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Anxiety, Apathy and Choice


The other day I watched a talk by Renee Lertzman, a researcher and consultant who works on how to communicate effectively around the environmental crisis. Her approach has to do with using insights and tools from psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to support people in experiencing their complex and often conflicting feelings around these troubling issues.

I noticed that Joanna Macy was in the audience where Lertzman was speaking and her work was frequently given the nod. Even so, the challenge that Lertzman is rightly grappling with is how to take the principles from things like Joanna’s Work That Reconnects, and apply them more widely to the crushing overwhelm that something like climate change generates. How do you help regular people (those unlikely to go to a workshop or therapy) navigate their emotional and psychological responses to the mess that we’re in? How do you support them in feeling what they have been conditioned to not let themselves feel? How do we begin to have more conversations about these topics so we can break out of immobilization and start working on solutions.

Lertzman is writing a book called “The Myth of Apathy.” I get it. A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to be with Joanna in person here in Boulder. One of the many things she touched on so eloquently (as always) was apathy. She reminded us that the Greek origin of the word translates to “absence of suffering.” We actively shut down what we are too afraid to feel using unconscious defense mechanisms as old as the human psyche. Denial, projection, repression, bypassing, numbing, splitting, narratives of avoidance. It is not that people don’t want to care or feel. The problems are of such a monstrous scale that it’s mostly just too painful.

Clearly no amount of preaching or shaming is helpful, let alone motivating. Rather, people need the space to sort through and share their inner experience – their anxiety, ambivalence, frustration, fear, rage, etc. Psychotherapists are experts in creating this kind of safe space, catalyzing such expression, and helping us heal trauma, so surely there is something useful in their tool box.

Though I find this fascinating it is all a sort of preamble.

Something struck me in all of this and I’m still sitting with it. There’s a dilemma underneath this whole thing that is ultimately spiritual.

Here’s the thing: There is a baseline anxiety we feel around uncertainty and our inability to fully predict or control the consequences of our actions. This is just a reality of being human. And it will never go away. The difference now is that the scale of the consequences – the climate crisis, mass species extinction, ocean acidification and a host of other grotesquely looming shadows – make the uncertainty impossible to ignore. Our defense mechanisms are strained to their limit. And the dilemma of being human is that even if by some miracle we manage to get through these perils, our anxiety and uncertainty will come along with us.

There will always be something else.

And so the wisdom traditions have always offered responses. The crude ones we might think of as yet more defense mechanisms. But others call us to gaze unwaveringly at the truth of the matter. To see how we are caught in this dance of fear and longing.

There’s more to explore here, more percolating. But I’ll save it for another installment…


  1. Thank you for your reflection; thought provoking as usual. I haven’t watched the video yet, but will do so. What I want to note here is that I agree (if I understand you correctly) — it’s impossible to separate our emotions from our spirituality, and then, still, to find a way to keep acting toward, leaning into conscious choices. Mary Pipher, in her excellent “The Green Boat” said: “Whatever categories we fall into, we all struggle with how to respond appropriately and still be happy. To stay present with the truth and its implications would feel like keeping our hand on a hot stove all the time. In real life almost all of us land in a category that could be called ‘riddled with contradictions’.”

    • Nice to hear from you Darla! I don’t know Mary Pipher or that book, but perhaps I should add it to my list of titles to explore. You’ve put your finger on one of the things Lertzman talks about, which is ambivalence or also the psychological mechanism of splitting. We have within us many different parts and those parts have a variety of reactions to the world (some of which are contradictory). We move our attention among them and respond from the perspective of each at different times.

      I guess what I’m wanting to explore further is the angst that seems to be underneath and driving all of this activity… the thing we are ultimately trying to manage. To me this is where psychology and spirituality intersect. The anxiety is existential, moving us into the terrain of cosmology and spirituality. So it’s not just about “how can I feel OK?”, but also “what’s ultimately going on here?” I think that you’re right in that the truth is that we really can’t separate the two. However, in practice I think we do it almost all the time in our culture.

  2. A thought-provoking post that raises crucial questions. On a very basic applied level, I’ve struggled with the temptation to tell neighbors not to spread chemicals on their lawns or hang Christmas lights – silly examples I know. But ultimately, as you point out, it’s a self-righteous shaming approach, and really what positive concrete difference will it really make? The best I can do for now is simply try to walk the talk – plant gardens, offer space for neighbors and share what I grow. Gradually, one neighbor has changed over the past four years – less use of chemicals, new gardens, and he sometimes asks for advice about what to grow. It doesn’t stop war or Monsanto or promote technological innovation. But I think it really boils down to creating a sense of connection among people with each other and the earth. We need to care enough about ourselves, the earth, and each other to try…

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