FROM OVERWHELM TO ENGAGEMENT
Dr Chris Johnstone describes how to
face the reality of our environmental crisis
and turn shock and fear into positive, psychologically balanced
When confronted with issues like climate change,
peak oil or mass starvation, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
How can we find our power to respond to such huge problems?
For nearly twenty years, I've been running workshops to help
people strengthen their capacity to address the alarming realities
of our world. I've trained and worked closely with U.S. author/activist
Joanna Macy in this; I also draw on my experience as an addictions
specialist and as a teacher of positive psychology. This article
introduces five principles I've found helpful in promoting
empowered responses to global concerns.
When you encounter disturbing information, it's appropriate
to feel disturbed. Our emotional reactions alert us to potential
threats and are part of what motivates us to respond. But
what happens when the problem is so vast that any response
seems insignificant? Feelings of defeat or hopelessness may
lead to paralysis and despondency; as a result, issues like
these can become difficult to look at.
In my addictions work, my clients may also
feel overwhelmed when facing difficult realities. Drink or
drugs are attractive because they provide a temporary escape.
But when problems are hidden from view, they often return
with interest, thus creating a vicious cycle. The more someone
blots out disturbing realities, the more they pile up, and
the more difficult to face they become. This downward spiral
is unsustainable; eventually it crashes into crisis.
A turning point in addictions recovery is hitting
bottom.Someone feels so dissatisfied by the way their life
is working out that they make a deep-seated decision to change.
Feelings of alarm about our world situation can be thought
of in a similar way - they can provide the inspirational dissatisfaction
that motivates us to respond. Feeling horrified or infuriated
about an issue can be what starts the story of finding an
empowered response. The next principle helps here.
DRAW INSPIRATION FROM ADVENTURE STORIES
Many epic adventures share the same basic plot: a community
is threatened by an overwhelming adversary, and, in spite
of massively unfavourable odds, the central characters rise
to the challenge of responding. Stories like this have been
told for thousands of years, not just for their entertainment
value, but also because they teach important lessons about
how we find our power to face difficulty.
At the beginning of the story, the central characters
usually appear underpowered for the job. Frodo and Harry Potter
both seemed unlikely heroes at first. But the journey of facing
their challenge is what strengthens them.
They learn new skills, find new friends and are helped by
allies along the way. It is similar with global issues. If
what we face seems beyond our power to influence, think of
ourselves as at the beginning of the story. The first part
of the adventure involves searching out the understandings,
allies and strategies that will support our empowered response.
In the mythical view of things, encounters with obstacles
are seen as part of the journey. The way forward may be blocked
by a three-headed troll, haunted forest or vast mountain range;
mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to these as threshold
guardians. We too will face seemingly impossible barriers,
but when we think of them as expected features of our adventure,
we're more likely to engage in the search for a way through.
The next principle can help with this.
'WHAT' COMES BEFORE 'HOW'
Have you had the experience of learning to do something that
previously you'd thought of as impossible? Breakthroughs often
appear unrealistic before they occur; what they break through
is our earlier limited assessment of what we thought could
happen. If you bump into the threshold guardian of disbelief,
where you hear the voice that says, "it's just not going
to happen", remember Lord Kelvin. He was the distinguished
scientist who, in 1895, declared, "heavier than air flyer
machines are impossible".
An important principle in creativity is what
comes before how. First we identify what we want to do, then
we begin the journey of finding out how to do this. If we
dismiss our vision of what we want because we can't immediately
see how to do it, we stop ourselves ever finding a way. That
is why I like the idea of seeing our lives as an adventure
story. When we set out on a quest, the goal might initially
seem unrealistic, but that doesn't stop us. We recognise that
things often seem impossible when we can't see how to do them,
but if we begin the process of searching for a way, we're
more likely to find one.
LET A LARGER STORY ACT THROUGH YOU
If you look at a newsprint photo through a magnifying glass,
all you see are tiny dots. But if you step back and look at
the picture as a whole, a shift in level occurs and the image
emerges. When we are just a small part of something larger,
we are like one of those tiny dots.
As an individual dot, it can be difficult to
appreciate that something vaster is going on. But the bigger
picture we are part of is more than the sum of its parts.
Lots of tiny seemingly innocent activities can act together
with vastly destructive effects. Climate change is an example.
The other side of this is that positive shifts are also based
on an accumulation of actions that might seem insignificant
when looked at by themselves. Larger changes happen through
smaller ones. When we recognise this, we see the power in
all the small steps we take.
Our challenge is to find ways for the story
of earth recovery to be expressed through us. The exercise
in the box is taken from my book Find Your Power, and it can
support this process. It applies the technique of Imaginary
Hindsight. First you identify what you'd like to happen and
then you imagine yourself in that desired future. From this
visionary perspective, you look back in time and tell the
story of how the change you want occurred. Research has shown
this to be an effective planning tool. You can use it for
giving up smoking, losing weight or making business decisions.
You can also use it as a way of identifying steps towards
a better world.
MAKE IT ENJOYABLE
If working for our world is seen as all about sacrifice and
duty, in a way that leads people to deny their needs, then
it won't be sustainable or attractive. I like the idea of
beautiful action that meets personal as well as planetary
needs. If there is to be a Great Turning towards a life-sustaining
society, we need to design an approach that makes this enjoyable.
What would make people really delighted that they'd come to
a meeting or were involved in a project?
At the moment, addressing global issues is not
the massively popular activity it needs to be. But this can
change. Permaculture promotes the design of systems that sustain
themselves. Developing an approach that is enjoyable can help
make this particular adventure one that more people want to
become part of. It will also help us keep active in it for
Chris Johnstone is author of Find
Your Power. His website The
Great Turning Times focuses on events and information
that help us find our power to respond to global issues. His
personal website is www.chrisjohnstone.info
TELLING THE STORY OF THE GREAT
Using the power of your imagination,
time travel in your mind to a make believe future 400
years from now. In this version of events, humanity
has found a way through the difficult challenges it
faced. The climate has stabilised, people no longer
starve and we have learnt to live in balance with our
world. Look around you, see what this world looks like,
imagine that you are really there.
A small crowd gathers around you, as
you are the storyteller-historian. They are interested
in what you have to say. "Tell me about the Great
Turning," one of them asks, "tell me how they
turned things around". You know the historical
period they are referring to: the early twenty-first
century. The first thirty years of this was a crucial
turning point in human history. Tell them what happened.
Let your account begin at the point where it may all
have seemed impossible.