Totems work in the middle of the night for us. But what about the day? What about a day that is gloomy and we learn that this Florida winter is 5 degrees hotter than any on record? Does that matter to the young families on my street, all intent on getting to work and then picking up the kids and getting them to bed? I suspect not. We talk, Ranger and I, about the role of crisis in our lives, and what makes us respond.
Me: “Ranger, I have an image of my mother, in the spring of 1942. It was a REALLY cold winter everywhere. The siege of St. Petersburg, Russia, by the German army was already driving people to hoard food… the first of the famine years that were not to end until 1944. I was born February of 1941 in Prince Albert, Saskatchwan. By that time mom had six other children and a husband devoted to being the voice of God in that remote Presbyterian pulpit, in the household he ran without mercy, and in the community of believers, such as they were. I nearly died in that early Spring, 1941, of whooping cough. They had hired a nurse, a small bone to my mother’s extreme exhaustion. But I survived, and they went on in that miserable winter.”
Me: “My vision is of my mother, her thin paleness and once-luxurious hair spayed around her head, sitting on the back step of the old manse. She is in a cheap house dress and thick sweater, holding her head in her hands. It is the utter hopelessness of her demeanor that remains with me, and it’s probably my first memory. She was just learning that her husband had decided to join the war effort, and was being shipped off to India, leaving her to cope with her huge brood and no place to live. She would not only survive, but thrive in the tricky decision making that led her to buy a home near her family in Iowa, but raise her children with elegance and grace, see the world emerge from the war and food rations into the crazy times of prosperity and excess. What did we learn? That the bad times would pass, and the world would continue. Do I feel that same hopelessness now as the data about melting polar caps and rising seas pours in? Is my hopelessness fleeting, because better times are ahead? What makes my hopelessness different than hers? Help me with that, my friend.”
Ranger: “Glad you finally let me get my two cents in… thought you might further belabor that story. Your mother obviously had all the traits admired by your family: grace, dignity, empathy, integrity and kindness. The despair you feel is not just about the current political and global political climate, but about the bigger picture of climate in general. Your mother, and now you, bemoaned the wars and refugees and food supplies…. but the cloud of despair over your head is relatively new to human history, right? Never before has the despair included the stark worry about the survival of the planet as we know it. Your mother never worried about whether Earth would survive, even thought she worried constantly about the outcome of the war and the welfare of her children. Am I getting close? You see an existential crisis and very possibly human extinction.”
Me: “Bingo! I have been in civil protests since Viet Nam, I’ve protested the Iraq war, I tried to teach the lessons of conservation to my children so they would learn discipline. But now the worry is for the very survival of the human race as we know it. My worry about the current U.S. political situation is very real. I believe we have elected an emperor who doesn’t realize he is naked and therefore is not capable of shame. But that worry is completely subsumed by the global crisis of overpopulation, overconsumption and overuse of resources. Earth will survive, but maybe not people.”
Ranger: “Now, you call me your therapist, so here goes….. you have an obligation to remain hopeful and manage yourself, even though you want to tear your hair and sit in sackcloth and ashes. While you see an even bigger picture than your mother did, she serves as your model still. She got up off that step and set about her job being a mother. It is an inheritance that you cannot squander in grief and sadness.”