Thinking the Unthinkable, Encountering the Unbearable

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by Carolyn Treadway 

Reflection – Photo © by Carolyn Treadway

Climate disruption is accelerating all across our beloved Earth. Perhaps even the near future could bring collapse of multiple ecosystems, which would end life as we have known it, and could bring extinction to most of the species currently on our planet, our only home. 

OMG, what if we humans really are not going to make it through?

Realizations and questions such as these arise unbidden in our heart-minds, often catching us off guard, and we want to banish them and keep them from our consciousness. But they persist! Eventually, we may realize that we need to look at current realities and to sustain that gaze. But how do we handle the overwhelming emotions that arise? We are grateful that we have Joanna Macy’s longstanding teaching to guide us: the way to empowerment is through the pain.

 In a recent online meeting of the Deep Times Editorial Board to plan this issue on facing climate collapse, we wanted to offer some tools that readers could use in encountering this topic. We decided to experiment with Open Sentences, an exercise of Joanna’s that all three of us have experienced as profound.  

An online call was arranged, with three of us–Molly Brown, Carmen Rumbaut, and Carolyn Treadway–able to participate in that call. As it turned out, three was just the right number for sharing this exercise. We noted the importance of setting a context for addressing The Great Unraveling and end times–including possible collapse of human civilization or even human extinction. Asking people to contemplate such disaster cannot be just sprung on them without some explanation and choice to participate.

Once we had established our context, each of us, in turn, completed these two Open Sentences:

  1. What I am grateful for as I face collapse is ________________.
  2. What I feel as I face collapse is ______________________.

1. What I am grateful for as I face collapse is________________.
Some of our collective answers included: skills I have developed, trees around me, my life right now, family and friends, health, comfort, internet connectivity, opportunities to teach and counsel, sharing concerns, not feeling alone, WTR, indigenous teachings, the preciousness of the present moment and everything in it, capacity to give what may be needed now, spiritual life. 

2. What I feel as I face collapse is ______________________.
Collectively, we felt: sadness, despair, grief, uncertainty, guilt, anger, regret, emptiness, excitement about collapse of bad institutions, tired, numb, overwhelmed, much affected by knowing young lives will be cut short, fear of social violence, fear of lack of stamina and endurance.  How do we treat our children? Protect them from these realities or teach them how to face it? Take courage from “future beings” who thanked us for what we did to make it possible for them to be born.

Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, and Reconciliation.

We then turned to the “Deep Adaptation” work of Jem Bendell that Joanna Macy recommends. (See his website:  Jem is a British professor of social and organizational change.  He defines Deep Adaptation as a “post-denial view” that focuses on what we can do to prepare for (very) possible coming collapses. Jem suggests “4 Rs” as important for us in these times: Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, and Reconciliation. 

We used Open Sentences to consider his four topics. Each person responded to all four topics before moving on to the next person. Our collective responses were:

  1. Resilience: Habits, strengths, and behaviors in myself that I want to keep and strengthen are____________.
    Tenacity, determination, wisdom, compassion, love, seeing the larger picture, curiosity, alertness, a good brain, love of learning, calmness, inner peace, art, music, humor, the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
  2. Relinquishment: I am willing to let go of___________
    Blaming, pettiness, irritation with self and others, consumer society, property, possessions—even a whole house if wildfires consume it.
  3.  Restoration:  Moral values, behaviors, and sources of strength from the past, our ancestors, or other cultures that I can learn from and use include_______
    Indigenous wisdom, other cultures that faced extinction (such as Jews and Armenians), art, music, dance.
  4.  Reconciliation: In this time of terrible loss, I want to make peace with________. I want to offer and receive forgiveness for______.
    Make peace, make amends, get rid of guilt, continue being open to others’ pain and suffering.

All three of us felt the power of sharing Open Sentences together. We had the courage to face toward our deepest fears and experience a little of what lies beyond those fears. We affirmed qualities we have and want to keep, things we were willing to let go of, and directions we wanted to move toward. Collectively we felt lighter, more positive, energized, connected, open to more insights, and grateful for our deep sharing. For each of us, it was a very bonding experience.

As a result, we want to invite you, too, to experiment with Open Sentences.

We started our time with a terrifying question: what if we don’t make it? We ended with a profound question: In these times of pending collapse, how shall we live?  We do not know the future. Jem Bendell gives differing degrees of certainty for certain future events. For example, global warming is inevitable—with a high degree of certainty. Humans going extinct is possible—with a degree of uncertainty involved. 

One of us, Carmen, has experienced depression most of her life. She found that a benefit of having to face her own despair constantly is that she already was well-practiced when it came to facing this level of collapse. Finding her strengths, facing her fears, grieving what was lost, finding new meaning in the process of living, and determining what she could do about the current focus of despair was by now second-nature. She knew that not facing the fear only gave it more strength.

Carolyn shared her experience of having cancer, and then not knowing whether she was living or was dying–which seemed like opposites. As time went on, living and dying wove together as one. The way forward became the same: to live each day fully, cherishing every aspect of that day as if it were her last so-precious day of life. She noted the parallels between her personal experience and our planetary situation.

Is this a hospice time for Planet Earth, or is it not? We do not know. But what we do know is that either way, each and every day, we want to live deeply, love our Earth and all its interconnected inhabitants profoundly, and do everything we possibly can to care for and preserve us all.  

Carolyn Wilbur Treadway is a psychotherapist, family therapist, pastoral counselor, social worker and life coach, now retired after almost 60 years of facilitating change and growth in people’s lives.  She “speaks for Earth” however she can—as a climate leader and mentor (trained by Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project since 2007), anti-nuclear activist, program planner and presenter, writer, and photographer. Since the mid-1980s she has been part of the Work That Reconnects. With her husband Roy, she lives in Lacey, Washington. Their three children and four young grandchildren constantly fuel her motivation to preserve our precious Earth. Contact her at [email protected].

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