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?


  1. Hello Sarah, Thank you for your article and very important work here. As you have known some of my situation for a couple years, I would say that my daily anxiety level and stress is very high. I have very, very little income ($200-300)per month, and I am currently bartering for my rent, and most expenses by working on my partners home. I have also been spending a great deal of my free time making contacts with organizations and creating necessary marketing materials for my Applied Ecopsychology and Integrated Ecology degree work. With all this said, and with no exaggeration, I very much feel that I am on the border of the "Totally Overwhelmed" stage. As former graduate students together, you know that our work is all about sensory attuning to the Human-Earth Relationship. I have come to express it as Soul Impoverishment, and I feel it directly in both my abdominal and heart area. I strongly sense the fragmentation, objectification, and divisiveness within our culture. I have much compassion and I am doing all I can to reach out and share, but when I have not earned enough money, in the last six months to even afford card-stock for brochures, I feel very much overwhelmed.
    You are doing much needed work here. The best to you and Paul--and always know you are my friend.

    Always your friend,
    Dan Shelton Ed.D

  2. I'm wondering if resigned/checked out is truly "post-awake" or just another defense against a fuller awakening.

  3. So glad you shared this possibility as many people have been thinking this is just anothe form of discounting. The individuals I am speaking of that I've met recently are definitely not discounting the situation we're facing. They are more highly informed and more deeply aware than most of those of us who are "awakened" and have reached a conclusion based upon their research and experience that the effects of their personal effort will not make any significant difference. If they were being fully forthright I imagine that they don't think mine or Transtion-like efforts will have a significant impact either.
    Some of them may be experiencing a combination of resignation and burn out and, I'm hoping, will become involved at a future point.

  4. As a twenty something post graduate professional "finding myself" has dropped way low on the priority list as issues of credit card debt, health care costs, and credit score take center stage with the grandest issue of all stealing the spotlight each month- RENT!!! I scoff at the word savings account. Since working now at an organic and nature based childcare center my day to day work is aligned with the values of earth stewardship, community, and whole living and eating. But a job is a job and I still feel as if I am a day late and a dollar short...I have been invovled in Larry and Linda Saltzman's simplicity circle and in our local transition town movement. I am a writer for Hopedance magazine and I have made drastic changes in my eating lifestlye yet I found myself tonight x'ing (I hit the x at the top right corner of the computer to get myself the hell out)out of an article written by Richard Heinberg due to the fact that he included a mental health advisory to the reader in which he warned them that there are plenty of jolly articles on the internet but that this one was certainly not one of them. I exed out Richard Heinberg!!! Then I read your article and I realized that I am not a pathetic parasite to the green movement and that I do not have to berate myself for my low attendance at transition meetings and lack of vegetables in my gardent. I can create the intention to do those without feeling I am always playing catch up and I can do this by acknowledging that I do fall in the category you describe as Economically and Otherwise distracted. I feel unable to emotionally digest my credit card balance and whether or not I want my Aunt Janet at my wedding nevermind process concepts such as we are the perpetrators of our own mass extinction as well as the extinction of so many beautiful and glorious plants and animals as well as this earth itself. So when I finally get the time to check my gmail folder of things labeled "Read One Day" in which I send all of my must read email from the local permaculture guild and the transitioners, I feel this nagging guilt and this feeling of being left out of the party. Your article shed light on why this might be so. Thank you!

  5. Katie and Dan, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with life after awaking up. I understand your feelings and know there are so many others struggling with the same realties. We are one-by-one tumbling into the gap between the unsustainable life we've known and the hope of finding a sustainable one for the future. For most of us making it through this gap is not be easy or comfortable. I was at a meeting yesterday with professionals from our school district. Each one there could be losing their job when Spring contracts come up because next year there will be funds for only one of the 1.5 existing staff. There are virtually no jobs in our remote area so this is a frightening and dangerous situation for all these individuals and their families. It is also difficult to sell one's home here due to high foreclosure rates and short sales. So they're all standing on the rim of the gap and some of them will probably tumble in in the next month or two.
    On the way out of the meeting a colleague of mine reminded me that as the old systems collapse there will be pain in between the emergence of the new. She is right. That's where we all are now. We're in-between. So the reality is that as we approach or tumble into the gap, our number one priority must be to do what we can to stabilize our personal current situation, this day, this week, this month. We need not feel guilty or bad about doing this. It is what we must do. The moment we re-establish some level of stability on a simpler but sound basis we will once again have the energy and ability to join with others in planning for and setting up a sustainable future so that the transition through the gap will be easier both for use and those who follow us.
    Those of us whose circumstances are such that we have not yet fallen into the gap yet can continue working as much as we can to prepare for a sustainable future. Here for example, those of us who have the time and energy will be submitting a grant to start 20 sustainable local livelihoods. The more of these we can create, the easier it will be for all of us and the less precipitously our slide through the gap will become.