Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Scared? Duh.

"I'm afraid there's no denyin'
I'm just a dandelion
A fate I don't deserve.
I'd be brave as a blizzard...
If I only had the nerve."

I don't think that conference speakers are supposed to say what I did at the Community Solutions Conference. We're supposed to be inspiring, energizing. Instead, towards the end of my presentation, I admitted that I was afraid. That's not very inspiring, right up there on the disheartening meter with the list of current democratic candidates. Unfortunately, it is also true.

Now I tend to be an optimist by both nature and inclination. I'm not generally fearful or easily made unhappy. I love my life. Despite the fact that my job is to read all the bad news about peak oil, climate change, soil and water depletion, resource wars, environmental toxicity, financial trouble and all the other crap you can imagine, and write about it, I tend not to take it all too seriously. That is, I do, but I also take very seriously the good stuff in my life. Generally speaking, they balance one another out. But not always. Not, perhaps, as much lately as I'd like.

The thing is, I think most people have a choice when they are confronted by a reality like peak oil and climate change - either they develop a thick skin for at least some things, or they deny. We're all aware that denial is the most popular choice, and why not - denial is a very happy place to live, as long as you don't mind the cost. Otherwise, you have to develop enough emotional scales to at least cover up the horror of the thing. For example, confronted with the fact that 40% of the population of Swaziland is starving to death, you have to be able to find something darkly, horribly funny in the appalling realization that the government of Swaziland is still growing Cassava to make biofuels - that is, in the face of starvation, a government has decided to turn the staple food of that nation into gas, or in the larger truth that we're doing that all over the world now, as we drive food prices up and up and up...

I've got a lot of practice laughing rather than weeping, or winding up my computer and typing out my outrage hoping to break through someone else's scales and make them as angry as this stuff makes me, so that maybe, maybe we can do something to stop it. But I'm less practiced at dealing with my own fear. I've been dripping with outrage at the world's injustices pretty much since I was old enough to have a political conscience, sometime in the mid-Reagan years. But I haven't been particularly scared, because my own blood was never in the game. I was always outraged on someone else's behalf, and of course, that's an easy emotion.

I have, as we all know, four little hostages to fortune, and at least the average person's fear of suffering, death and inconvenience (Lest that list seem strange, I'll be blunt - I'm actually really good in a real crisis, but I can be a bitch when I've been put out in some way. Oddly, I've noticed that is is fairly common - we act like jerks when we can afford to, and something better often comes out when we can't - is that perhaps hopeful news?). I'm scared for my kids, and scared for myself. Some of the time I desperately wish this would all just go away and I wouldn't have to think about it anymore. Sometimes I wish denial was an option.

But mostly, I'm glad I know even the bad, hard stuff. Because I honestly have doubt whatsoever that being prepared is better than not being prepared. I'm not even always sure I want more time - part of me does, but part of me believes that we are better off going through our fossil fuel crisis sooner than later - soon enough that we still have money and resources to make some major infrastructure changes, soon enough that we may avoid the worst of catastrophic warming, and that there might be enough oil left for future generations some wind power and vaccinations. And I can't wish it would go away because it is my job to protect my kids, and my desire to protect the next generations in general - I don't want to dump this burden on my sons or on other people's children. I don't think that's the proper work of parents who love their kids.

John Adams once said that he was a soldier so that his son could be a farmer, and his grandson a poet. I'm no soldier, and if this is war (it isn't) it will be won by farmers and perhaps by poets too. But I share in the sentiment. I'm going to do this work, and face this as head on as I possibly can so that my children may someday choose other work. That's what Moms do. Now the thing they don't tell you about parenting when you become a Mom or Dad is this (for those of you without kids I'm going to reveal on of the dirty little secrets, something, if you are thinking about parenthood, you might rather not know) is this: being parent doesn't make you a better person.

That is, when you become a parent, if you are going to be any good at it, a certain amount of selflessness and self-sacrifice is mandatory, but you do not, as some people seem to think, immediately become the sort of person who enjoys self-sacrifice and wants to be selfless. The ugly truth is that you are still the same greedy, lazy, selfish person you were before (ok, maybe you aren't, but I am). If you were the sort of person who would rather read a novel on the couch than answer the question "what does this spell" 78 times in a row, nothing about parenthood, or even love for your kids will transform you magically into the kind of person who finds having your novel interrupted every 2 minutes delightful. I know the world is full of better people than me, but the truth is that a lot of us are still the same ordinarily rotten people we were before we had kids. We just don't have the option of indulging our rottenness. That is, parenthood, for parents who really want to do it right, requires not that you be a good person or that your better nature predominate, but that you suck it up and do the unselfish thing anyway, even when it sucks, even when you don't want to, even when it is damned hard. Some people really are good, unselfish people - and that's great - I envy them. But it actually doesn't matter very much whether you are one of them or not, if you care about your kids. You have to go around pretending to be unselfish most of the time in the parent business.

The same is true about our present situation. This is scary stuff. There's nothing crazy or unreasonable about being scared by what we're facing. We've got bad news, and it is *appropriate* to feel bad about it. There's no reason we have to be fearless here - frankly, the only way I can imagine being fearless is to be stupid. But we do have to be brave - that is, we don't have to feel brave, but like the Cowardly Lion, like the Mom who doesn't really want to get up for the two am feeding, we have act the right way, to pretend as hard as we can that we have, as the song says, the nerve. And the amazing thing about pretending hard is that sometimes - not always, but just sometimes, you become, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, "what you pretend to be."

Which brings me back to fear, and the only antidote to fear I know - good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long) to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward. We're in the same situation now - the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are. It isn't required of any of us that we not be afraid, or that we don't spend a lot of time grumpily wishing that someone else would do the work and leave us alone with our book. But it is required that while we curse fate, previous generations, the current administration, G-d and the Federal Reserve, we get to work. What work? Tikkun Olam, if you are a Jew, or even if you find the metaphor compelling - tikkun olam means "the repair of the world." In my faith, that is why we are here - to fix what is broken, repair what is damaged, to improve what can be improved. As the saying goes, it is not required of us that we complete the work, but it is not permitted for us not to try.

Now I do not come from one of those religous faiths where you put aside the lesser emotions like fear and selfishness - in fact, as far as I can tell, the right to whine is a sacrament in Judaism. So I'd hardly be the person to tell anyone "don't be afraid." Instead, I suggest we all be afraid - that isn't pathological, it is appopriate and reasonable. Nor do I suggest any of us fail to whine about it as much as possible - that, after all, is what the internet is for, collective whinging. We might as well take advantage of the technology while we've got it.

But let us whine while we hammer, moan while we cook, sigh in outrage while we write and march and yell and build and fight our fear with good work and the pretense that maybe we'll become better people while we're pretending that we already are. There's too damned much to do to do it any other way. I may be a coward at times (and trust me, I am), but like the Lion of song and story I'd like to think that , "I could show my a lion, not a mou-us..." We're going to need lions, or at least busy mice with really loud roars.



Cinnumeg said...

Thank you for that post Sharon. I find that using those lesser emotions such as spite and rage and desperation helps quite a bit. And that doing good works does go a long way.

I am in several 12-step fellowships and we talk a lot about acting ourselves into right thinking. Rather than getting into some heady argument with some prickster who refuses to face what's going on in front of our very noses, and rather than fancying myself as some messiah come to rip off other people's "denial b'ankies", I strive to zip my lip and practice acceptance of the current moment and find the next right action. I do it because I don't want to pick up sugar or booze again and get to 300 pounds or more.

(Let me just say here, in print that every single American is a qualifier for Al-Anon. There is rampant addiction in this world, and IMHO, all one has to say at an Al-Anon meeting when they ask "is there a problem of alcoholism or addiction in a loved one or a friend," you can say "I'm American--hell yeah!" I prefer AA meetings myself, but that's just me.)

I follow your blog and Carolyn Baker's and I've decided to try and work with a mentor on this stuff as well. It gladdens my heart that I at least I'm not going through all this pre-suffering on my own. :)

Something I heard too, FWIW--Fear: An acronym for "Forgot Everything's All Right."

Anonymous said...

I'm glad, in a perverse way, that I'm not the only one who is scared almost beyond reason. I've had the sense we are living on the edge for years (all my adult life, certainly) but there is a difference betweent that and realizing that were are now wildly waving our arms as our feet leave the ground.

Most of the time I can kid myself into functioning calmness (denial isn't all bad) by considering that my daughters will mostly be okay if we have a slow crash, and even some members of my immediate family -- but that flies away when I try to plan for friends (I can't make a plan that look workable for a single family) and is spotted orbiting the moon as I consider some of the soup kitchen clients and their children.

But I take a deep breath. And I figure I can either keep going, or --what? What does one do if one doesn't keeping going?

So, I keep going, and try to keep going in the right direction. That I think is the important part, that even as we live with fear, we try to use it as goad to keep us in the right direction. (I'm not going to define the right direction here -- just take it to mean the direction you think you should be heading in, not the one you'd be mistakenly flee to in blind panic, only to discover you were in such a state that you didn't even put your shoes on.)


David said...

Thanks again, Sharon, for a wonderful post that is (again) spookily in tune with what's going on in my life. I am more aware every day of how much work I have to put into maintaining my optimism and cheerful attitude. Some days, it's all good; and other days I wake up with the weight hanging over me and I have to consciously work to overcome the feelings of dread and uselessness. Like many people reading your blog, I'm sure, I want to find the place where I should be, doing the things I ought to be doing to help me, my loved ones, and my community to manage the rough road ahead.

Sometimes it's just tough to know that what I'm doing is what I ought to be doing. And sometimes I have that feeling of wishing that I could blank out on the knowledge and just coast, like so many people I see out there. But of course I can't... and I really wouldn't want to.

This is certainly a weird time. I think we're all getting used to levels of stress that are pretty off the scale -- as though we're sopping up the stress ration for our society as a whole. Maybe things will start getting better when the general realization starts to sink in out there that this is not just about a few polar bears and CFC bulbs. Some of the crazy stress for me comes from that bizarre disconnect between the urgency I feel and the biz-as-usual tone of the world around me. I'd like that schism to start closing up, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Sharon! Thank you.

I'm very afraid, more than I've ever been in my 56 plus years. I refuse to be in denial and, although, under much daily stress due to our awareness of reality my husband and I have committed ourselves to relocating out of South FL. This area where my husband was born and where I grew up will definitely be under water sooner than most of us think. Yes, it will be painful to have to leave and abandon (nothing is selling around here)our paid for five beautiful acres and simple house that we built 14 years ago. Our family (husband and two young adult sons)are grateful that we have the option to leave, others who are heavily in debt most likely have no options.

I also receive Carolyn Baker's e-mailings and am thankful for her helping me to prioritize my actions as well as to not be in denial regarding the "terminal triangle" of Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. And most importantly, Baker and others have helped me to not be in denial about the non-existence of U.S. democracy or the death of our constitutional republic. Patriot Acts, Executive Orders and Military Commissions Act of 2006, along with election rigging, have trashed our remaining rights. If there are mass protests, all these existing laws will be enforced. Detention centers have already been built (by Halliburton) and I'm sure Blackwater will patrol the streets.

As a peace activist for the last five years in particular, I 've come to the conclusion that now it's time for me to move on and focus at this point on building lifeboats (to use Richard Heinberg's term from his book "Powerdown") which will save lives and whatever is good in our civilization. I hope!

My heart aches for the poor of the world and of our country who have very few or no options. Our suffering will pale when it stands next to theirs.

To Sharon and everyone, thanks for sharing. I find solace in this blog.

"We are not alone!" -- Michael Franti


~Vegan/Leaving So.FL

Lee said...

There is hope:

And in your part of the world:

What I'm trying to say is, you're not alone in feeling the fear.

You're also not alone in doing something about it.

Be brave. Be strong. And know that there are thousands of other mums out here trying to 'do our bit' to repeair the world too.

K.J. said...

O.K., I'm gonna mess this up....but I'm reminded very much of a scene from Lord of the Rings, where Frodo is talking to Gandolf and saying he wishes the ring had never come to him, and that things were different, to which Gandolf replies that we don't get to choose the time in which we live, we have to do the best that we can in the time given. A bit of a malaprop, I'm sure, but I think the sentiment is true. We are here now, and we all have a purpose to serve, and I love the idea of just finding the next right thing to do. We can all do that....just the next right thing. I think will so much dire news floating around us, the best thing you can do is stay in this moment. What can we do in this moment?

Anonymous said...

Sharon, your posts always make me cry.

I just remember laying in bed, nursing my son, listening to the news on the radio and crying and crying over the babies in the refugee camp in Darfur.

I need to remember that - whenever people want to argue about whether or not global warming is caused by humans, to redirect the discussion back to the issue of overconsumption, instead.

And like Karen said, to think of what I can do right in this moment, whether it's walking back downstairs for my metal spoon when I get up to the chili cookoff and they're giving away plastic ones, or to buck up and get on my bike even if it's dark and cold.

Anonymous said...

Karen -- actually, I keep thinking of that quote, too.

K.J. said...

It sounds strange...I really draw on the lessons from the "Ring" movies. I am not a fan of those types of movies, but they really have been speaking to me, now more than ever. How brave am I? That seems to be the question of the day more and more...

Lili said...


One of your finer efforts. I wish more people would get their minds around the notion that you can't wait around for enlightenment to dawn before you start acting responsible and facing facts, however unpleasant. Because actually, enlightenment tends to emerge from acting responsible and facing facts.

toktomi said...


As usual, I agree with 90% of your offerings.

However, your "nation of farmers" is your state of denial, your form of salvation from what awaits us all - soon.

...or so it seems to me,

~Mike Porter~
aka dreemes, aloe vera, jackieblack999

Ares Olympus said...

Good work as the only cure to fear, I believe that, good work meaning serving to a greater purpose than personal gain.

The hardest sort of fear is fear of the future, a fear that all our "good work" can be evaporated in an instant, making action in the world futile.

I'm not religious at all, but it's funny my mind twisted the words around in the title from "Scared" to "Sacred" - perhaps an unconscious reminder that power exists from within as much as the material world.

I think also of Russian Writer/philospher, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his book The Brothers Karamazov, a quote I copied.

Great hope can lie in loss and failure, forcing us to give up safety and see deeper sources of power within.

Here's the extended quote I reread at times, a conversation between a younger and older man

... "That life is heaven," he said to me suddenly, "that I have long been thinking about." And all at once he added, "In fact, I think of nothing else." He looked at me and smiled. "I am more convinced of it that you are, I will tell you why later on."

I listened to him and thought that he had something that he wanted to tell me.

"Heaven," he went on, "lies hidden within all of us - it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time."

I looked at him. He was speaking with great emotion and looking mysteriously at me, as if he were questioning me.

"And we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins. You were quite right in thinking that. And it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality."

"And when?" I cried out to him bitterly, "When will that come to pass? Will it ever come to pass? It is not simply a dream?"

"Then you don't believe it." He said, "You preach it and don't believe it yourself. Believe me, this dream, as you call it, will come to pass without doubt. It will come, but not now, for every process has its law. It's a spiritual, psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Everyone will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through a period of isolation."

"What do you mean by isolation?" I asked him.

"Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age - it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality, everyone wants to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself. But meanwhile all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age is split up into units. Man keeps apart, each in his own groove; each one hold aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest. He ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, 'How strong I am now and how secure.' And in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time and people will marvel that they sat so long in the darkness without seeing the light. And the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens. ... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die."

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

It is scary stuff:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sharon. As I'd like to end this comment on a positive note, let me say two short things first: I assume you meant you honestly have NO doubt whatsoever that being prepared is better than not being prepared. But I would appreciate your confirmation.

Also, you say that the only way you can imagine being fearless is to be stupid. I'm afraid another possibility, and one we're seeing at rather high levels these days, is madness. See, e.g., some of the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s last public statements, and some of what Paul Craig Roberts has written on the CounterPunch website (you can find them all with a little googling). CounterPunch is a site I highly recommend, by the way, for those who want to keep track of what we have to fear, and seek to repair. Perhaps the pre-eminent source, for me, is Noam Chomsky (quoted below).

Recently I was asked to prepare a reading for a bar mitzvah. I'm afraid I began drafting with R.D. Laing's reflection in 1967 from "The Politics of Experience" on how society trains and highly values its normal men, who had at that time killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men (and women, and children), in the prior 50 years. I began attempting to update the figure for the following forty years, but thankfully realized that quoting Laing would have been wildly inappropriate. So I admit I somewhat surprised myself by coming up instead with the following, which I'd like to share in response to your statement:

There has been substantial progress in the unending quest for justice and freedom in recent years…. The crises we face [today] are real and imminent, [but] in each case means are available to overcome them. The first step is understanding, then [at times, individual action can be effective; at others, we need] organization and [collective] action. That is the path that has been followed in the past, bringing about a much better world and leaving a legacy that can be carried forward from a higher plane than before.…[1]

Therefore, may we have not only strength, determination, and will power, but understanding, compassion, patience, persistence, and the courage to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, [to vindicate] the rights of all who are left desolate,”[2] and to work in cooperation with our neighbors and the world community, that our world may become just and therefore peaceful and safe, and that our lives may be blessed.[3]

And let us say: Amen.

[1] Adapted from Noam Chomsky, Failed States, and “Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities,” Monthly Review 17, June 2007.
[2] Proverbs 31:8.
[3] Adapted from Jack Riemer, Social Action

Anonymous said...

"I've got a lot of practice... winding up my computer and typing out my outrage hoping to break through someone else's scales and make them as angry as this stuff makes me, so that maybe, maybe we can do something to stop it. But I'm less practiced at dealing with my own fear. I've been dripping with outrage at the world's injustices pretty much since I was old enough to have a political conscience.." Sounds just like me - good to know i'm not alone. Perhaps nothing infuriates me more in the situation we're in than the friends who substitute cold, analytical dissociation for what's truly appropriate: outrage, and then action.

My partner and i are exploring alternatives, including draft-animal power. We have learned tons and found much deep satisfaction, though it's been far from easy for either of us.

There is hope for the future, provided you qualify and don't get too optimistic. As Carolyn Baker pointed out, we are far beyond the stage where there are "solutions" for "humanity" - what remains now is options for individuals.

Get prepared!

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Huckleberry said...

I recently read Kunstler's "World Made By Hand" and watched "A Crude Awakening." Truly terrifying, especially as that was my introduction to the Post-Peak Oil crisis.

After speaking with a friend, asking desperately for some sort of resource that was more positive than the others that introduced me to our post oil future, I found your blog.

I cannot thank you enough for sharing your thoughts and creating this forum for discussion and learning. It's still a bitter tonic to swallow, but I'm feeling a little less hopeless, and definitely less alone.

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