Our responses to existential threats
I explore here the diversity of responses – my own and others’ – to existential threats like extreme climate change … and I offer one way to map and make sense of those responses.
This essay makes an interesting companion to my earlier essay
Crisis Fatigue and the Co-Creation of Positive Possibilities
In my last post I said that in this post I would “discuss some of my own strategies for affirming life in the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves… in the face of the possible end of civilization or of the human race itself.”
Working on this has turned out to be more complex, interesting, challenging, and productive than I expected – especially since my own responses to our “strange circumstances” have been changing so often, even day to day and hour to hour.
It turns out this is not unusual. For example, many studies of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grieving and loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – note that people can experience these in any order, in any intensity, and for any length of time. For this reason, these supposed “stages” are perhaps more usefully understood as “dimensions” of the grieving process.
So it is with our responses to huge existential threats*: We can find ourselves in twenty minutes of intense anger or transcendent peace before moving on to some other response. Or, at the other extreme, we may settle into a routine of activism – or depression – with only minor variations for months or years on end. Such reactions are shaped by internal and external influences unique to each person and situation.
In my own case, I have been exploring the dynamics driving our existential threats intensively for over a year while in the last few months I have also been exploring the transformational vision of my friend Miki Kashtan. Miki is a leading practitioner and trainer of Nonviolent Communication who has articulated her worldview in two book manuscripts about which she asked my feedback. Through her and my friend and colleague John Abbe (another NVC practitioner), I’ve been exploring the personal, social, and evolutionary implications of what I now summarize as “life energy” – that which motivates and guides our choices and actions. This life energy takes many forms, including our needs and desires… our passions and callings… our urges and drives… our values and principles… our dreams and aspirations… our vitality and exuberance… and our feelings about everything that matters to us, everything that is important and precious to us.
Our individual and collective life energies are both indelible realities and resources for possibility. I’ve been imagining what movements and societies would be like that were explicitly and effectively grounded in meeting the needs of that energy by using that energy.
This mix of end times explorations and life energy realities and possibilities has proven very intense. I’ve found myself swinging especially between inspiration and depression, but that’s only part of it. I go into states of surrender where “it doesn’t matter”. Sometimes the idea that “what I do doesn’t really matter” is oddly but sweetly liberating – freeing me into quiet tolerance, peaceful appreciation, and relaxed activity. At other times the idea that nothing I do matters weighs me down into hopelessness. On some days I find myself living in a kind of highly conscious denial – totally engaged in a bubble of creative activity _as-if_ what I do matters, while remaining quite aware that outside my bubble the existential threats are growing, radiating their toxic nihilism that, by some grace, simply doesn’t impinge on my soul. Sometimes I just love what I do and the preciousness of the people and things around me simply because they are expressions of that remarkable life energy which is pulsating in and around me in the moment, regardless of what may happen in the future – a perspective that derives its magic precisely from the imminent impermanence of it all, a view of life already well known to Buddhists, poets, and many people who are dying or have lived through death, among others.
In the last two weeks as I tried repeatedly to usefully describe this shifting emotional landscape, I’ve found myself swinging even more severely between these and other states and responses. That emotional, spiritual, and existential upheaval generated much writing activity but no coherent understanding to lead me beyond the raw messiness of it all. This difficulty was exacerbated by my commitment to hold the whole reality conveyed by the expression “things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously.”
Then yesterday morning much of this “mess” came together in an intriguingly coherent (to me) understanding that I will attempt to share here.
OUR RESPONSES TO EXISTENTIAL THREATS – A MAP
In the drawing below and the description that follows it, I’ll try to summarize what I came to see about our responses to existential threats. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
This map is based on four quadrants generated by two axes. The vertical axis ranges from LIFE ENHANCEMENT at the top to LIFE EROSION at the bottom. It reflects a sense that in the face of gigantic challenges, we can reach into life or turn against it, internally and externally. Our responses in that regard can be placed along this axis.
The other axis, the horizontal one, ranges from LETTING-GO on the left to ACTION at the right, reflecting the extent to which we are attached to the outcomes of what we do. The “Action” end of that axis might also be called “Agency”. (I found it hard to choose the right word to describe the right side of the map. But its essence is that we are seeking to have impact of some kind, whereas on the left side we are simply present with reality – in either joyful or depressed ways.)
These two axes create the four quadrants, which I’ve loosely labeled APPRECIATIVE PRESENCE in the upper left, INCLUSIVE CARING ACTION in the upper right, ANGER in the lower right, and DESPAIR in the lower left. I think of these as distinct but overlapping energies that tend to characterize our responses to the profound challenge presented by existential threats.
Straddling the axes we find other realms of response that contain energies from both of the quadrants near them. Between Appreciative Presence and Inclusive Caring Action, for example, we find SERVICE. Between Inclusive Caring Action and Anger we find CONFRONTATION. Between Anger and Despair we find CYNICISM. And between Despair and Appreciative Presence, we find WITHDRAWAL.
Join me now for a short tour through those energies and some of their manifestations, moving clockwise around the map starting in the upper left.
EXPLORING THIS MAP MORE DEEPLY
First we’ll explore APPRECIATIVE PRESENCE where we focus on Being, on spiritual matters, on the beauty of the present moment, and on radical acceptance, non-judgment, and humility in the face of Mystery. We experience here a kind of positive surrender, a letting go into a larger, ultimately life-affirming reality. We may have arrived in this state through meditation, through grace, or through the soul-shaking realization of an existential threat. Our radical acceptance may be shaped by some transcendent perspective provided by religion, spiritual experience, or science (for example, the amazing 13.7 billion year “great story of evolution”). We appreciate life and everyone and everything around us as miraculous and precious, because they embody transcendent dimensions while at the same time being profoundly impermanent. At a very physical, scientific level, we may have seen how the complexity of the dynamic systems within which we live – both social and natural – make our coveted outcomes fundamentally uncertain and uncontrollable. In any case, we think things like “whatever will be will be” or “let go, let God” or “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”.
Following the map clockwise, we find more action orientation and intentionality in our appreciative state and move into SERVICE which manifests as various forms of help. This mode starts off in the left quadrant as charity – especially compassion, lovingkindness, and mindful support – addressing in a personal way the suffering and struggle created by our dysfunctional social systems. As we move further toward the activist side of the map, our service manifests more in community work like facilitating meetings, mapping or developing resources, or participating in gifting, sharing, and support networks. To the extent we retain some of the detachment-from-outcome that characterizes the upper left quadrant, we may be particularly drawn to facilitative and catalytic roles, networking, and spirit-centered activism rather than the more outcome-driven modes present further into the upper right quadrant.
The more immersed we become in that upper right mode of INCLUSIVE CARING ACTION, the more we identify as change agents seeking to make a positive difference in the world at large, especially seeking to transform social systems that generate widespread suffering, destruction, and existential threats. I see this energy epitomized, for example, by active nonviolent systemic change efforts, especially those guided by systemic thinking about leverage, and by Gandhi’s insights about the strategic potency of love, truth, noncooperation, and a positive program – a combination which possessed what he called “soul force”. (Gandhi’s approach is basic to – and enhanced by – Miki’s vision.) My co-intelligence work to “access the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole” is in this quadrant, along with all other efforts to “create a world that works for all”. There is lots of systemic and cultural creativity going on in this quadrant. I believe most actions there are nonviolent – a connotation carried by the word “inclusive” in the quadrant’s name.
But sometimes we feel more angry energy, more outrage. Then the defining quality of our response becomes CONFRONTATION. We find ourselves engaged in critiques and demonstrations that, although they may not involve physical violence against people, may include angry verbal attacks, an adversarial us-versus-them attitude, and even damage to the property of the people and institutions we see at fault. There’s a lot of “speak truth to power” energy here and a call to commitment and courage in battle on behalf of Life, albeit with less love than we find when those calls occur as part of a fully nonviolent effort.
When our energies are totally shaped by an intention to dominate and vanquish, we find ourselves fully in the lower right quadrant – ANGER. Here we engage in targeted attacks on blameworthy people and institutions. In its rawest forms, the focused energy of anger can manifest as terrorism and a determination to “tear it all down”. We seethe: “If you’re not outraged, you don’t understand what’s going on!” Those toxic people, organizations and systems must be stopped or destroyed at all costs. It is us or them. Life and decency depend on our taking them down.
But all too often our passionate anger or activist efforts just feel impotent. Impotent passion produces CYNICISM. Caught between aggressive and passive impulses, we feel bitterness and develop an actively nihilistic take on life. We make it clear to everyone that the bad in the world is overwhelming and the good is illusory. Our hopelessness here has a disturbed, disturbing vitality to it. In its most extreme forms it can actively suck the life out of other more life-positive responses, which places it squarely on the “Life Erosion” end of the vertical axis. But note that it arises from frustrated caring.
If we feel totally impotent and experience crushing hopelessness we find ourselves in DESPAIR, in the lower left quadrant. Here we sink into a sad, disconnected, passive energy, giving up, feeling apathetic and depressed. From our perspective the situation is simply too overwhelming, too disastrous, too self-annihilating to bear. Nothing can really be done and all meaning and vitality drain away. Whatever…
Despair is the dark manifestation of WITHDRAWAL on the “letting-go” side of the horizontal axis. The despair facet of withdrawal manifests as “giving up”, resigning ourselves to pained, often awkward indifference. But, in more general terms, withdrawal on this map means simply moving away from the demands of life and away from the attachments that bring pain – especially away from the monumental demands of existential challenges. We can withdraw into entertainment, pleasure, busy-ness, and/or the more confrontable challenges of personal life, home life, and work. If we happen to be in the brighter, upper-left manifestations of withdrawal, we move away from challenge into enjoyment where our “letting go” energy manifests as going with the flow. To the extent we truly engage with life while letting go of outcomes, however, we find ourselves again in the upper left quadrant being an Appreciative Presence. Which bring us full circle.
Now, in the middle of this circle, where all of these diverse energies intersect, countering and weakening each other, there’s a realm I’ve labeled “NORMALCY”. Most of us live our lives there, held in place by psychological and social forces that conserve the status quo. Many of us live there quite oblivious to the mounting threats around us. As we go about our daily business and bump into bad news about the world, we may drift towards one quadrant or another but we soon find ourselves drawn back by the demands and attractions of normal life. Or we may be caught between simultaneous opposite responses – like despair and activism – that hang us up in status quo behaviors and institutions by default, whether we want to be there or not.
The arrows on the fine diagonal lines radiating out from the “Normalcy” circle suggest that the further we depart from “Normalcy” in any given direction, the more we manifest the energy of the quadrant we are moving into. But the psychological and social gravitational pull of “Normalcy” is what we call DENIAL. When we’re truly in denial – especially when our denial is supported by our social environment…by media, politics, economics, and our friends and family – we seldom venture very far out into any of the quadrants, but stay in the middle doing what we can to maintain a sense that things are “normal”, that the familiar status quo is what will continue to exist, so we’re sort of going to be ok or at least not horribly worse off (even when somewhere inside us we know that’s not true). If we all act like things are normal maybe really horrible stuff won’t happen.
After writing this, I noticed that I hadn’t mentioned hope much in this map. Thinking about this, I realized that hope occurs in different forms playing different roles, depending on where it shows up on the map. In the Appreciative Presence quadrant it shows up as “trust in the universe”, a faith that in the larger picture whatever happens makes larger sense. In the Inclusive Caring Action quadrant, it shows up as a belief – however frail – that our actions could make a positive difference. Or we think, along with Czechoslovakia’s dissident president Vaclav Havel, that hope is “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
When immersed in Anger, of course, we hope the worst for our enemies and the enemies of life, whereas in Cynicism and Despair, we experience hope as a sorry delusion that ultimately abandons those who believe in it, dropping them painfully into the hard hopelessness of cruel reality.
Finally, in “Normalcy”, hope plays a role as a coping mechanism, a buffer that helps us bear not facing horrible realities and possibilities. We “hope” those situations will get handled by someone somehow, because we don’t feel we can put effective attention on them. This is the kind of hope most people seem to long for and hold on to, because there really is too much out there for any one person to deal with, especially with family, bills, a job (if you’re lucky), and all the rest of it. In “Normalcy” hope is a way to not have to think about things, which makes it frail when crises continue to impinge ever more intensely on our awareness, forcing us willy nilly out of the seeming security of “Normalcy” into other parts of this response map.
There’s more to all this of course, even if we take what’s here as useful. At the very least it can all be deepened and explored further, and there are probably responses I’ve overlooked.
But this picture covers a wide range of my own responses to existential threats like extreme climate change, as well as most of the responses I see and hear around me. And since I personally find it an interesting way to track my own tendencies as I face the unthinkable, I thought I’d share it on the chance that you, too, might resonate with it. One of its special qualities, for me, is that it gives me a modicum of distance from the whole drama, allowing me the healing equanimity of witnessing my own inner dynamics and realizing they are probably shared by many other people.
I might say that my goal with all this is to help myself and others move into the upper quadrants, away from denial, despair and rage into greater life, peace, meaning, and impact. That’s clearly a good intention and is for sure part of why I’m sharing it.
However, under the influence of Miki Kashtan and others, I also view all these diverse responses as – in themselves – legitimate expressions of life energy and human caring in the face of truly profound challenges. Joanna Macy, in particular, has noted how despair and rage are manifestations of frustrated caring, and that working through them with others can free our caring into positive collective action.
This latter understanding can increase our compassion for everyone as we find ourselves and others pulled through these manifestations of frustrated or free-flowing care. So while I think it is good to strive to make things better – something I’ve done all my life – I am learning that it is also very healthy and necessary to come to terms with What Is, inside and around us – to be real and authentic about what is happening.
As we try to move beyond denial by courageously facing disturbing social and environmental realities, we can realize that compassion and empathy – solid pathways to move beyond denial of the EMOTIONAL realities involved in the crises we face – are essential aspects of that evolutionary journey we’re all on together.
If we can truly do these things well together, we will have enhanced and served life honorably and wisely, regardless of what happens to us and everything we cherish as the future unfolds. And if we happen to be able, at the same time, to play effective roles in helping life on earth find an even more flourishing way to persist in greater harmony, I think that is a true abundance of icing on a very, very big cake we can present to our great great grandchildren and to the living planetary Mother we share.
* Note: Challenges that could trigger “the possible end of civilization or the human race” are what some theorists are calling “existential risks, threats or challenges”. I use that concept in this post, especially in the context of possible extreme global heating and climate chaos making earth uninhabitable for us and many other complex organisms. Many other existential risks have been explored, for example in these lists:
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