The Emotional Process of Transition

Back in May, a colleague and I were talking about how we could revamp our courses to reflect our ecological and other global concerns.  I was reading like crazy, and was really taken by Carolyn Baker‘s approach–the need to mentor and guide people through the psychological and emotional shift that accompanies really dealing with the challenges to come.  It became my goal to design a course that would allow (mostly younger) students to face the realities of their potential futures, align their expectations, and get them thinking about how best to contribute to that future.  I recognized that this meant taking students on an emotional journey, and I’ve been working at structuring the course to do that in the months since.

Ironically, though, what I didn’t know was that I had only begun MY emotional journey with this transition!  Imagine thinking I could hold space for others to go through a process that I hadn’t been through myself! Hah!

As I’ve mentioned, I spent the larger part of the summer in despair and grief.  I have (I think!) grasped the scope and magnitude of what we’re facing.  I have recognized that there are no easy answers.  Climate change is running away from us very quickly, if we were ever in control.  Peak oil transitions are not being dealt with, and so are likely to be dramatic rather than gently mitigated.  The economy may stabilize, as it is now where I live, but even here the indications that we are in for radical transformations of our expectations and standards of living are many.  Everything looks very insecure, very tenuous, and very uncertain.  We are headed into unfamiliar territory, and I am scared.

My last post, about our financial situation, was written from that place of fear.  In the midst of all of the uncertainty, getting control of some aspects of our lives seemed imperative.  I spent weeks driving my husband crazy; every few HOURS I would state dramatically and with great doom:  “We HAVE to move.”  Followed by a few hours later, “We HAVE to stay.”  Followed a few hours later by, “Maybe we should sell everything and go live on a boat.  No wait–let’s buy an RV, park it on a small property and catch rainwater and compost EVERYTHING.  It’s our ONLY HOPE!”  He’s a patient man.

Now, many weeks back, John Michael Greer joined those who have suggested that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief might resonate with our stages of emotional transition, both at the individual and potentially at the community level too.  These stages have been added to and tweaked over the decades, but her essential stages were Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

When I read about these stages in this context, I thought, well, I don’t remember being in Denial, but I can see where I’ve been in Anger and in Depression.  I knew that I wasn’t yet at Acceptance!  But after writing out all the scenarios and worrying about our finances and seeing no clear way out, I suddenly had an epiphany: I was Bargaining!

You see, in all of my fear about all of the uncertainty, and in the midst of grieving for the suffering that I could see happening now and coming down the (Enbridge) pipe(line), I could see Collapse-a-coming.  What was my response?  To bargain obsessively over the details of my life to try to keep OUR lives from collapsing while the changes rolled in.

It was SO helpful to see that that’s what I was doing.  I took a deep breath, and here’s what I was able to see on the other side of my fear.

  • I cannot keep us from feeling the impact of the changes to come.  No matter how I fuss over the details, the whole point of the the collapse (and the reason for my fear) is that it is unpredictable and will affect every aspect of our lives.  We WILL adapt, one way or another, as we already are, trying to make the best decisions for ourselves at each crossroads.
  • There are few, if any, winners in the current system.  A part of me DOES want it to collapse, as the system itself is the problem.  In my estimation, from the research that I’ve been doing, there is nothing to save the system: it’s broke, and it will be the cause of its own demise.  So given that, why on earth would I want to hold on to the parts of our lives that are a part of that system?!  My bargaining was only to try and grasp some stability, hold onto the familiar, no matter how ugly.
  • It’s time–at an emotional level–to step into the changes, and stop fighting them.  I’m not suggesting we stop protesting politically or not try to change our communities to mitigate coming disasters.  But it’s also time to embrace the fact that things ARE changing, and, at one level, that’s what we need.

In my core beliefs, I believe that when I am experiencing great anxiety and turmoil, it’s because my mind hasn’t caught up with where the energy of the universe (or however you’d like to define it) is undeniably pulling me.  Right now, the one thing that’s clear is that the world is transforming.  So it’s time to let go of trying to hold on to anything; time to once again grapple with the Buddhist tenet that life is only impermanence, and that our attachment to the belief that there is anything else causes us great suffering.

Accepting that there is only change ahead, though, opens great emotional and mental space for me.  It distills what is truly important in life, and it’s not necessarily our home, our garden, our safety.  Millions today have been displaced by climate change, millions have left their homes, millions have died.  I may yet be one of those millions, and that will have to be ok.  That reality brings me back to my spiritual beliefs, and those are comforting.

Understanding that I am not special in the changes to come brings me the great peace of solidarity and compassion.  When all of society and culture is stripped away, we are simply left with each other.  And that’s often a richly meaningful place to be.  After all, I teach in my literature courses that one reason to read fiction and poetry from other times and places is that it demonstrates so vividly, so reassuringly, that others have passed through the great mysteries of life before us.  There is community and human connection to be had across history, as well as potential guidance.  I’ll be working on a new course: Literature for Transition.

The last space that is opening up for me as I stop holding on to my current life circumstances is the opportunity for vision.  There are myriad conversations going on right now about Adaptation.  Those are incredibly important, and I’ll be having them myself.  But Adaptation is the logical next step that is consistent with our current thinking, our current paradigms.  But those of us who have long dreamed of a different way of being in the world have been imagining a life outside of those paradigms entirely.  I’ve often dismissed my own such visions as lovely, but unrealistic and impractical;  or possible, but so far down the road as to be not even worth pursuing.

But here’s the thing.  Any vision of life and community that will replace what we have now can ONLY seem crazy, because it’s outside of all of the systems that keep us where we are.  But the systems that keep us where we are are collapsing and will not hold.  So we NEED visions of life that don’t relate to those old paradigms at all.  The realization of this paradox is liberating–it’s time to stop worrying whether “people” will think I’m a little odd, because anything that will seem “normal” is by definition unsustainable and doomed! 🙂

So where am I going?  Not somewhere too crazy, I don’t think.  Not somewhere totally detached from our human history.  Just back to understandings of life systems that have proven to be possible to sustain in an ecological system for millenia at a time.  And nowhere too specific as yet.  Somewhere deep in our human indigenous roots all over the world, where all of the earth is alive, where we are a part of the ever shape-shifting manifestations of Life.  Where Life speaks to us through the plants, through the animals, through the creation stories and Trickster tales of our archetypal mythologies.  Into old stories about mystery, that honour and uphold grief and despair as appropriate and desperately important emotions that take us into the deep self and spiritual knowledge of our interdependence.  And that lead to visions and guidance from places that we cannot see but know in our deepest levels of consciousness to be true.

I’m going off to talk to the trees.

(Note–I’m not actually GOING anywhere.  Don’t worry! 🙂 )


In case anyone is interested, here are some of the readings I’m working my way through these days, and which are offering me lots to contemplate:

The Permaculture Handbook  This is a brilliant, practical guide to how to set up our lives in ways that will build resilience and be ecologically regenerative.  I’m a ways from a review, but I have found it deeply heartening so far.

Carolyn Baker’s work–I’ve been looking forward to diving into these for a couple of months now

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul  A book about developing beyond our societies pathological adolescence into the wisdom of elderhood; a process that Plotkin argues can only be accomplished through relationship with Nature

David Abrahms, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry and others working in the Deep Ecology movement

Sharon Astyk, Making Home is now out, hurray! (About learning to Adapt in Place)

“Waking Up Syndrome” Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell.  A quick article with lots of resources by two therapists about the emotional stages that we cycle through as we grapple with our understanding of the changing world.