Talking about the C word in public takes some courage. Its a word with a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the increase in global temperature. Some people respond so angrily they start yelling before you can finish a sentence. Others agree sagely that climate is a concern but immediately assign the blame to “other people” having too many babies, end of discussion. Most folks just quickly and politely change the subject. Psychologists who ponder our society's paralysis in the face of climate change think many, possibly most, people are not apathetic, uncaring, or uninformed; but are instead in denial because they can't handle the intense feelings which would occur if they were to confront it. Pressing more information on people in denial just increases their resistance, these psychologists say. If we can't handle the emotions which arise when we contemplate the destruction of life on earth, then we can't face climate change. And if we can't face it, we can't stop it.
My husband Michael, a wise observer of human nature, has another theory. He says we avoid thinking about climate change because we feel guilty for causing it. I would add to that what I call the “Starving Children in China Syndrome”, named after what parents of a certain generation used to tell children to get them to clean their plates. We know that we have huge carbon footprints but with our government hijacked by big money, we can't see that the individual sacrifice required to change our ways would do any more to affect global warming than my uneaten sandwich crust would have prevented starvation in Asia, so we don't change but we still feel guilty about it.
This whole line of thought started because I've been having a lot of feelings lately as I prepare to go on this cross country speaking tour and have debated whether to write about them. I'm spending most of my time now trying to get speaking engagements, which involves presenting myself as a serious competent professional and being emotional runs counter to the stereotype. One of the wounds men and women carry in our society is the false belief that intellect and emotion can't coexist. As a practicing physician for 30 years, I know that's not true. Using head and heart together is what defines the art of medicine. I've laid my hands on homeless patients I didn't really need to examine, so they'd know I valued them as human beings and I've listened to horrific stories that had to be told to someone and visualized the emotions flowing out the soles of my feet into the floor because they would have wounded me too if I let them stay. I also prescribe the best treatment based on medical science, but to get the patient to follow through it really helps if they know you care.
Even though that's what everyone wants from their own doctor, that's not what gets respect out in the world. So if I want people to think I have something to say worth listening to, I'd best put on my poker face. On the other hand, if fear of feelings is what has humanity frozen like a deer in the headlights of history, hiding mine so I can tell people more scary ways that climate change makes us sick is exactly the wrong thing to do. Part of the job, for those of us who are trying to move things forward, has to be leading by example and integrating the expression of emotions into our work; showing that we also feel fear, sadness, anger, and guilt about what's happening to the planet but have hope because of the tenacity, creativity, generosity and resilience that come along with being such complicated and messy human beings. That sounds so touchy feely it makes me want to run away from myself. Even for a softie who cries at commercials and country music songs this is not going to be easy.
When I was younger, I believed there was surely someone competent and authoritative in the wings who would sweep in at the critical moment, and save the day. In recent years I've lost my faith in superheros. Its getting late and we can't wait for a Gandhi or a Harriet Tubman to lead us out of this mess. What we've got are people like me who aren't totally confident, don't have every hair in place, and sometimes can't find the right words to say or answer every question; people who are sometimes happy and optimistic and other times tired, irritable, or afraid; people other people might see and think, “I can do that too” and join us. If you look at it that way, its not so bad.