How to Let Go of Environmental Fear
You’re jogging and a rattlesnake sidles out along the path.
You’re in your car in the middle of nowhere when the clouds gather low and the radio blasts in with a tornado warning.
You’re in the doctor’s office waiting for the results of a biopsy.
You’re watching a video, seeing a giant iceberg shrink, a mountainside scraped down to a mound of dirt, the run-off from a chemical-drenched cornfield seep into the water table.
Fear hits you hard, punches you in the gut, makes your breath come short and your eyes fog up. You feel weak, you feel ready, you feel disarmed, you feel unstoppable all at once.
Fear hits us when we hear about ongoing ecological damage and cultural habits that are leading to terrible conclusions. The idea of a terrible conclusion is what induces fear. It’s not the fire we fear, itself; it’s the pain of the burn we will get if we venture too close. And so fear, sensibly, jumps up in our hearts and heads when we are aware of environmental damage that can, and most likely will, lead to pain later.
In this powerful video about environmental loss and grief, Rabbi Katy Allen of Ma’yan Tikvah congregation reminds us that “We are nature . . . our connection to the earth is physical as well as spiritual.” When we see damage or loss in our environment, whether present or future, we feel “sad, angry, scared.” We feel sad about the loss, the damage that has already been done; angry at the thoughtlessness that allowed it to happen; and scared about the future consequences, the potential future losses that could occur if things continue.
But this fear is limited. It is situational, and it works only for a short time before the effect wears off. Fear gives us a rush of adrenaline that physically prepares us to do something, whether that something is spring away from the danger or run towards it, arms upraised, with a crazy war cry.
The very point of fear is to move us to action, and when we find no ready course of action, the fear dissipates. Even if we understand intellectually that we must take action now in order to deal with consequences of decades or centuries hence. But fear does not understand these kind of time periods. Fear only understands the now.
When fear is controlling your view of what needs to happen for long-term environmental change, you will not see past whatever single, urgent need is right in front of you. You will miss out on important perspectives, information, ideas, and exchanges with other people — and you won’t even know it. Your fear will automatically push them into a blurry background, out of focus, out of reach.
So what do we do with this fear, then? How can you let go of something that doesn’t serve you?
Rabbi Allen shares a beautiful quote from St. Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
We must let our fear move us from one place to another, from avoidance (“I don’t want to know”) to acceptance (“This is happening”) and then further, to a new approach. Our new approach must not be about avoiding consequences, but about adopting new habits, new solutions, new lifestyles. We must push ourselves from preventative to proactive. We must stop screaming in terror and start announcing goals, advertising vision, attending to hope.
We must, says Rabbi Kate, “allow our losses and fear of our losses to transform us . . . dig deeper . . . become closer to all that is sacred in the universe.” It is that change — that moves from fear to courage — that will be the effective long-term motivation we need.
Photo Credit: DeeAshley
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