Living with fear and despair

When it comes to despair and fear there are no experts. None of us can sit apart from these things. None of us can escape the biological and genetic conditioning to stay alive at any cost. We can only live with fear; courage lives with fear. The one with no fear is a fool, or has been dehumanised.

This means that no human being can speak objectively or from outside our dilemma; beware those who appear to do this, for they are either lying, in denial, or have not yet woken up to themselves and to just how dire the human situation is.

Indeed, to be afraid, to grieve, to despair of the future is to be human. Our best selves come from living in the full consciousness of who we are: limited, contingent, frightened creatures who are subject and subordinate to the biosphere. It is our refusal as a species to live in this place which has brought us to this point, particularly the refusal of the cultural west with its technologically powered consumer excess. We have thought we owned this place, and have denied what is well understood by many indigenous cultures: this place owns us and demands our respect.

The fear and despair that climate change brings to consciousness was always going to come to us. Death is inevitable. Most species that ever were, are now extinct. It takes a certain death-denying hubris to think we could beat this.  We know that it is likely the sun will eventually engulf the planet. And we have known since childhood that the children of millions of people suffer and die in the heat and societal breakdown which we now recognise will come to us.

The difference is that the climate crisis is abruptly stripping us of all our defences and pretences. It is cutting through our busyness and the buying of houses and the getting of promotions, and is destroying the sense of some  predictability and security which these things bring. These things normally work pretty well to insulate us into middle age, especially if we are relatively affluent, but now they are being stripped from us. Suddenly we realise our kids might not reach middle age. Will our pensions or our superannuation survive, or will we be left old and destitute?

We have been thrust into the vulnerability of very old age, without the years where, if we live well,  we slowly get somewhat used to the idea of our dying. Suddenly death is imminent and real in a way our nation, and much of the West, have avoided for 60 to 70 years because of an historically unprecedented bubble of prosperity and technological progress; the same bubble which is now precipitating the crisis.

We privileged ones are now entering a world where privilege is losing its purchasing power. We are seeing the world for what it is, a place of grief and fear and despair. We in the West need to learn a new way of living.  It is those who grieve and who own their fear who will guide us into a future, particularly those who seek a solution which is not based in building walls around their privilege, which is what our current government is doing with its skirting around the truth of the situation.

Where do we find hope and energy in the exhaustion of grief? How do we overcome the paralysis of despair? Where do we find meaning in a life where the deepest layer of our fear is that perhaps there is no meaning?

I think they are two levels here. One is the macro, cultural level, and the other is the local level where each of us live; that is, where we work through how we will be, and what we will seek to do, regardless of the machinations of Canberra, Washington, and Beijing.

At the macro level, I wonder if those who may survive us will look back and see that this was the great moment of opportunity, and the occasion of a critical advance in human consciousness. Edwin Friedman said

All entities that are destructive to other entities share one characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation. This is an absolutely universal rule of life in this Galaxy.  ... all organisms that lack self-regulation will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors ... organisms that are unable to self regulate cannot learn from their experience, which is why the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. (Friedman, A Failure of Nerve pp 138 See Google Books here [accessed 20191229])

This is not only an incisive description of the struggle of empires and human population since the beginning. It describes what we see with ants, plants, and magpies. All entities "shit in their nest," and the nest, which is the wider ecological system, reacts to bring them under control or, to be less teleological, the nest recovers to some kind of equilibrium as the problem species crowds itself out. This is a basic lesson in Ecology 1.

But humanity can learn. We are self-conscious. Until now, we have walked away from the mess of our fouled nest, and set up shop somewhere else— right down to leaving the working class suburb with social problems and moving to the leafy green suburbs. Or, we have been brought under control by the biosphere; that is, we have been forced into a kind of uneasy truce with our biological and environmental reality. It is a romantic myth to think that First Nations people did not change the ecology of the nation, but they arrived at a much less destructive relationship with the land, which appears to have been sustainable.

By contrast, the West, and its technology, has  been devoid of self-regulation— why else the Bomb? — it has thought it had the upper hand. Much externally imposed self-regulation has been removed, for a time, by our technological prowess, and we have begun the same old story of unrestrained, fear driven greed to try to outwit, or at least hold off death.

As the planet self corrects— and  it doesn't matter if we add some kind of Gaia hypothesis to this,   or whether we see it as pure ecology and chemistry and physics—
as the planet self corrects humanity may learn at last, that there is nowhere else to run. No other place to set up, and begin again.

Nature will not be denied. They say we must treat her with care or she will be destroyed. They are wrong. We may well destroy the conditions we need to survive. But nature and life will go on, despite us, and without us. The only question is how much we wish to remain a part of things. 

"Let's be clear. The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven't got the power to destroy the planet - or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves." Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (Andrew Prior, initially quoted here, but see here for more comment.)

We are at a moment where we might learn to live as self-restraining creatures if only for reasons of fear.

But all this is clearly a reactive learning. It is arguable that it is not so much a learning, or a conversion to a new way of being human, as it is a giving in to reality with gritted teeth, and as endless commentary warns us, if we take too long on this (more than a decade!) the 'power to save ourselves' may be taken from us.  To this reactive bargaining in a situation where we have nothing to bargain except our survival, we need to add empathy, which is the ability to feel with. It is not sympathy, which can remain distant and untouched and superior, but is something deeper.  It is a sharing of vulnerability— not just a recognition of vulnerability, but an experience of the same fears as another person.

I saw this in TV news footage of John Howard visiting the scene of some tragedy I have since forgotten. I struggle to respect our former PM, but saw at that moment the power of empathy. Doing his required politician's visit to the scene, the thing our current PM forgot until the nation exploded in anger at his holiday away, Howard suddenly ceased to be a politician. We saw naked humanity as he said, shocked, "This is terrible!" This empathy slices into the resistance of the political systems. It motivates policy. It converts. It is our only hope as a species, because it gives us the will to self-regulate, which allows us to live for the whole of humanity and for the whole biosphere, not just ourselves.

Going far beyond the scope of this essay, I believe we are looking for a wholesale conversion of ourselves, a way of being human which finds meaning in self-giving, rather than a life which gains meaning by winning, or by creating a legacy which we pretend will survive our death. We not only have to accept that we will die, and that no one will remember us for more than a few years, we also have to understand that to find meaning in self-giving will make us more vulnerable, and learn to live with that. (I have outlined some personal experience and thinking in this area in the post What Just Happened?  

But now, at the local level, how does a person survive reading an IPCC report, or survive the naked fear for our children or grandchildren which crashes in upon our consciousness— that consciousness which means "young people are terrified?" Not to mention those of us who are old.

Firstly, we could talk with those who have been there. I think of my friend who lived 17 years in a concentration camp, or another, shot, and therefore evacuated by a UNO truck with her family, and now living with the knowledge that the rest of the village, around a thousand people, died of thirst in the desert as they tried to walk out. Or my friend who fled the Taliban to an uncertain future of sinking boats and Australian concentration camps. Or we could go walking on country with indigenous people. All these folk can show us a different side of life, and lessons about survival of the impossible.  It's not that we will understand them,  or their experience, in any depth; rather, we will find an introduction to a new sensibility. They will gift us, first of all, with an understanding that there are other ways to see the world, and that there are other things to live for— reasons to live— which are not the failed reasons for living which the West has taught us.

There is no quick way through this. We are seeking a conversion of how we see the world. It is slow. There is a key issue here: Such conversations require empathy. They require humility— we are the impoverished ones, the ones who need to learn from folk who have suffered from the hubris and violence of our nation and our way of being. Both humility and empathy demand vulnerability on our part, and human vulnerability is the very thing that our culture has sought to eliminate from life. It is not that other cultures are devoid of the fear of death, or do not know fear. It is simply that the folk I have suggested above are much more 'expert' about death than most westerners1 can hope to be.

Humility, empathy, and vulnerability, are the qualities that offer us a way into self-restraint, self-regulation, which is our only hope of survival. They also retrain us, and refocus us as beings who are meant to relate. Our best humanity is not to win, not to be the most fashionable, not to look good on Facebook, but to be friends, mentors, self-givers. The reason some folk are spectacular grandparents is that they have learned that the self-focus, the selfishness, that leads to a carefully created Facebook profile—  also created by people not on Facebook—  that self centred life is a dead end. That is what the best grandmothers have learned.

It is critical to set aside time to weep and grieve. And to share our grief with other people. There is an art to this so that it doesn't become a sort of self-aggrandizing self-pity, and so that it doesn't overwhelm us. Not to grieve is to deny our humanity. We should grieve, we should be afraid. To repress these things is to do ourselves a violence, or to display a shocking pathology which has no care for anyone or anything beyond our immediate appetites. Not to grieve would be to pretend that all our hopes and dreams and loves are worthless. It is the place of the profoundly unhealthy.

To share with others does at least three things. It develops new, surprising relationships; one finds a new network of friends who understand. Relationality is perhaps the key thing which makes us human.  Secondly, sharing enables others. To model a grief and fear which nonetheless persists in living,  is to expose the lie of the perfect life which oppresses so many of us. This modelling is perhaps the greatest gift we can give our children. (And therefore, I suspect, is far more significant in influencing the macro than we can imagine.) Finally, weeping and grieving frees us. We are real. We are free of the lie. We are in a place where we can rebuild and begin to live again, instead of pretending.

Andrew Prior (2019)


  1. Richard Beck on American culture— you will recognise much of our own country in this.

McGill’s argument is that what we tend to call “success” in American culture is often a neurotic delusion, a defense mechanism we use to deny the reality of death, both in our lives and the lives of others. The cultural expectation to be “fine” is at root an ethic of death avoidance:

Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance. . . . Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, “Fine . . . fine.”

What this duty creates is a shallow, superficial, and inauthentic culture, a culture driven to maintain social appearances and devoid of deep and authentic relationality. By refusing to share our weaknesses and failures with others—by insisting we are “fine”—we all become rugged individualists, struggling alone to make the best of it. We never express our needs to others; we never invite others into our lives. We are happy to help others but are loathe in this culture of death avoidance to ask for help. And when everyone plays this game, no one helps. As a result, the illusion of collective “fineness”—the illusion of a deathless society—is confirmed and maintained. (Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death (p. 34). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)




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