Sunday, February 21, 2010

Once Awake: The Waking Up Syndrome Two Years Later

Two years ago, Linda Saltzman-Buzzell and I wrote “The Waking Up Syndrome.” It was published in Hope Dance magazine and reprinted in many other media, including a chapter in Linda’s book with Craig Chalquist, Ecotherapy, Healing with Nature in Mind. At that time only a small percentage of the US population was beginning wake up to the effects of peak oil, other natural resource depletion, climate change, and global economic instability. Most were unaware, in denial, or in a state of semi-consciousness. Since that time, however, these issues have had wide-spread coverage in both alternative and mainstream media. Even more compelling is that millions of people have begun to personally experience or know others who are personally experiencing the frightening implications of thee issues.

This is not to say that there aren’t huge segments of the population who remain “unawake.” There are ample individuals who discount the existence or significance of these phenomena. Their opinions and views also appear in the media with near equal regularity.
As the coordinator of the non-profit Transition Initiative in my community and a US Transition trainer who has consulted with other communities of “awakened” and involved individuals, I’ve noticed that the number of people who have awakened to the reality of these issues is clearly growing steadily. But I’ve also noticed that what they’re doing isn’t always like Linda and I projected in describing the Acceptance Stage.

Here are a variety of “post-awake” responses I’ve noticed since the article was written and some thoughts about their implications. I’m interested in whether you have noticed similar or other patterns.

Please note that people who are reacting in these ways are not discounting the existence, seriousness, or usually even the potential for constructive personal and collective responses. Also note that I see people moving in and out of these reactions.

Full- or Part-Time Gung Ho Activists.
I see a small but hearty and growing cadre of folks across the country actively engaged in undertaking on-going activities to directly address the challenges ahead in their lives and their communities. This is the reaction Linda and I wrote about as evidence of someone having come to a point of acceptance. They are busily preparing for a sustainable future and/or for surviving a collapsed culture. This is among their highest priorities on a daily basis and they devote every spare moment they have to this goal.

They are taking actions to change where they live, how they live, and the career they are in or will be in. They are organizing and participating with others in community- or neighborhood-based efforts such as Transition Initiatives, permaculture groups, co-housing arrangements, eco-villages, etc.

Many of them are focusing on practical, long-term efforts such as growing food, setting up gray water systems, and switching to renewable energy systems. Others are investing their time in writing, talking, planning, and/or teaching about what we need to be doing and how to do it.
Most activists I know are finding that doing what they need to be doing in their own lives and in their communities is highly challenging, more complex than imagined, and not something that is quickly achieved. Each effort requires a significant amount of their time, energy, and resources. But I find them to be generally of good spirits and highly dedicated.

Positive Thinkers.
Fully aware of what’s happening and what’s at stake, these folks may be making various positive changes in the way they live, i.e. conserving fuel, growing herbs, buying “green,” but they believe the primary action we need to be taking now is to hold a positive intention for the future we want to create, either personally or in group gatherings through prayer, meditation, or drumming groups. They believe it is important not to talk about the array of social, economic and environmental problems and difficulties presented by resource depletion, climate change, environmental degradation, etc. Their focus instead is on their intention for a positive future to manifest.

They too spend a significant amount of time devoted to these actions, often to the point of having little time to participate in the practical endeavors being carried out by the activists in their community. I’ve noticed that many activists believe positive thinkers are naive and feel frustrated by their unwillingness to “address the issues.” When positive thinkers attend activist gatherings they often invite the group to participate in envisioning activities. Activists usually oblige but think the most important matters lie in taking practical action.

These two approaches seem to dovetail more effectively in some communities than others. This is particularly true where there is a “heart and soul” component to activist endeavors. In some communities, though, there is a considerable gulf between these orientations, with the activists considering positive thinkers to be a “touchy-feely” distraction that puts off and risks marginalizing serious mainstream efforts toward widespread adoption of sustainability.

Economically and Otherwise Distracted.
These folks, though aware of what’s at hand, find the circumstances of daily life require 100% of their time, energy, and resources. Some are early casualties of the very problems we’ve awakened to. They’re caught, as Dmitry Orlov predicted some would be, in the very circumstances we are working to prepare for. They are not always aware of the relationship between their demanding circumstances and these issues, but they are indeed related, i.e. job loss, foreclosures, bankruptcy, and consequences of unaffordable health care costs for themselves or loved ones.

Most of these folks became activists after waking up, but now they are simply engulfed in the challenges of making it day-to-day. They may be juggling multiple jobs or fruitlessly searching for a job, grappling with creditors, scraping by on unemployment or Social Security benefits, suffering from the woes of aging without adequate income, etc. This leaves them with no time or resources to work for a sustainable future, only for a survivable present.

Sometimes the distractions are unrelated or only tangentially related to the issues we’re discussing. They or a loved on may have developed a life-threatening illness. Their marriage may have fallen apart. Their children or aging parents may be facing problems that require their primary energy.

In my private practice I am seeing a definite escalation of both the fallout and the seriousness of day-to-day problems we tend to typically encounter in our overly complex society.

Since such distractions are only going to increase, it becomes important for activists to arrange support structures for these individuals or at least embrace their lapses in participation with empathy and tolerance Their numbers will be increasing and most any activist could find him or herself in a similar situation at any point. But I’ve noticed some activists have little tolerance for those who allow distractions to pull them away from participating in the communities transition tasks. They argue that “If these people would only do ..., or would have done ...” then they wouldn’t be having these problems. Most likely this response arises, when it does, from activists who have not yet been faced with any these problems or from their having awakened sooner and thereby had more time and resources to simplify their lives, thereby taking the difficulties we’re facing in stride more easily.

I believe we to rise above such reactions, though, because if we respond with understanding during times of hardship for our distracted comrades, they may well be back when the distracting issues have passed or resolved.

Burned Out, Numbed Out.
These folks are taking a break. I’ve encountered a number of activists who slowly burn out from the scope of the efforts required to make personal and community changes. They encounter financial limitations to their plans, dissension and competition among or within their community groups, barriers defined by local regulations and codes, burnout of other volunteers, leaving them with more responsibility than they bargained for, etc. They still believe the issues we face are as important and urgent as ever, or even more so, but they’re pulling back from their involvement, choosing to do things that refresh and renew their energy and enthusiasm for life.

Once again I’ve noticed a lack of tolerance among some activists for such folks’ need to pull back. I’ve heard derogatory comments such as “What they’re doing is no different that those who are causing the problems.” I can understand such angry reactions and resentment. Most likely they arise from activists who are also tired of the hassles and roadblocks, but find that as the Numbed Out drop out, they are left with still greater responsibilities for the community tasks at hand.

Again from my experience, though, I believe it is vital that activists summon up tolerance and acceptance for their burned out colleagues and give them a break. If we do, most likely they too will come back once they’ve revived themselves with a little R&R, leaving a breather for those who have shouldered the work in the meantime. In fact I believe we all need to allow ourselves time to renew and energize, or we will burn out at well, or at the very least become less effective.

I’ve noticed some communities routinely set aside time for fun and celebration and in these groups fewer folks get burned out or numbed out. Still activists in some communities aver that we don’t have the time or energy for such “frivolity,” and they may be right, so again tolerance is the best reaction for them as well. . However, when we look to the natural world for examples and guidance, we see that rest and rejuvenation are part of the natural cycles that lead to the sustainability we claim to seek

Moving On.
These folks believe they have done what they can and they are getting on to the next things on their agendas. They may have made:

• An array of changes within their homes and daily habits like switching to low-energy light bulbs, caulking their windows, or recycling their waste, consuming less, or using their own cloth bags when their shop.
• Large-scale investments such a buying a high-gas mileage car, moving to a smaller home, composting waste, or growing produce in the back yard,
• Regular contributions to save the seals and other environmental causes.

Generally they become fully engaged in a new cause or interest, a new line of work, another community or church activity, a new marriage, a first grand baby, etc. Sometimes the new interests are a spin off or result of their involvement in a local initiative. Suddenly undertaking their new activities leaves them with no spar time or energy for being involved in other steps.

A real estate agent, for example, may decide to start a green cleaning service. An ER nurse may volunteer to organize a Meals on Wheels program in a neighborhood where none exists. An artist may develop an arts program in the local schools that deals with healing nature. In such cases, these individuals don't consider their new endeavor as pulling out to “do your own thing.” They see it as their part in the larger effort. Other activists who are working on joint efforts may see this differently, though.

I’m surprised at how many people I meet recently who seem fully aware of what we face yet have simply resigned themselves to the catastrophe they see coming and are proceeding with daily life as usual. One neighbor told me recently for example, “I’m glad you are doing what you are here in our community, but frankly I don’t see any hope.” A colleague in an online group I belong to wrote “I no longer think there's much point in personal action. There will simply be too little of this to make a significant difference.”

In our local initiative we keep these individuals on our e-mail lists if they’re willing and find that they will come to certain programs or join in some activities. Often they have considerable valuable expertise (probably part of why they feel as their do), and may be quite willing to contribute when asked to help on specific projects.

Totally Overwhelmed and Checking Out.
I have not yet encountered people who are reacting in this way, but I have a foreboding that there are some and will be more who are suffering from serious mental illnesses as a result of the pressures and difficulties we’re facing, including a rise in suicide. To quote from the February NASW News:

“Several major news stories have shed light on a disturbing trend: Suicide rates in some regions have spiked, and the economic recession is being cited as a factor. While national statistics on suicide lag by three to four years, news sources have conducted their own investigations about the topic. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC and Business Week have published stories in the past year highlighting local data and calls for more support for the newly unemployed or those facing financial devastation.”

Dmitry Orlov has spoken of this reaction as inevitable, but this trend creates special challenges for local initiatives. The challenges presented by the other reactions I've mentioned already strain the energies and try the patience of activists.

In response to these challenges, on the one hand I have heard from those who say, "Why rescue those who fall by the way side when we have to such important tasks ahead?" I’ve heard some activists say "Dealing with the mental health profession is a waste of time; they are involved in creating and perpetuating the problem." While that may sadly be true at times, many others both from within and outside the profession agree that we can’t afford very many such casualties. They believe we need a populace with mental resilience if we are to have local resilience. For them educating and involving mental health professionals who themselves are awake and aware of the need for change instead of supporting the status quo could ease this problem greatly. We are fortunate to have such a group of professionals in our local initiative and are working to build a skilled and prepared mental health infrastructure.

Again I also see that having a Heart and Soul aspect of our local efforts can help prevent the overwhelm and accompanying isolation that can lead to more severe emotional and mental problems as circumstances become more challenging yet.

Summary Questions
As I write this I am aware that it is not only a reflection of what I’ve seen “post wake-up,” but also a plea for tolerance and understanding within our movement. I've concluded that tolerance, not oil, is the lubricant that sustains a community.

To facilitate tolerance, however, Carolyn Baker of Speaking Truth to Power points out that greater dialog is needed. Of course, those who are still sleeping and those who are awakened but needing for their own reasons to step away are less likely to engage in dialog right now, so we activists who are highly motivated most likely need to be the ones to initiate such dialog.

So ... I am curious. Have you seen reactions like this? Do you see others? Do you agree about the role and importance of tolerance? How do we differentiate tolerance from apathy and get beyond viewing it as putting up with? How do we move tolerance to compassion and what is the compassionate response to our awakened brethren? Might there be interest in and an arena where we could have a discussion of such questions among ourselves? Read more!