Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as the stones beneath a waterfall . . . I’m trying to get there—to peace, and it’s powers—but I just don’t seem able to. The river keeps falling.
The sound of it, in my ears.
—Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak
Thursday night, at a fine dinner in a nice restaurant, I found myself drawn into talking passionately about climate change, a topic more deadly to polite conversation than politics or religion. To be fair, this was with a group of young conservatives who get together regularly for the express purpose of discussing politics, and the discussion leader, looking to ignite a new discussion thread as the meal was winding down, specifically prompted me to talk about global warming and to share some details about how I have used environmental topics in my classroom. I wasn’t about to go there on my own, but, given the opening, go there I did.
I hope I behaved well. This was a great group of people who were genuinely interested in discussing ideas, open to other viewpoints and articulate about their own, but I was there as a mere tag-a-long, my wife being the legitimate guest-of-honor at this gathering. I thought we had a spirited discussion, found it mentally stimulating, but did I take too much of the floor? Get too inconvenient? I didn’t look at Belinda once I hit full flow, but I imagine she was staring blankly into her lap, thinking “there he goes again.” We adroitly ignored the subject in the car on the way home.
I’d like to think I did some good, that I came across as carefully informed and thoughtful on the subject and ultimately persuasive (albeit on an issue I would gladly be flat-dead wrong about). God knows we need conservatives (speaking broadly here, not pointing fingers at this group) to drop their stance of tribalistic culture-war denial on the issue and join the search for solutions. It gave me hope, made me feel less alone, that Thursday night’s conversation could even happen.
But all day Friday I felt emotionally hung-over. Here’s the problem . . . the flip side to hope is worry. Allowing yourself to feel hope opens yourself to a world of worry. And despair. In terms of our environment, if hope is the belief that tomorrow can be better than today, then hope is a sure road to despair. And so I had lately thought I have abandoned hope, had thought that I have simply accepted the bleak inevitability of our outlandish trajectory (really, the science could not be clearer) and accepted that no amount of earnest caring and response on my part was ever going to do anything more than make me miserable. Letting go of hope has been strangely liberating, has allowed me to get on with my life, enjoy the blessings at hand. Psychologist Daniel Gottlieb recently wrote about the importance of this moment and the power of two words—”what now?”:
After loss or trauma, most of us wish that tomorrow would look the same as yesterday did before all of these difficulties. If we are lucky, we give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: “This is awful, and I don’t think it will change. What now?”
Of course, “What now?” is a wide-open question. My answer for many months now has been withdrawal, a conscious decision to live in the moment and enjoy the world that most people around me manage to enjoy. Even if it means sticking my head in the sand, too. You can see it in my lack of blog output over the past year.
But I’m not sure that’s the best answer. It’s certainly the most selfish.
I’m sorry, boys.