The next in a series of posts by Dr. Nate Charach. Read Part 1 here.
In my first blog post I outlined my understanding that there are pleasant and unpleasant emotions rather than classifying them as positive and negative. The most crucial emotion to lessen my “eco-anxiety” has been sadness. Let’s first examine why sadness is appropriate and then we will look at how to use it effectively.
Sadness is the emotion of loss. If you lose your beloved mother, it is healthy to feel sad. If we lose our job, an important relationship or our purpose in life, it is imperative that we feel sad. This sadness alerts us to the importance of what we just lost.
When viewing sadness from this perspective, we don’t have to dig very deep to imagine why we feel sad about the current state of our world. Here is a short list of things that make me feel sad:
Loss of security about our survival
Loss of certainty that our children will live to see “old age”
Loss of meaning in our work
Loss of meaningful connections with people
Loss of security that we will have clean water to drink and healthy food to eat
Loss of security that we will know how to survive the heat and cold temperature extremes when we run out of fossil fuels
Loss of connection with nature
Loss of confidence in the political systems that are supposed to look out for our common good
Loss of control over a situation that directly impacts us yet we can only indirectly effect
Loss of secure housing for millions of people
Loss of loved ones due to severe weather events
And I’m sure there are more. For each person, some of these losses will resonate more than others. Certainly there are many more reasons than I listed. The only way to identify which losses are the most important to us is to listen to our sadness.
So what does it look like to listen to our sadness?
We must connect with a part of our brain that is not “logical”. We must find an environment that feels safe and secure. We then ask ourselves what is making us sad. If this brings tears to our eyes then we are on the right track. Crying is a natural response to sadness. It acts as a stress reliever. The tears in our eyes contain stress hormones which can leave our body through this process.
To truly listen to our sadness, tears are a requirement and also not sufficient. We need to surrender to our sadness without trying to change it. And so, when our tears come, we must embrace them and allow them to guide us to the most important actions that we can take.
Many people are afraid to give themselves up to this process for fear that their sadness will never end. However, when we allow our emotions to run their course without blocking them they come in patterns of waves. These waves are time-limited and always end.
Once we clearly identify our losses through listening to sadness, we need to effectively prioritize how to fill this void. This is the way that sadness motivates us to make necessary change.
If we have lost our mother and therefore feel sad, the goal is not to find a new mother. Instead, to effectively use our sadness, we tell stories about our love for her and find ways that she can live on through us. Likewise, if we lose our job or our relationship, new jobs or relationships will not be identical yet if they fulfill us, our sadness diminishes. If they do not adequately fill our void, the sadness persists. This sadness is crucial because when we listen to it, we address any critical loss. When our life is full of meaning once again, our sadness subsides.
While writing this post I needed to take a break due to my own sadness. The Amazon Forest is burning and I only just learned the extent and causes of it. Waves of sadness overcame me for the majority of the day and continue to still creep in from time to time. My sadness was reminding me of the importance this rainforest holds to the planet. The Amazon provides 20% of the world’s oxygen. The Amazon is home to the greatest biodiversity left on this planet. It is home to many Indigenous people who hold customs that live in harmony with the Earth. One of Project Drawdown’s clear priorities is to protect our existing rainforests. All of these make the destruction of the Amazon a huge loss. My tears are entirely appropriate.
After listening to this sadness, I now find myself donating money actively to save the rainforest and brainstorming ideas to campaign for their protection on a much broader level. Responding to these tragedies in this way is the most effective action that I can take to deal with this issue. As a result, the sadness lessens. I cannot individually stop the fires in the Amazon and if I contribute as a piece of a much larger contribution, then there is hope.
The fear we have of listening to our sadness is deeply embedded in most of us. If we allow ourselves to drop below the surface of our icebergs we can sit with our sadness. Through this process we learn that sadness is not dangerous in itself. Our “eco-anxiety” will turn to “eco-grief”. The things we love that we are losing will become crystal clear. Contrary to our reflexive fear that our sadness is dangerous, connecting to our sadness is the most effective way that we will survive. Let’s embrace our sadness. Let’s validate it. And then allow it to guide us toward effective action.
Nate Charach is a psychiatrist who works at a community hospital and has also completed his permacultural design certificate. His emotions urge him to combine these skills to create thriving communities that are in harmony with nature. With his clients, he attempts to work in partnership to find common meaning and value from their challenges.
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