Journalist Richard Schiffman writes about the environmental crisis through the eyes of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross' seminal work that showcases the stages and coping mechanisms of those facing the end of life and its loss. His essay “The Five Stages of Environmental Grief” is included in a trilogy of his work featured with permission, in the 4th edition of “Words and Violence”—one of the Charter’s educational programs and a permanent installation at Voices Education Project Pedagogical Institute, now adopted as the educational arm of the Charter for Compassion International.
Schiffman traces the stages of grief as we travel the environmental path together that we have constructed or allowed others (mindfully or not) to forge into the predictable future. All toward our tomorrows-- on this planet. Or our no tomorrows. Our fate hangs in the balance and is dependent on our awakening and when awakened, engaging in earnest, in the work of healing the planet.
Last summer, I staffed a booth for the Charter Environment Sector at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association annual exhibition and conference at their headquarters in Wisconsin. For the 3 days and nights that I immersed myself in dialogue with people walking through the exhibits, a common narrative emerged. I came away knowing one thing to be true: We know. We know and we feel it. We sense what is happening to our world. Everyone I met was feeling it. It was in their speech, in their eyes, in the way they held their bodies, in their language, in their involuntary sighs, in their breathing.
Because the problem is earth-sized, (soul sized, really) we can easily stagger around in a state of overwhelm at the magnitude of what we face. And because we can feel so insignificant in comparison, we sometimes cope with defense mechanisms that protect us from allowing that grief in. We armor ourselves against it. Every person I met and spoke to at the MREA was personally in some stage of grief and feeling things like—anger, overwhelm, hopelessness, pain, despair,... All felt a sense of urgency. Some were even using denial, indifference or distraction to cope. There was a lot of anger. There were mostly failed attempts at denial or minimizing. There was some resignation but mostly there was frustration. Many felt powerless. They felt helpless. Impotent. And nobody wants to feel impotent.
As a former nurse, I know well the varied stages of grief Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified in those facing a loss of life. I have accompanied people through those stages during their final journey. I witnessed the same phenomenon in everyone I spoke to at the conference. To a person, each of them was inhabiting a stage of personal grief. Some demonstrated multiple stages. I listened. I understood. I validated. And I congratulated everyone for their capacity to love and the magnitude of that love for their planet—for that is the truth of where and why these feelings arise. And I told them about the Charter for Compassion and the hope intrinsic in a movement racing toward critical mass that aims to spread compassion over the earth and create a more humane narrative for humankind on this planet. I acknowledged the collective pain and vowed to do something to help thaw frozen grief, for grief that is stuck in the human heart-- harms. It can prevent action. To move beyond the grief, we must first acknowledge it and feel its impact to allow it to move through unimpeded. If impeded, it cannibalizes our energy and produces an emotional stalemate. When we thaw, we are freed to move forward.
The film featured here is a journey where we are accompanied to our feelings, through our grief (whether unconscious or not) and to the soul-sized message that underlies our anxiety-- LOVE. (Big love.) What triggers this grief is a deep and fathomless love for our planet and its gift of life.
Author and scholar Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion International has said that a compassionate community is an uneasy community-- uneasy because where there is a lack of compassion, there is suffering. And there is likely suffering somewhere in the ecosystem we call "home."