Good Grief

I remember waking up to problems bigger than myself. I remember things feeling so hard to change but, nonetheless, believing they could. And I thought, as I was taught, that my duty was to help create that change. I felt frequent anger at who I perceived to be the cause of destruction and injustice and I felt constant disappointment in myself for not succeeding in stopping them, for not being bolder in my efforts.

Tired of the increasing pressure guilt exerted on my psyche, I looked for an escape, a safety valve, and found some smart-ish folks who could effectively justify the feel-good belief that everything was going to be fine. No matter what: Humans are smart enough, evolved enough, to adapt to anything. To solve anything.

Then last week happened. I was blindsided by a deluge of data and forecasts that seemed to say, “Wow. Your worst fears are completely and totally true.” I’ve been studying environmental science for eight years. I’ve been shielding my heart from some indisputable facts for almost the same amount of time. For example: In a single day, about 200,000 people are added to the planet, people we don’t have enough food or clean water for, and also in a day, about 200 nonhuman species go extinct due to the activities of industrial society.

As of this week, I’ve also accepted that it’s too late to limit the world to 2 degrees of global warming. And beyond 2 degrees of warming, multiple reinforcing feedback mechanisms are triggered, like the release of vast stores of methane from thawing permafrost. This nonlinear nature of climate change is what makes it so dangerous and also what eludes the average voter. But the average voter doesn’t have as much power as we once thought anyway since—and it’s now official knowledge—we live in an oligarchy.

Do you know how many people would, after reading that last paragraph, abandon this essay for something that felt better?

Our collective ego seems to have as much interest in denying the possible collapse of civilization as our individual ego has in denying death.

But yesterday I let myself sink deeply, for perhaps the very first time, into the implications of these facts. I acknowledged that I felt powerless to change them. I acknowledged my devastating sense of their inevitability. And I allowed the reality of a mass nonhuman extinction event, along with the possibility of a near-term human extinction event, to enter my brain and my heart. There was an acceptance rather than resistance to the data, and a distinct sense that we’re all in hospice now.

I woke up today with sweet gratitude for the preciousness of each moment on this living planet. I threw myself into work in a genuinely compassionate way. I re-aimed myself at priorities, tended the garden, called Grandma, and sat in a still state of curious repose I haven’t experienced since Georgia. I loved unconditionally and even planted a fig tree.

Why does it take a tragedy to bring out the best in me?

Even if the data and forecasts are incorrect, even if our finite planet can support infinite growth with no adverse consequences, I doubt you can convince me there is a better way to live.

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This entry was posted in Personal Experiences by Ryan Shelton. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

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