Photo © Giorgio Magini \ Fotolia.com
Vocal climate change activists don’t get invited to many dinner parties. There, I’ve admitted it. Yup, we’re often lonely. I guess I can dig it, though. I mean, who wants the indigestion of supping across from someone going on about the potential of (ho hum) amplifying carbon feedbacks (yawn) to obliterate life on Earth (pass the peas, please).
The problem is, we know too much. The cognitive dissonance of understanding the urgency of the climate change emergency, while surrounded by trivial pursuits, can make us cry. Feeling the pressure to be positive and “hopeful” all the time can make us retch – and feel wretched. Hope schmope, we think to ourselves. Hope is not an action verb; action is our only hope. Yet, especially at parties and other social get-togethers, nobody else wants to even talk about climate change action. It seems everyone just wants to feel good, chitchat and enjoy the food and drink. I just wish I could join them.
More and more, environmental activists like me – experiencing this challenge to their mental health and emotional well-being – know the loneliness of no longer fitting in, being socially isolated, of losing friends who “don’t want to hear about it.” Or worse, hearing from a spouse that it’s either lose the climate doom, or lose them.
So why do so many of us persist in making ourselves and our near and dear miserable? Blogger Rolly Montpellier of BoomerWarrior.com says, “The stakes are just too high and the consequences of failure too unimaginable to not get involved … I jumped in knowing that I was headed straight towards my deepest fears and concerns.”
Margaret Klein Salamon is the director of activist group The Climate Mobilization, and has a PhD in clinical psychology. She explains that “once you really take in – intellectually and emotionally – what is happening, and you realize that you can be an effective agent of change, there is no going back. It becomes the driving force in your life.”
If we’re not driven to find great shoes on sale or cheer our team to victory, we’re not likely to find camaraderie among people who do. If we’re struggling to pay the rent because we work only part-time in order to have time for our activism, we’ll likely feel out-of-place with old friends who have their mortgages paid off and debt-free retirement in sight.
It’s hard to make new friends at the best of times. And these are the worst of times. Although it’s harder to find kindred spirits in rural areas, even in the city, activism can be a lonely affair. So how do we keep ourselves from getting stuck, as an online commenter once warned me, “on a narrow social isthmus”? Here are some ideas:
Reach out. Long-distance friends can fill a gap for lonely activists. But there may be people closer than you think feeling the same way you are. I recently copied a blog post of mine to someone in my community, and received a noteback. “May you know that in your suffering, you are not alone,” it said. “Others are feeling with us and for us.” I was heartened.
Have some fun. Take a permaculture course. Join a bioblitz (an intensive biological survey conducted by scientists and volunteers) or a guided bicycle trip. Try Green Drinks (meeting other enviros over libations) or weed dating (speed dating on a farm) to meet others you already have something in common with. For extra spice, try a workshop on civil disobedience.
Reconnect with what you’re fighting for. Canoe down a river. Walk through a forest. Lie in a meadow and look up at the clouds. Robin Wall Kimmerer asks, “What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We’d be less lonely. We’d feel like we belonged.”
There’s no place like home. Rather than feel like an outcast at holiday dinners with family, seek out allies (your mom? your cousin with the nose ring?). Or think of it as intelligence gathering: what does seem to light some interest in mashed-potato-sated eyes? And remember – yes, preserving the climate is important, but often it’s family who stick by us come rain or shine!
Sometimes this work is so sad, the only bright spot is knowing that our partner “gets” our grief. When Klein Salamon and her fiancé married recently, one of their vows was, “Come what may, we are better together.” “This is such an uncertain, shifting world, we have to be each other’s rock,” she told me.
But what about relationships that are already on the rocks? When one partner doesn’t get what drives the other, the loneliness only gets worse. Several couples I know are in turmoil because one spouse resents the time, money and energy the other’s activism absorbs. One friend is even forbidden to talk about global warming at home. Another is in couples’ counselling because his spouse wants more balance in their life. A third has been told that if they’re going to work that hard on something, it had better be bringing money into the family.
This is where compassion comes in. Not everyone shares the same tolerance level for the pain of thinking about climate change. Your spouse probably didn’t marry you for your urge to save humanity. It’s something to bear in mind when they beg you to take a break and watch a show on TV, or go camping somewhere without Wi-Fi. (And no, a donation to 350.org does not count as a birthday present for your spouse.)
And let’s save some compassion for ourselves. This is good work; it’s also difficult, frequently disheartening and emotionally draining work. But we’re doing it. So we’re also allowed to take a break sometimes. We can draw strength from the beauty of the world we’re working to safeguard. We can accept that the climate battle can be put on pause long enough for a bowl of popcorn and a movie, or whatever recharges our emotional batteries.
And if none of this helps kick your loneliness, consider a pet of the furry persuasion. My dog always seems to know just when I need a lick on the cheek.
Where in the world can a guy or a gal get a green drink? You can findeco-kindred spirits in 77 countries around the globe at greendrinks.org.
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