It’s All Around Us
As if our climate catastrophe, divisive politics, failing economies, and the emergence of authoritarian leaders around the world weren’t enough, we now have a pandemic on our hands; a pandemic that may take 12 to 18 months, at the very least, before the worldwide community is able to get it under some sort of reasonable control.
These emergencies have been unfolding all around us for months and years or, as many people would argue, for decades. For all intents and purposes, we are left with one, huge multi-faceted predicament since all of these challenges are happening at the same time and in every country around the globe.
Collectively Processing Emergencies: Engaging Despair and Empowerment Together. This was the name of a workshop I attended earlier this year. Similar workshops were popping up all over the USA and around the world before the pandemic set in. I find workshops like these to be essential for overwhelmingly stressful times such as we are living through today. In this case, the workshop was speaking specifically to the growing environmental crisis, but this very same format could be used for any topic, issue or emergency that instills fear and despair into the population of any community.
(Please note: The large majority of the 40+ people attending this workshop were moved to the point of asking the workshop leaders to repeat the very same workshop a few more times throughout the upcoming year so they could return, bringing friends and family members. Now that in person workshops are impossible, maybe we can adapt them into online discussions.)
Setting the Stage
Some of these workshops are done by dividing attendees into smaller groups, sitting at round tables or creating small circles with chairs. In our case, we stayed in one larger group, raising our hands to speak, or occasionally speaking only with the one person nearest to us. The rules for this process are simple. Speak from your heart with these considerations at the forefront of everything you share: be respectful, kind, thoughtful, and do your best to offer words and feelings that will help, inspire, support and show compassion for the other people in the room.
First, the leaders asked us to, one by one, share our first names and the reason we decided to attend the workshop. Then they repeated the process, but asked each of us to answer the question, “What is your biggest fear, heartbreak or concern about our growing environmental crisis?” After each of us responded, we were invited to speak about how it felt to share our deepest fears and heartbreaks out loud. Many people raised their hands but most of the answers were very much alike. “It’s a relief, actually,” one woman admitted with many others agreeing. A man in front of me shared this: “I didn’t know how much my heart was breaking until I tried to put it into words just now. I guess I’m scared, but I didn’t know it,” he admitted. And, following his lead, another man offered that he felt angry that so many of us had to be there in that room talking about how this made us feel. “Couldn’t we have just dealt with this whole environmental crisis better years ago and not had to go through all of this now?” he sputtered. The woman next to him offered that she is rarely emotional – doesn’t believe in it – but thinks she might have herself “a little cry when I get home tonight.”
These first 40 minutes of the workshop set us up for the final 50+ minutes, which took a much deeper turn.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
For the second half of the workshop, we broke into groups of two and completed 10 open-ended sentences. The leaders read each of the 10 sentences aloud to us, one at a time. One person in each dyad completed each sentence while the second person listened to (or witnessed) what the first person was saying and feeling as the questions drew them more deeply into their personal perspectives and experiences of global warming. Afterward, each dyad spent about 2 or 3 minutes discussing how both participants felt in their roles. Then the process was repeated with the second person completing the sentences and the first one witnessing, followed again by a few minutes to debrief.
By the time the second round was finished, the energy in the room was palpable. It was not the anxious, shy, and almost depressive energy that I experienced at the beginning of the evening. The previous tension pervading the room had noticeably lessened and a warmer, more unified energy seemed to engulf us all. More people raised their hands to speak. More sounded and even said they were more hopeful. Everyone who spoke at the beginning of the workshop noted they felt better simply for having the conversation with others who felt the same as they did. No matter where each of us came from or what we thought when we arrived in the room that night, forty plus people were now in accord. Our grief had been acknowledged and shared with respectful and compassionate community members. We were not isolated and alone with our heartbreak and fears any longer. Each one of us had been seen and supported by the community that evening, and our courage was renewed, even strengthened in some instances. The relief in the room was evident and powerful even though we were still in possession of the fear and grief we brought with us that evening.
(Please note: I believe this exact workshop agenda would be appropriate to any critical topic that needed addressing by a family, a group of friends, or a community.)
Yes, this is only one workshop in one small community in rural Vermont but successes like this, in community groups such as these, have been reported from all corners of the world. We all have something we can do right now, no matter what, and no matter how awful our situations have become. All of us have the ability to do something to address the most critical and prevailing issues in our families or in our communities, no matter what they may be, and no matter who we are as members of these families and communities. You or I or anyone else can be the initiators of these sorts of conversations, right now, today. As Terry Patten, the inspiration behind the New Republic of the Heart movement, says, we can and must “follow our heartbreak and our genius with our friends” in order to be the change we want to see in the world. And, I believe, we can and should be doing this with our families and communities, as well.