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Being Human: How Can We Cope With Climate Change Grief?

Saigoneer is proud to announce ‘Being Human,’ our new series dedicated to mental health.

Written by psychotherapist Douglas Holwerda, who has spent nine years working as a counselor in Vietnam for both English-speaking Vietnamese and foreigners, each article will delve deeply into a subject that’s relevant to people living in Vietnam.

This first offering explores climate change: when all around us we see or hear of the seemingly unstoppable loss of species, the destruction of the natural world and storms of increasing power and frequency, how can we reconcile this new reality and cope with increasing anxiety about the future?

In The Farewell, a movie written and directed by Chinese-American author Lulu Wang, a family’s central dilemma is whether or not to tell their aging Chinese relative — who is suffering from cancer — that she is dying. The family returns home to China without telling the family matriarch exactly why they have come. The movie masterfully navigates the values and consequences of holding a hidden truth. The purpose of hiding the truth of her cancer and imminent death is to prevent her from experiencing inevitable sadness and grief. Her family pretends not to know the truth, yet privately carry her pain as a gift to her so she may continue to live freely and without the sadness of the inevitable “goodbye.”

A poster for The Farewell. Image via Variety.

As a psychotherapist, this movie challenged assumptions I’ve held about the value of facing the truth and the right that people have to know what affects their life. Until seeing this movie, I might have argued that it was always better to feel emotions that are congruent with the truth of life, the circumstances that shape our experiences. Now, I am wondering if the writer, Lulu Wang, has another “farewell” in mind. Now, I am wondering whether she has something to say about how society can respond to a collective fate that seems to be unavoidable in our time and place in history.

Specifically, I am referring to the ramifications of climate change and what we are learning about catastrophes that may occur in the not-too-distant future. There is much to suggest that this image of a bleak future generates anxiety and depression, especially for young people who are trying to set goals and plan their future lives. How do we understand the current emotional effect that climate change is having on us, both consciously and unconsciously? What is the wisdom in sharing a truth that could generate anxiety, cause collective depression, or overwhelm us? Do we understand the issue well enough to know how to talk about it? Let’s look at why this is difficult for us to wrap our heads around and how climate change might be affecting us now.

While it is difficult to gauge the collective wellbeing of a society in terms of its emotional condition, we can look at suicide rates, use of psycho-pharmaceutical medication, alcohol and other drugs, rates of addiction and stress quotients to get an indication. From the sample of clients I’ve seen over the past nine years in Vietnam, it’s clear there’s been an increase in anxiety and an emphasis on future-mindedness, especially amongst young people. I believe we are all being affected by bad news. Combined with the generation gap that’s grown in correlation with rapid technological change, young people’s formative years are very different from those of their parents and grandparents, and they are now experiencing the burden of what they are inheriting. While it is difficult to assign cause and effect, it is important to have a finger on the pulse of our collective wellbeing.

Climate change is already affecting the Mekong Delta, with many choosing to leave the area. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

The first dilemma most of us face in regard to climate change is: who do we listen to, who do we believe? We are offered multiple future scenarios, each of which interprets data differently and points to drastically different results. Some say there’s nothing wrong at all. Others claim it’s already too late for humans to avert what’s coming. It’s difficult to doubt the peril, but it’s also difficult to predict when and how the issue will affect us, and this creates a side effect — before even coming to grips with what the actual problem is, we are forced to rely on uncertain information from others. From a psychological point of view, we are already feeling anxiety due to an unpredictable, and potentially ominous, future. This means we must all make choices about who to believe and what decisions we make. It also means we must factor in how we manage and regulate our anxiety as we come to understand the problems we face.

In psychotherapy, fear and anxiety can be seen as healthy when those emotions generate awareness of danger in ways that increase our ability to overcome it. The feelings help us to anticipate, prepare and plan ahead. Yet fear and anxiety that becomes too intense will only generate more fear and anxiety. It can become easy to lose perspective – an imagination fueled by fear can lead to catastrophic thinking and a sense of hopelessness. Chronically anxious people often struggle to find solutions to threats and become trapped in a thought-loop that feeds their anxieties and fears. It becomes a fear of fear itself, anxiety that creates more anxiety. This is the road to depression. Living with the concept of an ominous future has the potential to cast us into despair. Alternatively, we might try to distract ourselves instead of coming to terms with a future we’d rather not face.

Another emotion that afflicts those who are aware of our complicity in climate change is guilt. It’s undeniable that our collectively enjoyed lifestyle has led to the state we’re in now. We’ve enjoyed the use of cars and plastic containers, we’ve eaten beef and flown around the world. We’ve not been careful with waste, whether food or products that pollute water and expand landfills. We’ve lived with a blind eye, inherited from the blind eyes before us. We’ve been reaping benefits while paying the problems forward. Again, there are few solutions to this guilt. We can’t get it right because we live in a society where the desire for what we have is stronger than our ability to change. We knowingly participate in our own demise.

A small group gathers for Saigon's climate march. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

The consequences of climate change also amplify a major dilemma humanity faces — the balance between will and acceptance, control and chaos. Climate change is huge, and some claim its origins lay in society’s greed. Some say we are destined to create problems we cannot collectively outrun. They say population growth is a fundamental issue and that we’ve overpopulated our planet to a point of unsustainability. Yet despite seeing the cause of the crisis, we must still wrestle with difficult decisions about what to do next. The question is, what must we accept? And what can we do to reduce mental suffering brought about by climate change? To answer these questions is psychologically challenging for each of us.

Some are more proactive than others in addressing the issue. Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement founded in the United Kingdom last year, describes climate change as an emergency that could lead to starvation, mass migration and wars over resources like water and food. They apply pressure on society and governments in order to change the way we live and mitigate the impending doom they see down the road. Some young people feel betrayed by previous generations who’ve created the dilemmas they will have to deal with. Greta Thunberg, who’s become an international climate spokesperson at the age of 16, aims to raise consciousness of the challenges her generation will face. While many criticize young people for apathy and escapism, the decisiveness and action of some individuals will go a long way to help deal with their burden of anxiety.

In The Farewell, one watches and wonders whether Nai Nai, the woman with cancer, is aware of her fate. While the family masks the truth from her, it’s possible she is also masking the truth from them. Either way, they live out those remaining weeks with a renewed zest for life, while accepting death. Does it make sense to play this game with each other amid our inevitable, collective mortality? It appears unlikely, at this point, that we can stop the inevitable, yet it remains true that we can choose how to live now. While acknowledging our fear, anxiety, guilt, anger and powerlessness, we can also recognize humanity’s remarkable potential for ingenuity, connection and collaboration.

Predicted high-tide flooding across southern Vietnam by 2050 according to one recent estimate. Image via The New York Times.

Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, suggests there are two potential outcomes. Either, an evolutionary crash where we pull apart, compete for resources and veer off into a new dark age, or a period of bouncing back where we pull together, cooperate, and focus on higher levels of maturity and opportunity. Elgin and others suggest it is under the pressure of crisis that we discover who we really are and what is ultimately possible. Courage can override fear, and optimism can guide us to what is most important. It is not where we are headed, but where we are that matters most. It is how we treat one another that will get us through this. Like Nai Nai and the other characters in the movie, we will ultimately die, yet we can choose how we live to the end. Our hope must draw from collective efforts, a fundamental shift away from egoistic pursuits and toward simplicity.

There is no clear road map to guide us through what lies ahead, although I do believe society has a chance to take a giant step in the direction of our greatest potential. Begin within. We know what our spiritual teachers have taught us — to love one another, to see beyond the material world. We can set aside our attachment to things in favor of a life that’s collectively sustainable and organized around the connections that matter most. By observing the transient nature of reality, we can hold our place in it, prioritize our values and live full-heartedly from acceptance. If we can keep our fear in check and use it instead to prepare and plan, if we can let go of the past and embrace the present, then from this point forward, we will find a way to address what is in front of us and maybe even celebrate life, even as we know we will die. Everything has been heading this way, and now we will see if we know who we are.

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