Grief, Love & Rage: A Christmas on Fire

Posted: December 22, 2019 in Uncategorized

Christmas tree pics

After a busy year, and having gone without a proper summer break for a very long-time, this December I looked forward to a relaxing holiday. In my face mask, during a state of emergency, surrounded by unprecedented bushfires, mourning the dead, I’ve had time to ponder the recent failed U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Madrid after it was moved from Chile, because that country, one of many, was ablaze with popular insurrection. Christmas 2019 is on fire.

I usually like Christmas, but this year I’ve been struck by the number of people ‘giving it up’ or significantly downsizing their celebrations. In the lead-up to the festive season, friends have posted George Monbiot’s article from seven years ago – The Gift of Death – about how Christmas has become the pinnacle event of pathological consumption and a normalised destructive madness. Those posting the article often highlighted the last sentence of George’s piece – “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Other recent Facebook posts have promoted the practice of gifting time instead of stuff. Meanwhile, my thoughts are concentrated on the large scale waste of time and the mass destruction of life.

The death of capitalism

As I’ve stated before; “I do not wish to dwell over the grave of capitalism, the yawning abyss into which it’s drawn out death seeks to drag us. This is not because I am unconcerned about, or underestimate, the threat to life that capital poses and it’s not because capital’s obituary has been written many times before. I am very keen to help fill capital’s grave and bury it forever. But I refrain from becoming fixated on its tomb and refuse to become transfixed on the nightmare scenarios of the system’s death throes. Instead I wish to highlight and concentrate on the other side of our spilt time; the future that is already living.” However, this is hard to do when you can constantly see, hear, taste and smell the collapse of capitalist society; when you’re breathing-in the ashes of trees, plants, animals, and eco-systems; when you’re constantly confronted by the death of things that you love.

Walter Benjamin explains that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Crisis and disaster are constant features of capitalist society and as the climate crisis intensifies, recent debates within the environmental movement have often critiqued the privileged for neglecting the long-term suffering of others. While this argument can be divisive and overstated, a recent article by Charlotte Wood spoke of how local people’s moods have changed in the face of the recent bushfires, “from disbelief to hypervigilant fear to a kind of WTF petulance. It’s still happening?” Then; “After our petulance comes a stoic, patient reasoning. It’s good for us to get this wake-up call. And it’ll be over soon. But that was weeks ago, and the patience has been replaced by a grim, creeping dread. A fear that it won’t be over soon, or ever.”

“The existential horror of what all this really means . . . also brings shame, at how we city dwellers have managed to ignore what people in the regions have endured for years now. Even as we’ve written the letters, donated the money and attended the protests about the towns without water, the massive fish kills, the dust storms, the extinctions. Even if we’ve attended to all this in our minds, there’s nothing like going to sleep with the taste of ash in your throat to give you an actual, physiological understanding of real fear.” Yet, most of us still seek to maintain as much ‘normalcy’ as possible, despite the growing dissonance between heightened emergencies and the mundane tasks of every-day life; even though attempting this ‘new normal’ is absurd and distressing.

For many people, our mounting fears are combined with long-term ecological grief. Eco-awareness has become eco-anxiety or climate depression and those who pay close attention to environmental calamity frequently describe their feelings of sadness, rage and perpetual loss. Many people are also experiencing ‘democracy grief’ – despair over the rise of authoritarianism or fascism – and apparently there’s a growing number of people seeking counseling for ‘politically induced misery’. This spreading wave of gloom has prompted some therapists to rethink how they practice, because they have no clinical distance from the concerns upsetting their patients.

Famously, the stages of grief are meant to be – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As I struggled to write this post, I became aware of how I was cycling through these stages over and over again, often very quickly. For me, this reflects different subjectivities – the impact of death and the power of life producing a complex, dynamic process of continual transformation. This is not an individual process but a social one – involving personal changes and the alterations of the world around me – and as I wheel through different stages of grief, I know I’m not alone. Other people are grieving all around me. So, when inundated with sorrow, deploying denial is supposed to ‘help pace your feelings of grief . . . letting in only as much as you can handle.’ Yet, I can’t deny that I feel overwhelmed.

During the recently completed session of university, I taught a cohort of students in Sydney and Melbourne (via video conferencing). At one point, I asked the combined class, who were mainly aged in their early twenties, how optimistic they were about the future. I’m increasingly concerned about student anxiety and depression and I like to pose difficult questions, which they sometimes find hard to answer. This one was met with an attentive but silent response. So I let the question hang, allowing the uncomfortable quietness to continue. Eventually, one of the Melbourne students called-out – “we’re fucked!” The other students greeted this with a relieved wave of laughter and affirmation. There was no disagreement from any of them.

‘We’re fucked’ is now such a common refrain that I hear it almost every day – when I’m online, or out with friends, when I chat to strangers, when I’m home with my family – and I’ve begun to accept it. Yet the acceptance of eco-grief, democracy grief, or ‘politically induced misery’ doesn’t help me move on from them. Instead this acceptance feels like a part of me has died. While I accept that things will never be the same again, I remain alert to the dangers of resignation and continue to promote a range of optimistic alternatives; despite my own sadness, in the face of incredulous and emphatic dismissals of hope, the withering looks, and stunned silences.

We are all very anxious

We Are Plan C argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of contemporary society – “Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious . . . All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.” Anxiety and stress tend to be “understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation. Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us ‘safe’ (through securitisation) and ‘competitive’ (through performance management).” They conclude that; “People are paralysed by unnameable emotions, and a general sense of feeling like shit. These emotions need to be transformed into a sense of injustice, a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, a move towards self-expression, and a reactivation of resistance.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned how common it was to hear or read the term ‘existential’ in relation to the climate crisis. We briefly discussed how this is because we’re seeing so many things ceasing to exist, or rapidly facing the same fate. We also talked about existentialism and how existentialists view anxiety in a different way from most psychiatrists and psychologists. Rather than perceiving anxiety to be a problem that should be resolved, they view it as an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience, and which can teach us important lessons about life. Albert Camus argued that the ability to have passion for what could otherwise be considered a meaningless life reflects an appreciation for life itself. If your life becomes about living more fully, then life is understood as meaningful. Existentialism stresses that, despite a range of social constraints, people have freedom to choose and therefor the responsibility to act. It also embraces the destabilisation of dominant systems of meaning and appreciates that these can change dramatically and rapidly. Existentialist angst can help people to reject repression, take action, and create what we lack/more valuable lives. The most progressive existentialists argue that we need to do this collectively.

MEME

Earlier in the year, I posted this ‘therapist meme’ on Facebook. From there it was shared almost two and a half thousand times. I have never had anywhere near that level of response to anything I have posted. It seems there’s a widespread desire to move beyond individual therapy and dismantle the system. In the past, I used to see a lot of counselors and some of them were very helpful. Today, I concentrate more on building therapeutic relationships in my ‘solidarity teams’. But, here I find there’s a problem with creating enough time for reflection, faced, as we are, with the need for increasingly rapid action. None-the-less, during the past year, my friends and I have tried to create processes of struggle which are slower, more contemplative and more people-centred; which ‘offer a respite from daily struggle, and perhaps a quieter style of interacting and listening which relieves attentive pressure’, where we can speak with a self-expressive voice, listen, and analyse. This has helped to reinvigorate my capacity to engage in more traditional forms of organising. Yet, the pressure to remain hyper-active is ever-present.

Rage fatigue and anger as an energy

SAD IMAGE

As with many other people, I’m tired of being so sad and angry. They’re becoming too overwhelming to renew each day. Although I’m used to being sad, having previously been diagnosed with persistent mild depression/sadness, I refuse to be miserable, and prefer my rage. According to standard psychology, anger comes from sadness and fear. Here fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment, or discouragement. Since fear and sadness are painful and involve vulnerability, people tend to avoid them. ‘Anger is a defensive maneuver, a reaction to feeling wounded.’ However, it’s okay to be sad, there’s a lot to be sad about, and the social pressure to present yourself as happy, when you aren’t, should be resisted. Sharing sadness is a healthy human behaviour and communicating our pain to those who care about us can build stronger social connections.

In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make us feel more in charge, rather than vulnerable or helpless. Yet, we often fear that the intense emotions associated with anger will overwhelm us and make us lose control, lash out, and/or hurt someone. So we may seek to protect ourselves from the power of our own anger by suppressing it. At the same time, neoliberal society promotes the fake smiles and the countless charades of relentless positivity – where we ‘ignore conflict, deny injustice and oppression, and pretend we’re not angry’. When we’re not supposed to be angry, we tend to internalise it.  But regardless of how individualised and isolated we may be, the social power of our anger continues to flare-up and as it becomes a more serious management issue, the system seeks to harness and direct our anger in ways which reproduce its causes.

Let fury have the hour, anger can be power

Do you know that you can use it?

(Clampdown, The Clash, 1979)

So, it can be helpful to think about why we’re angry, what has caused our immediate anger, why we experience long-term anger, what impact our anger has on our relationships, and spend time working through that anger. Failing to acknowledge that anger involves effort or intention, that it’s about losing control, suggests that we have no agency, no power to shape the world as we recreate it. Eco-anxiety and climate rage are not pathologies, they are reasonable and healthy responses to existential threats. Grief and anger indicate a receptivity to what’s taking place; a refusal to numb ourselves to the horrors of our time. Given our genuine sadness, reasonable fears, and real vulnerabilities we have a lot to be angry about. The energy of anger can be clarifying, it can help us to speak the truth, inspire us to change, put us in touch with others who are angry about common concerns, and help us to struggle together for positive change. Greater understanding of our situation can relieve psychological pressures and make it easier to respond with productive anger instead of despair.

Anger can help us to say ‘No!’ to a whole range of shit. But ‘No!’ is not enough. A few years ago, my father said that what he liked most about me was my equanimity; that I was the calmest person he had ever met, and he had never known me to be angry. I found this surprising and once again wondered how well my dad really knew me, since I consider myself to be very angry. But I also thought about how my parents had taught me to express my anger in constructive ways (often by modelling the opposite); ways that seek to control, harness, and direct anger. I’m increasingly angry with mainstream political parties, politicians, corporations, and about the growing violence and destruction wreaked by colonialism, capitalism, fascism, patriarchy, etc. Throughout the year, this type of anger has erupted across the globe, during rebellions in Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, and elsewhere. 2019 has also been a year of increasingly militant and enraged global climate activism. As I write, Australian politicians are having to avoid any public appearances because they’re likely to be confronted by people’s rage over environmental inaction. Yet important questions remain about what this anger can, or will, create.

In recent years, there’s been much discussion about the anger propelling the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and I’ve been thinking about some of the different ways contemporary anger manifests politically and how politicised anger reflects feelings of powerlessness, power struggles, and different forms of power (the power to do things and the power over people). Contemporary anger indicates the exhaustion of people’s caring capacities, as well as the fact that they continue to care. Generally what people want is more power over their lives. Unless our movements can better organise the collective strength to achieve positive social change, we will mostly operate within the systemic hierarchies built on exerting power over those who have less of it, trapped in a ruthless spiral of economic, political, and social competition, ‘alone in our own suffering and fighting among each other’s suffering’.

The expression of anger is not always the most appropriate or effective action, but it can be. It can be a source of strength, fearlessness, and solidarity. It is an energy that has inspired great movements for freedom and social justice. It can drive positive individual and social change. Given the state of the world, we’re likely to see much more anger as well as wide-ranging debates about the uses of this anger, as a surge of enraged movements of resistance confront neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. But this doesn’t mean that our projects aren’t ones of care, of love, and joy. We are motivated by anger, but it is love for each other, for the world, for life, which produces living alternatives to suffering, grief, and despair.

Ferocious love

Humanity’s survival hinges on the preservation and extension of loving relationships that nurture the biosphere, people, flora, fauna, land, water, air, life. I began this year with an exploration of love – writing and then presenting a paper at a conference on ‘Love as Politics’ in Tokyo. Here I outlined how, following many years of involvement in progressive social movements and political projects, I tended to find people concentrated on the horrors of capitalism, their opposition to existing society, and macro forms of political organising. What was often neglected were interpersonal relations and more caring ways of collectively organising the present. Over time, it became apparent that what I wanted more of in my personal relationships – love – was the same thing I wanted more of in politics. So, I have attempted to escape from my own sadness and what has been termed ‘sad militancy’ – being overly rigid and ruthlessly critical of people in their efforts to organise better ways of living, the striving for an unobtainable purity or perfection, setting goals that cannot be achieved, where the outcome is always out of reach, always projected into the future, so we continuously feel defeated.

‘Struggles are the best teachers’ and ‘friendship is the richest lesson’

To create and maintain caring relationships requires time and space dedicated to working with and on each other and our situations. This might entail supporting each other to deal with anxiety, despair, fear, grief, or anger. What Naomi Klein calls ‘ferocious love’ comes from and feeds back into the web of relationships and affections in which we’re immersed. As Sara Motta explains – our rage is a legitimate response to systemic violence; “But new worlds cannot be built on rage alone . . . we need to rethink the ways in which our emotions, practices and knowledges are limited by the violence of the dehumanising system we are in. We need to think about rebuilding the wisdoms and power that can emerge from connection, solidarity and care and which support us to become free. To rebuild other worlds – to decolonise our lives, bodies and spirits – we need to recreate, recognise and centre in our politics ways of coexisting and supporting each other, and recognising each other as people with complex emotional strategies of survival and flourishing, and with deep wisdoms which come from our experiences of multiple traumas.” Here – “Love . . . is the key ingredient that helps us to resist . . . that sustains and nurtures the will to act, and to carry on when our bodies, communities and families are under constant siege.”

Within loving relationships anger can erupt when dealing with important matters, or what may appear to be trivial things. Sometimes, we’re disappointed with those we love and need to communicate this disappointment. At other times, we might be angry about something else, perhaps something we’re unclear about, and are expressing our anger to someone we believe cares. Loving relationships should be able to accommodate anger and we shouldn’t be surprised when this is conveyed in ways reserved for those we love/who love us; when we speak to each other in ways we wouldn’t speak to anyone else; more openly and sincerely expressing our anger than we might do with other people. These expressions of anger can be forms of love. Of course, I’m not talking here of patriarchal culture or twisted ideas of romance which posit abuse and violence as acceptable demonstrations of affection.

Anger can help us to protect ourselves. It can be channeled into creative and nurturing acts, as manifestations of love. But love can be both positive and constructive or negative and destructive and what people love and how they love has a multitude of potentials. Building caring relationships involves the capacity to block, dissolve and sever those connections which are harmful. We can’t always have ‘good relationships’ with everyone. Friendships can become coercive, manipulative, and exploitative. Challenging and refusing oppressive relationships can help to create more love. In the face of violence and abuse it’s perfectly legitimate to get angry, to be defiant, and to fight-back with individual and collective rage; rage that isn’t filled with hate, although we hate oppression; rage that isn’t just about our pain and suffering, but is also an expression and a celebration of our power to resist and our capacity to keep on loving.

What we care about and our ability to be compassionate are under attack. We can feel our vulnerability growing and we’re worried about the future. Sustained distressed uncertainty is grinding us down and as we prepare for the ‘silly season’ a clear 2020 vision is impossible through the fires, smoke and ash. Our time is split “between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living”. So, this Christmas, rather than gifting each other the system’s shit, let’s offer our presence, provide comfort, and share some special moments. It’s time to express our fears and our grief and to be really fucking angry. It’s time to take care of each other and to better organise the collective power of our love. While much has already been lost, and more is being destroyed, communal practices of sharing and caring can repair damaged habitats, eco-systems, psyches, relationships, and communities. As the fires spread, it’s the response of concerned people, dedicated volunteers, community associations, and social networks that offers the most reliable and resilient support. A new year is coming. A new world is coming. Governments and their corporate bosses are not going to save us. It’s up to us. With love and rage we can rise from the ashes and nurture better futures together.

Nick Southall

Repair

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