Being on the Cusp: Facing Psychological Impasse (part 1)
Chris Robertson is a retired psychotherapist, climate psychology author and co-founder of Re-Vision psychotherapy training with a soulful perspective where, with others, he ran a six month ecopsychology course (2010). In this two part essay for Unpsychology Voices he writes of the psychological and cultural implications of “Being on the Cusp”, and the psychological challenges (and practices) of “Facing Difficult Truths”.
“This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.” Rilke1
If we can imagine water molecules being aware of being at a phase transition from the solid crystals of ice to slowly melting into liquid, we could imagine their trepidation at this loss of structure. In this writing I make the conjecture that our culture is in just this type of transit, a cusp in which both little and everything seem to be happening. I explore the psychological challenges of Facing Difficult Truths2 as thick with tricky dilemmas that hold the complexities of the climate emergency, the possibility of non-being with the sixth great extinction along with the psychopathology of our dissociated western reality. Intrinsic to these dilemmas are symbolic and literal death.
There is a cusp, a tipping point, in which the world as we have known it is unravelling. Scientists tell us in the 2022 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that several tipping points are in danger of leading to irreversible change. Examples of the climate systems that are sensitive to tipping include ice sheets, ocean currents, permafrost and major forests. What makes these threats doubly problematic is that the intervention time left to avert a range of catastrophes has shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to make the changes.
The wide interacting complexities of what contributes to climate change, along with problems of many solutions bringing unexpected consequences, have led to it being described as a ‘wicked problem’3. And the challenge is that complexities of climate change are not just an unsolvable problem but an unthinkable one. Ecophilosopher Timothy Morton has called it a ‘hyperobject’4, a concept that is too large to be adequately comprehended by human beings. Such amorphous immensities are not strictly ‘objects’ at all – they break open the subject/object binary. In the case of climate change, we are not the subjects observing what is happening externally. Humans are entangled inside the climate and part of the change.
Morton clarifies that what we call ‘the world’ as defined by what we can see and feel is too simplistic to cope with reality of the crisis. Hyperobjects speak to the immense unseen forces which challenge our modes of thought and threaten our human identity. So, when I frame the context as the ‘world as we have known it’ to distinguish the cusp from catastrophic fears of a literal end to the world, I am invoking another tricky uncertainty – what is this world we have known?
How we come to know anything is not straightforward. How we report on the crisis is part of the crisis. It is not all in our mind – the planet is undergoing extreme changes but how we think and feel about these changes are human constructs. The western fossil-fuelled culture struggles to come to terms with these changes because of a modernity-reinforced assumption that the world is stable. Our previous epoch, named as the Holocene, was temporally (a mere 11,700 years) stable leading to the illusion of human control and prediction. The post-Holocene turbulence brings an existential challenge to human centrality and entitlement.
As I write, I will attempt to explore the edge between talking about the cusp and being present to its mercurial potentials. Trying to describe the feeling of this experience rather than resorting to conceptual abstraction is itself part of that edge – the edge in which language, our human ‘super-power’, is constrained by its legacy of assimilated past knowns. Timothy Morton5 points out that attempts by environmentalists, such as in Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac6, to escape the text and evoke nature, can not evade the authorship. Like with climate change itself, there is no escape for those blind to the realities. Attempting to by-pass or avoid the dilemmas of human limitations are ways of not facing the troubling difficulty. I shall take a hint from Winnicott who described the biggest challenge of adolescence as ‘being adolescent’ and stay present to the cusp and its cusping.
Whereas tipping points are abstract concepts, such as with the earth’s geological processes passing a point of no return, being on the cusp (of a wave) or at a cusp (of a fortuitous career break) speaks of a potential, a fertile if uncertain possibility. As with tipping points, cusps mark a threshold of transformation between two states. In systems change, tipping points indicate where a sequence of positive feedback lead to irreversible change such as in the spread of an infectious disease or the melting of glaciers. While tipping points can be used to describe systems change of a positive nature, they are often used to describe collapsing systems.
The cusp offers a different quality in the metaphor. It brings a sense of a threshold in which the uncanny other is suddenly present. It is scary but offers an emergent possibility. As poet Terry Tempest Williams7 says of an unravelling process, ‘To unravel is to reveal what has been hidden’. In relation to a synchronistic meeting that leads to a career change, we can suddenly feel grateful for the failure of the previous work. Similarly psychoanalytic genius Bion8recommended that to leave space for a new idea, analysts would forget what they knew and wait instead with patience for a pattern to evolve. This waiting with attention is the work of cusping.
I speak of cusping as a process. My mind cannot handle the hyper-unknowing. My attention switches to my hands. I imagine I am reaching out, grasping while not grasping, searching for that connection. My embodied awareness offers this felt sense of what is at the cusp - a tenuous contact, as if the fingers of my hand are gently attempting to sense an unknown fruit. In my imagination there is this erotic attraction that is luring my hand to the fruit (if that is what it is) and the fruit to my hand. It is a reciprocal process where I am both touching and being touched.
To stay-with this sensing (of the fruit that may not be a fruit), it's important for me not to grasp but to wait . . . . seeking permission for the connection; a humble entreaty while I wait without expectations; a meditation with negating every attempt by my mind to ‘get it’. The attempts to recognise and name the unknown ‘fruit’ are escapes from being with the uncertainty of nothing being quite what we thought it was. The work is to stay with the edge between the strangeness of experience and what can be articulated. We need, as the opening quote from Rilke suggests, the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences. It’s an encounter; a meeting in which I come up against the limits of known experience. It suggests what Freud termed ‘The Uncanny’9 sense of something ‘other’ entering our perception that queers what we hold as normal reality.
To our sanitised domesticated reality, which is re-enforced by most of TV and social media, the cusp is to be avoided. The cusp is threatening. It carries dangers of disrupting the escapist consumerism that fills the empty nihilism of modernist life. It is like a threatening nightmare that has erupted into waking consciousness with talk of climate crises and the end of the world. These ruptures of the normal, of the basic assumptions that underly how the fossil fascism has been permitted to construct a neo-liberal world, are disruptive and scary but potentially vitalising. They lie at the cusp.
The strangeness of the cusp lies in its evoking unbearable feelings of anxiety and grief in the face of terrifying destruction of other species, floods, fires and storms alongside unthinkable events such as the uncanny stillness of the pandemic in which animals were able to freely walk city streets. Something ‘other’ is happening. Radio commentators spoke of ruptures in the fabric of the space-time continuum. Perhaps unconsciously humans sense that our time as the dominant species is up. Just when we thought ‘nature’ had been tamed, the ghost of the other-than-human returns. The talk of Gaia’s revenge brings with it fantasies of the natural forces wreaking retribution for the unrepairable damage some humans (mostly white neo-liberals) have wrought.
A Death in Life
Many social commentators are saying that they cannot remember a situation like the present. This strangeness reflects an internal shift in my own feeling; dreams that portend to the disturbing unravelling of our human-earth circumstance. Dreams of tsunamis, of uncontrolled destruction, resonate with climate disasters. In The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman10 tracks how dreams are a descent into the depths that also offer the riches of Hades. This psychological descent, so common in midlife, brings that breakdown of the ego structure that is also a potentially creative opening.
There is an uncanny coinciding of the earth’s biophysical disturbance in fire, flood and pestilence with social tipping points marked by economic collapses, energy shortages, war, social unrest and migration. It is as if all systems, geological, political, cultural, ecological and psychological are all suffering this breaking apart. How to be with this rupture? It feels too much, completely overwhelming inviting a sense of helplessness, like ‘I imagine’ accompanies death.
I know this experience. It feels to me as if I have died several times in my life. Early experiences that threatened my sense of identity include shameful exposures of sexuality, getting lost on journeys, adolescent heartbreak, my parents’ frequent moves of home. These disturbances were part of learning to be in the world but could not prepare me for the ruptures of mid-life including career change and divorce that took the ground away. The most recent example was retiring after thirty years from the psychotherapy training centre I had co-founded. At the time I noted:
I have been through these cycles of loss before. This one feels different. Partly because it is now but partly because it signals the end to my training work. No return. There was huge sadness and grief in this letting go. These were the treasures of our life’s work we were entrusting to others, knowing that they would take a different path. The original vision had run its course and now a new vision had been collectively dreamt. This was a rite of passage; a release from an old form.
It was a death, an end to a major way of experiencing myself, an end to a world I had constructed. . . an end but not the end. Like for many, retirement is a tear in the fabric of the world we have known. As such it can function as a symbolic death to the ruling order – both the internal ego world and the external social-ego controls. If we strip away notions of progress, the ego-goals we have internalised, then we live through cycles; cycles that include relinquishment, loss of what we know and often love along with the potential for renewal and vitalisation. The western narrative of goals, accomplishments, triumphs are stories of the heroic ego that we have been fed in countless stories of success and dominance.
In my western industrial culture, death offers something of this encounter with the cusp. It lives at the margins. Death represents that boundary which technology cannot push – despite the narcissistic fantasy of uploading consciousness to a silicon intelligence. Death is an antidote to human exceptionalism. Like all living beings we are subject to death but how well hidden our modern culture makes it in contrast to the megalithic structures such as Stonehenge and Avebury that celebrate the cycles of life and death. Even funerals obscure it with the coffin trundling off behind a curtain. My first encounter with death was not until my thirties being called to an elderly neighbour whose husband was dying. The ambulance was delayed (even in the 1980’s.) She did not know what to do. Neither did I. There was nothing to be done, except be with him.
There was nothing to be done - not so easy when there is anxiety. The cultural anxiety of present times demands action, productivity – a manic overdrive striving towards betterment or how to better sell your brand in the ever-hungry-for-attention social market. Resisting this drive to gain attention and then be present to what is, is a counter-cultural practice. If it seems like dying, it is the dying of an agitated, activated ego that cannot bear to be at rest.
To be continued/
Being on the Cusp pt 2, can be found HERE…
Unpsychology Voices is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and join the conversation, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Rilke, R ( 2012) Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. London: Penguin
Strapline of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA)
Incropera, F (2015) Climate Change: A Wicked Problem: Complexity and Uncertainty at the Intersection of Science, Economics, Politics, and Human Behavior
Morton, T (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press
Morton, T (2007) Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. London: Harvard
Leopold, A (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And sketches Here and There. Oxford: OUP
Bion, W (1970/1984: 124) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock
Hillman, J (1979) Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper