Being on the Cusp: Facing Psychological Impasse (part 2)
The second half of Chris Robertson's reflection on the psychological and cultural implications of “Being on the Cusp”, and the psychological challenges (and practices) of “Facing Difficult Truths”.
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”.
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. James Baldwin1
In part 1, I explored the psychological challenges of Facing difficult truths 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. These are ruptures of the abnormal ‘normal’, the false world, we inhabit; how dying before we literally die may give permission for being in and with the cusp we are navigating, so catalysing a transformation of our cultural reality.
Suicide and Ecocide
With the advent of widespread climate anxiety has come increases in suicide and suicide attempts, especially in adolescence2. These are new forms of cultural anxiety that have arisen as the denial of climate change has receded in the face of the everyday experience of devastating floods, fires and storms coinciding with social fragmentation, a financial crash, the steep rise in the cost of living and the failure of cultural containers. Modernity’s competitive pressure to progress, to stand out, offer the less successful little else but grievance and a sense of being wronged. The ground on which the modernist triumph has relied is crumbling. That there are calls for socially safe places, marks the general lack of safe places3.
It is not just the extreme weather or the loss of species and wild habitat but the underlying sense of alienation for humans not feeling at home in their local place and/or planet. It seems to be a time of desolation (of de-souling) marked by novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This dead colourless landscape of a vanishing world reflects a cultural despair. It is tempting to blame others, to find scapegoats for our troubles rather than stay with the fear. The fear is that of dissolution, a regressive loss of self that Freud saw as death. He imagined this dissolution as Thanatos – the Greek god of death who encourages a silent slipping away into nothingness. This nothing would be a terrifying death as abandonment. Similarly with paranoid fantasies of persecutory attack, death becomes a horrifying prospect.
Jungians have seen this dissolution less literally, and more as a symbolic loss of the ego and false self that makes possible psychic transformation towards wholeness. The darkness that our egos fear as annihilating can be that of the womb as much as that of the tomb, as much a fertile void as black hole. In Suicide and the Soul Hillman advocates the development of a conscious philosophy of death that posits death and life not as psychological opposites but as intertwined.
The analyst cannot deny this need to die. He will have to go with it. His job is to help Soul on its way. He dare not resist the urge in the name of prevention, because resistance only makes the urge more compelling and concrete death more fascinating. . . . . But by going with it, by being the bridge through whom the patient can enter death, the experience may come before the actual death occurs4.
Can we imagine such a philosophy in relation to Ecocide? Ecocide refers to the collective fouling of our own nest – etymologically killing our home. It is ethically clear that those individuals, corporations and even nations responsible for environmental destruction need to be confronted by the law, but such laws will do little to end human destructiveness. To consider taking one’s own life as a conscious choice is one thing but to consciously allow the possible destruction of exquisitely tempered ecosystems and the extinction of many species including the human race is unthinkable. This is the point – it is unthinkable to all but the psychopaths who run the oil industry. To think that terrifying thought does not make it happen. It is the anxiety driven repression of such thoughts that invite the very reality we fear.
Imagining such an end is not a resignation to having it happen. It is part of enduring the reality of our present predicament and might even lead to radical action. This step is captured in the tragic poignancy of imaging being the last human. We may have felt some of this terrible pathos in reading about the last white rhino – a sense of dreadful loneliness. In a poem entitled, It Cannot Be, from her book [To] The Last [Be] Human, Jorie Graham writes5,
undone. As here these words cannot be taken back into the windless wide unsaid. No. These changes to the living skin of silence, there where your dis- appearance into nonlife, into nonlife, into no-longer-ever-again–in-life–no–no longer in creation, no, no more of your kind—changes silence to what I call it –ex- tinction
Magic of the Unexpected
At the start of this exploration, I wondered about the end of the world as we have known it in relation to knowing. Reflecting on this journey through suicide, ecocide, death, despair and the inexplicable, I am left wondering if it is more the end of meaning rather than knowing. Meaning making is so essential to humans. Insights and connections don’t just happen. We make meaning out of what has happened. This ‘making’ becomes part of the edifice of the colonial ego pursuing further tracts of power and control. In being absorbed these new lands of meaning become stilted and barren, so losing their vital significance. A vacuous emptiness initiates a new cycle of searching for fresh meaning. To be stuck in either pole e.g. in an empty nihilism or for ever searching fresh lands without ever finding one, is a fixation that refuses to release to the emergent cycle.
I have suggested that in the collective unconscious, humans sense that our time as the dominant species is up. Progress and growth were erroneous delusions. It is a time of endings, of desolation, of despair, of loss and grief; of engaging the phase of there being no meaning to life. It is aimless and absurd as many novels and plays explored in the aftermath of the second world war. If we are waiting for the illumination, like waiting for Godot we may be waiting a long time.
It is not that individuals might not take on causes that give their life meaning, such as bringing laws that would end ecocide or confronting ‘The Merchants of Doubt’6. But collectively as a species, we sense an existential dread. The approach I have been suggesting is that of acceptance which is a feeling-based process of coming to be with the reality of what is. This is more than mentally recognising the reality and it is not to be confused with resignation, a passive defeatism. It requires the work of relinquishing wishes that things could be different than they are. It is an acceptance that there is no escape from our existential dilemmas, no recourse to saviours. This requires the courage that Rilke invokes to face the most inexplicable experiences. We inheritors of Western privilege have to eat our collective shadow of destructive exploitation.
In workshops such as ‘Through the Door’ offered by the Climate Psychology Alliance, the experience of facing into these realities that often get pushed to the side is painful but liberating. With the support and focus of a group, it is possible to engage these dilemmas that confound and overwhelm us separately. The sharing of the desolation brings a solace if not a solution or remedy. Through feeling the despair and learning to live with this new sense of vulnerability where there are never any answers, participants find new ways of feeling into the unknown future of the climate crisis. The workshop process supports their facing of difficult truths.
Then there is the wonderment that can randomly happen, unbidden and unscripted – the magic of the unexpected. Most surprising, even shock at its arrival is mirth. Quite suddenly uncontrolled laughter grips the group. Initially I try holding this back, feeling it is inappropriate and taboo, but the power of the laugh bursts through. It reminds me of episodes with individual clients when the absurdity of their unhappiness breaks the bonds of their depressive suffering. While there are elements of escape or avoidance of the awfulness, the timing of these outbursts after having deeply engaged the unthinkable tragedy, suggests a liberation, a breaking out of vitality and eros.
The juxtaposition of humour and tragedy is a tricky edge that can easily subside into loose parody and satire. Adam McKay’s film Don’t Look Up is a case in point. The absurd premise of the title is counter-pointed with its bleak focus on the potential extinctions happening on our planet. While it ticks off politically correct indictments of superficial, easily distracted media and politicians, it loses the edge of existential absurdity by over-egging laughs. It is in danger of becoming part of the very distracting entertainment that it seeks to confront.
This tricky edge is precisely the nature of the cusp; a razor’s edge which offers little leeway but at the same time a warm enticement to relinquish what we know and imagine what seems impossible. If I extend Winnicott’s notion of the false self7 – a defensive retreat into the mind away from reality and external social pressures – to a False World, then we have the chimera of a looking glass world that has divorced itself from the limited boundaries of living on earth. Bizarre fantasies of moving to other planets without the generative supportive ecology of a living planet, reflect the borderline condition of this false world. Anything is possible if said with enough force (and money) without recourse to reality testing. Its absurdity is akin to industrialised animal rearing changing to a diet of immaculate looking Astroturf.
Relinquishing a false self, let alone a false world, is tricky because so much has been invested in the maintenance of the falsehood. Individual psychotherapy can offer a new holding relationship to midwife the release of the old ego-skin and connection or reconnection with a true self, but what could allow this cultural transformation? Facing difficult truths about the how we have constructed this ‘false world’ is a good start. As the opening quote from James Baldwin said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity”. This is more than a crack in the edifice or even a rupture. It is, as has been discussed, the end of the world-as-we-know-it. Although there are many attuned individuals and inspiring communities supporting ecological values, a cultural initiation into a new social paradigm may take the impact of some unthought, impossible other – an unexpected gift.
I had thought to end this writing with a story of a magically surprising meeting between a Tibetan lama and a tramp – perhaps a random associate of Godot. I recognise this as an attempt to look outside for that gift when it is sitting close by unrecognised. On reviewing my attempts to bring out the psychological process in the apparent impasse of the climate crisis, I see that what is remarkable is the synchronicity between the earth and human disturbances. I wrote,
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.
It occurs to me that this is an example of ‘parallel process’– a psychotherapeutic notion that describes the strange phenomena of an unconscious issue presented by a client getting paralleled in the supervisory situation. An example would be that the client withheld some key information such as the father committing suicide. Although consciously unknown by the psychotherapist, he/she/they subsequently withhold something, such as murderous counter-transference towards the client, within the supervisory setting. This parallel process of withholding, if picked up by the supervisor, can be revelatory.
What could we make of this seemingly parallel between earth systems and human social/cultural systems? The first point is how entangled these systems are and the human-centric view of our privileged separateness is illusory. The recent changes in our fossil-fuelled consumption have destabilised both earth systems balance and human systems – a bidirectional coupling8. Climate science has focused on the effect of human societies on the planet but is increasingly recognising the feedback on humans such as forced migration, spread of disease, infertility and conflict. Climate psychology has turned the attention to eco-anxiety9 that frequently comes in caring concern for the Earth and terrible grief in our complicity with destructive exploitation. This complex intertwining of concern and grief are characteristic of the cusp’s paradoxical containing-rupture that evokes eco-anxiety as a catalyst for change10.
Secondly the shift of a seemingly benign planet that is stable and abundant to an unstable, dangerous and hugely powerful one, is felt like the rejection of a persecutory mother who has turned against humans. Hence the notions such as The Revenge of Gaia, which personifies our planet as a harridan. Outside of the projective feelings onto the planet, the aggression and danger lies with humans. In psychotherapy where the client feels their dependence and potential triggering of abandonment trauma, strong ambivalence of love and hate towards the therapist are common. Although difficult to receive, having the hate pronounced, explicit rather than hidden, is a relief. I was once in an ecopsychology group in which participants were affirming their love and care for the world, when another participant declared that he ‘hated nature’. After the initial shock, his bold statement felt like a gift. It invited or permitted each of us to acknowledge the ways in which we too hated nature – a little owning of collective shadow.
Translating psychodynamics from psychotherapy to the human-planet dynamics is muddy and fraught with anthropocentrism11. And there is this deep, mostly unconscious, resonance stemming from that humans having co-evolved with the planet. Many indigenous peoples name the planet as a ’mother’ such as the Incas do with Pachamama. This cultural respect and care has moved to ambivalence in the industrialised West. Part of our collective consciousness enjoys the privileges of entitlement too much to face the difficulties but part feels contrition in the face of our exploitation and wants to repair – mend our ways and relationship with the other-then-human world. The repair needs to include facing into our hateful deeds with the grief and remorse. Participants in Through the Door who have experienced this a longing for this kinship with plants, animals, rivers and places, speak of the beauty of this reconnection.
The reconnection process reminds us humans of a deep reciprocal affinity between human nature and external nature. Western industrial communities have deserted this instinctual continuum but it has not disappeared. It is still connecting to us through what we sometimes refer to as our ‘second nature’. In the process of cultural dissociation from our instinctual ground, western humans have become so habituated to identifying with our minds that to trust our second nature - what we feel/know/ intuit without recourse to thinking about it - is an unexpected gift.
This writing began with a change of form; ice melting as a metaphor for the phase change in our present culture. The emphasis has been on the dark reality of our ecological predicament and the practices of relinquishing false hopes in coming to accept this. The experience of working through such precipitous collapses within individual psychotherapy, reflects anthropological accounts of cultural collapse. Both can lead to a renewal where the unexpected is permitted to break in. And both are fraught with gross and subtle temptations to maintain life as we know it. The psychological work of Facing Difficult Truths, as I have outlined it, is the rigorous refusal of these distractions and the relinquishment of the cultural pay-offs in holding onto the crystalline structures of social and cultural safety. We can not expect the transformative gift but we can clear the room into which we invite it.
Being on the Cusp pt 1, can be found here…
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Baldwin, J ( 1961) Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes from a Native Son. Dial Press
Hillman, J (2106:71) Suicide and the Soul. Connecticut: Spring
Graham, J (2022: 294) [To] The Last [Be] Human. Manchester: Carcanet
Conway, E & Oreskes, N (2012) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.
Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., Clayton., Lewandowski, E. R., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C. and Van Susteren. L. (2021). Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955
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