mental health and how to fight for uncertainty13 Sep 2020
Lately I’ve been thinking about making some kind of “Emotional Intelligence Toolkit for Activists”. This toolkit would include tips on
- self-knowledge, including knowing one’s own limitations
- dealing with a complex and overwhelming world
- sustainable ways to maintain hope
While, on one hand, I see an urgent need for something like that in activist circles, in the other hand, I see value in such a toolkit for everybody.
But today’s reflection is more on the last point, aka sustainable ways to maintain hope. In fact, what I’m going to present might seems for some a very twisted way to do so, but I still think it’s worth exploring this idea.
So I have read the text Beginning with the End by Roy Scranton and what is stated in this essay is that “[t]he world has already ended, over and over, for countless peoples and epochs”, in an attempt to re-frame what we consider “the world”. The other focus point of Scranton is that the only certainty about the future is its uncertainty.
He starts by acknowledging how uncertainty can be troubling for the human psyche, by talking about we collectively need meaning.
“Nature” has no inherent meaning, yet paradoxically “nature” made humans conscious, social animals who find such groundlessness infuriating, nearly incomprehensible, and all but impossible to live with in a day-to-day way, since our daily activities, our sense of being in the world, and our sense of the world itself are motivated and made meaningful not merely by unconscious reaction and instinct, but by individually imagined and collectively produced symbolic structures, which is to say beliefs and stories […]
But he doesn’t leave the reader on such a disappointing note. With a zen approach in mind he suggests that “[t]here is another way” :
Accepting unknowing. Embracing the void. Recognizing the limits of human knowledge. Relinquishing our consoling fictions about the future. Acknowledging the transience of the present and seeing in the death of what is the birth of what will become. It may be true, as Kermode argues, that we cannot exist without imposing some order on the chaos of experience, yet this insight makes possible the realization that the relationship between order and chaos, form and emptiness, meaning and void, is not dichotomous, but dialectical, as articulated in the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”
He introduces the concept of an “apophatic futurism”, following the spirit of the satori of Buddists and the “radical hope” of philosopher Jonathan Lear.
Apophatic futurism recognizes that we cannot know how climate change and ecological catastrophe are going to transform our world, how human civilization will change in response, how human beings will adapt to the new world of the Anthropocene, or who we will become in the future—yet it also remains committed to some future human existence, no matter what form that existence takes, no matter who that human is. Perhaps the least consoling form of consolation, this via negativa might also be the one most responsible to reality and the idea of collective human endeavor. Insofar as apophatic futurism insists on the impossibility of saying what the future holds, it is a kind of nihilism, a total negation, a learning to die, a great “No.” It accepts the end of the world as given. Yet insofar as apophatic futurism rejects all the spurious fictions of apocalypse which clamor to claim our faith, the utopian and the dystopian, the heavenly and the hellish, it remains committed to the possibility of a new world yet to be born.
I very like how he phrases it. I think it’s an interesting way to see it in the specific time we are in. Like, objectively, the impact of climate changes are getting more real everyday. Subjectively, we feel like it’s “more here than ever” because it’s happening in the USA right now (I’m thinking namely of the California fires) and the USA has more media coverage than the rest of the world.
I myself refrained from going to protest lately and became very less politically active on social medias because of anxiety. No matter how rational I’m trying to be, I’m getting stressed out. And I’m a very optimist person to begin with. Nonetheless, I try to remain aware of my feelings. I’m trying to see what’s beneath this anxiety and a lot of it is grief.
I once read an article I cannot find anymore which said something like this : the fight for social change is one where generations learn to lose over and over again, but every time stand up and “lose in a more effective way”. But in those days, I feel like no matter how much battles we lose and how many battles there is left, there is no way we can balance the score and win the war. But I don’t want to give up.
So I have this “funny story” I’m telling myself now, which goes in the vibe of what Scranton is saying himself, but it sounds very less intelligent on my end. Personally, I’m picturing myself an extraterrestrial civilization. I imagine them discovering the Earth in a distant future. We have “failed”, so maybe there is no human survivor (but there is probably still life on Earth, but it doesn’t really matter). If they decide to study our long gone civilization (I’m quite convinced some marks of our presence will remain in some way), I want them to discover that we try our hardest until the very end to fight against the barbarians capitalist, that until the very end we were making the best we could on this little time allowed on Earth.
Feel free to steal that little story. Otherwise, to study zen might be a good spiritual alternative to remain sane. And more seriously, the subject deserve much more thorough analysis and I shall come back to it.
In the meantime, let’s hold space for our collective grief.
EDIT 06/10/2020 : I’ve just read the speech of Russell Means, member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, from July 1980 and this passage offers a future worth meditating about.
American Indians have been trying to explain this to Europeans for centuries. But, as I said earlier, Europeans have proven themselves unable to hear. The natural order will win out, and the offenders will die out, the way deer die when they offend the harmony by over-populating a given region. It’s only a matter of time until what Europeans call “a major catastrophe of global proportions” will occur. It is the role of American Indian peoples, the role of all natural beings, to survive. A part of our survival is to resist. We resist not to overthrow a government or to take political power, but because it is natural to resist extermination, to survive. We don’t want power over white institutions; we want white institutions to disappear. That’s revolution.