We are all in this together, whether we know it or not

timestamp icon
category icon Columns

Feb. 19 marked the day the United States of America officially rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and is back in the global fight against climate chaos, which is inevitable if we follow business as usual, now termed RCP (representative concentration pathway) 8.5.

To make the political climate even worse, politicians served up the doozy of trying to blame renewable energy for the failure of the power grid in Texas.

Though it should still be a week of celebration, this week also marked an unthinkable milestone: 500,000 deaths in the United States due to COVID-19. At the same time, most states are opening back up, and our young people are becoming suicidal at alarming rates, which is a secondary, yet major, pandemic. As a psychiatrist, I see that, thus far, we are doing virtually nothing about that escalating tragedy.

Increasingly, my work in mental health brings me up against this fundamental moral and existential crisis. How can humanity go on in a world so in denial about the facts which confront us? Our tendency to compartmentalize bad things works against us in the most urgent of ways now. But it is our inability to confront our own mortality that most haunts us. We trick ourselves into believing it will never happen to us.

I spent many nights of my childhood worrying about the myriad of ways I could die. I am the opposite of most people. And the world did not disappoint. I have had many near-death experiences. I come from trauma, so it feels like it accompanies me.

Those who come from trauma know what I speak of. It tends to happen again and again. If you are one of those struggling, I would highly recommend taking a course in psychological first aid, a technique I have been using through the pandemic to help those in crisis.

There are others who suffer with solastalgia, a term coined in 2003 by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian psychiatrist. The term encompasses both somaterratic illness (threats to our physical well being caused by climate change) and psychoterratic illness (damage done to our psyche due to our distress over the changes we observe).

Increasingly, I think we are not suffering from any illness at all. Rather, I think it is our inability to admit that as individuals we do not control our physical environment. But as a species we destroy ourselves as we go. As thinking humans, we simply cannot stand that.

At this point, we find ourselves at a major crossroads, and our young people know it. What if it is they who are having the normal reaction to a highly abnormal situation, which we older humans caused? Then we are doing a great disservice to the generations to follow by presenting it as pathology. They know we are lying to them, just as I knew that my parents were lying to me about my anxiety. Death was real and they always pretended it wasn’t.

In the past year, I have become a radical activist, for many issues: for violence prevention, for social justice, for climate change, for all human rights. Take this for what it is worth: I feel better in my body. It turns out aligning your moral values with your lived values is good for mental health, especially in a pandemic. It turns passive to active, increases a feeling of efficacy and confronts the learned hopelessness many of us were taught.

It is soul work. I can feel my ancestors cheering me on. They would not want our planet destroyed. I do it for them. I do it for me. I do it for my children and the children of the seventh generation.

Join us. There is room for all humanity under the umbrella of the “movement of all movements” coined by the wise elder activist George Lakey. In “How We Win,” he writes: “My hope is that you, if you are not already acting boldly, will experience the joy and empowerment I have found by my decision to act in history rather than watch it go by.”

Feb. 19 was a good day for activists everywhere, all over our blue planet. Today we mourn, and tomorrow we get back to work. Mother Earth is calling. We are killing each other with our division. Our children are dying. We need everyone to care for everyone else. This means a lot of seismic change. PS: It also means continuing to wear your mask.

Are we ready?

Texas, we see you and feel your pain. We will all be next. We are in this together, whether we know it or not.

Saskia Hostetler Lippy, MD, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a writer, speaker, psychiatrist and activist in Portland. She is a member of the Portland Peace Team and has been volunteering to provide psychological first aid to those involved in the Portland protest movement. She is also enrolled in the climate and health certificate program at the Yale School of Public Health.