What can we do?

With little exertion, sweat drips. Grass greens. Trees bud. Spring peepers resound. Some find this February weather charming, perfect to cavort like carefree children. But if you take seriously the dire forecasts of global warming (and who among us is qualified to challenge the scientific consensus?), rather than tidings of joy you hear at least rumblings of discontent. Spring arriving three weeks early is a symptom of dangerous chaos. We know the water is rising, the droughts and floods deepening, the diversity of species declining. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re clinging to a shoddy raft in a maelstrom to recognize a problem.

If human beings are worth a fraction of what we seem to figure we are, we have to conceive of the vastness of this enterprise: our individual three-score-and-ten years or what-have-you is infinitesimal. In a blink, our children have succeeded us, and so on. If we trash this singular earth for fleeting fortune, we have no claim to holiness or heaven or honor—whatever one’s particular bible holds up as good. Our children should neither honor nor trust us, for we have cashed in their trust. Our world is then endlessly out-of-joint.

I don’t know when, or if, global warming is taught in schools. But I know that it is not soon enough. When I spoke with Clark, my 6-year old, about it recently, I was refreshingly touched by the depth and intelligence of his comments.
He hasn’t yet subscribed to nihilism. He hasn’t yet determined that humans are superior to and more deserving than other forms of life. He hasn’t yet succumbed to apathy or hopelessness. He hasn’t yet decided political ideology or profit trumps all else. Before I dropped him off at school, he said, “Well, what can we do?”
Well, what can we do?

I don’t have a handbook of appropriate actions, and one size does not fit all. It seems to me trite and cavalier to say, “Plant a tree. Recycle. Adjust the thermostat.” What will make a difference and see us through, I think, is a fortified mindset, a resilient attitude, a strength of character. Although Laurence Gonzales’s book Surviving Survival is about surviving personal trauma, his conclusions equally apply to the collective struggle we face. What we can do is adopt these twelve traits and blaze our own brave trail:

1) “Develop an active, problem-solving way of looking at the world.” This is instinctively how Clark reacted. Wallowing in misery and pointing fingers keeps us mired in idiotic gridlock, giving up, bouncing from diversion to diversion. We need a lot of Clarks on board, ready to plan a way forward and pursue passions.

2) “Take time every day to tune out all the electronic noise, the chattering voices that clamor for attention, and then listen to your own mind and body….You may find an intuition, a gut feeling, a sixth sense that saves your life.” We become so infatuated with our technologies and tools that we become the tools of our tools. The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree. Enlightenment is unlikely to arrive at the base of the Twitter tree.

3) “Surrender control of the outcome and trust the process.” Have we passed the tipping point? Is there any halting catastrophic climate change? What good do these questions do? As the Bhagavad Gita teaches: “Your right is to action alone; never to its fruits at any time.” Good work done well is reward in itself.

4) “One of the best ways to deal with suffering is to look around you at the suffering that is not happening to you. When it does happen to you, expect it and experience it. Say: This is my suffering. It is my turn to suffer. Use it to prepare for the next stage in the journey of survival.” I’ll always remember one of the last things my grandfather, having been stripped of most of his physical faculties, said to me: “Life isn’t just a bowl of peaches.” It’s not, and it’s going to take a lot of tough cookies like my grandfather to fight through the tribulations to come.

5) “Get the small picture.” Gonzales writes about the artwork that people tortured in Nazi death camps produced. However grim our predicament, life is worth preserving because it is so beautiful. We all need to be uplifted, time and again, without denying reality.

6) “You should learn to tell the difference between a hazardous situation and one that is safe. When the hazard is real, do something about it; don’t remain passive. Learn to tell whether what you did was effective. When it isn’t effective, change your strategy. Last, when things don’t go well, find ways to blow off steam.” I need at present to take to heart this message of putting things in their place. Seventy-degree, sunny days are not an immediate hazard, and it is not effective to gripe about them. Perhaps it is effective to write about disturbing weather trends?

7) “Don’t sit around brooding on whatever’s eating you.” We’ve got a lot of work to do of all different kinds, so we best get busy and do it. Working diligently towards a goal keeps us focused and engaged.

8) “You have to be all right, because you have to take care of the children.” Global warming isn’t so much about you or me; we’ll be dead before too long. It’s vital that we get away from egocentric thinking. Concentrate on others—and not just other people and not just pets or our “property.” The world is full of life that deserves respect and love, and we’re exceedingly more lost and lonely when we think so much of ourselves.

9) “Staying socially connected is one of the most important and effective adaptations.” Join a CSA. Already in a CSA, work on the farm, share recipes and meals. The modern world atomizes and alienates us, making us believe commercials and corporations are our friends. The products we buy are disembodied from where they came from and who made them. Seeking out in-the-flesh community charges us with compassion and inspires us to take offense at degradation, take to the streets, and take responsibility for our interconnectedness. “Skin-to-skin contact reduces pain and produces oxytocin, the hormone of love. There is good scientific reason that people hug when something bad happens.”
10) “Be grateful.” Be it spontaneous or ritualized, say grace. Somehow, despite everything, our cups and tables overflow. We’ve been shown mercy. However bleak the prognosis, we’re still here, loving and luxuriating, planning our tomorrows, dreaming of an ever better world.

11) “Even on days when I lacked self-confidence, I chose to put on a smile. I acted strong when I didn’t feel strong—and before long, I was strong.” Put on your Super(wo)man shirt. Save the day. Remember that whoever your personal heroes are they too often felt small, but they rose to the occasion. Why not us?

12) “Life is deep; shallow up. Humor is essential, quieting the amygdala and reducing stress. Laugh at the world. Laugh at yourself.” It’s hard to make a persuasive argument for sustaining a world that’s not fun or funny, full of wild, contagious laughter. Global warming, cancer, starvation—none of these are humorous on the surface. But we’ll surely never survive if we don’t laugh in the depths of the struggle.

These are Laurence Gonzales’s twelve “Rules of Life.” I’ll add just one more. There are very few things in this life that we have to consume. But approximately three times a day we have to find caloric nourishment. Make it count, whenever you can. Imagine the chain of events that leads to food on your plate. Care. Give thanks. Laugh. And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

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