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…