate despair into something even darker, an impulse to get others to despair, may be shame. That was the suggestion of my clinical supervisor, who I met with later on the same day. “Why shame, why not guilt?” I asked him.
“Because she attacked you.” He replied, and then explained further. We feel guilt when we do something that we see as immoral. When we feel guilty we either do something to make ammends, or we punish ourselves. On the other hand, shame is a sense of being seen as defective as a person. When we feel ashamed we may do one (or more) of four things. We may hide ourselves or our defectiveness, we may numb the pain of the shame (ie through an addiction), we may attack ourselves by demeaning or hurting ourselves emotionally or physically, or we may attack someone else to make them feel ashamed rather than us. My supervisor inferred that the woman was ashamed rather than guilty about her lack of action on climate change, because to attack another is a shame based response, not a guilt based one.
By holding our vigil outside the bank, sitting in meditation, and holding banners, we had activated the shame of this woman. If what was going on inside this woman could be put into words, it might go along these lines: “I believe in this cause but I do nothing.” This is the same kind of agony felt by a parent who looks back on what happened in their family and admits “I knew that the abuse was going on, but I said nothing.” Shame, a hot acid bath of pain far worse than guilt. Even when shame is stirred up around a specific action or inaction, in shame there is no sense of possible redemption, because it is the self that is identified as being wrong, not the action.
The ethos of non-violence that guided our vigil helped me to not attack back at this woman. I defended my position in the face of her undermining despair, and didn’t add to her shame further. But, I missed out on meeting her deeply in the midst of her pain. Looking back, what I wish I had said to her was “we can really feel hopeless in the face of climate change, like nothing makes a difference... and it still feels important that we don’t let our message get silenced.” If I said that to her, she might have moved on, emotionally defended and unchanged. But, there’s also a chance that she would stop and look me in the eye and see that I could see her in her conflicted messy humanity, and her care. She might see that I wasn’t looking down on her in that moment, and that we’re not so different. If this were a therapy session, this would be the moment when the toxic cloud of shame lifts, and real growth and change becomes possible. These moments, or course, happen outside the therapy room too, so, why not at a protest? When we turn up at a bank, effectively using shame as one of our tools when we expose and put pressure on a bank that pollutes, it would seem naive to think that all of our relationships with our own shame won’t be activated.
The antidote to shame is empathy, being helped to once again feel worthy of belonging to the human race. Reflecting on all of this made me wonder, what would it be like if we put empathy at the centre of our work as activists? This would require us to hold knowing ourselves, and each other, as a high priority. To empathise is an act of imagination, to imagine the other’s inner world and to feel with them. To imagine and feel in this way, requires both being open and being willing to look. If all of this sounds a bit abstract, let’s get specific.
How many activists burn out, or worse yet, never really start their activism because they either push harder or hold back out of a sense of being unworthy in the face of vast challenges such as climate change? How many of our actions or meetings are really designed to give us a chance to meet ourselves or each other deeply enough to form an empathic connection? To what extent do we believe that we just need to deliver our message loudly and persistently enough, and that people and institutions will change without our needing to really listen in return? If we’re only seeing the world (and people and their attitudes) as problems to be fixed, should we be surprised if people are reluctant to join us in our impoverished version of reality, and our movements remain small?
I’m not suggesting that all activists fall into the above traps, and I know that I certainly am not free of them. Anyone who attempts to negotiate these challenges will probably form their own internal language and metaphors to guide them. For me, bringing together the archetypal warrior and the mother together inside of me, fits at the moment. I know how that looks in the counselling room, when I’m able to skillfully challenge someone to face as much of their feelings and their pain as they can bear in a given moment, and I can do that from a place of care, and I’m feeling it all along with them. What that looks like in the world of activism, I’m not so sure, but I’d like to find out. Perhaps it’s planning and doing actions with a purpose and message, but in which there’s also space created to actually listen to others, and for creativity and the unexpected to emerge. Perhaps it’s stopping and taking care of each other and getting to know each other more. Perhaps it’s checking out, at times, from the “job” of activism, and having at least a momentary inner revolution. Then sharing that with whoever happens to be next to you.
Michael Apathy is a psychotherapist and ecotherapist at Lucid Psychotherapy and Counselling.
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