Maybe it’s time we checked into the heartbreak motel

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

“A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.”

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I took this photograph right after the second large storm of the season — summer was only two days old — passed over my town. The motel manager happened to come out of the motel office as I was snapping away. When I asked him what inspired him to choose the message, he shrugged and said, “Just look around … look around anywhere.”

I think the message on the sign and the manager’s comments capture the mood of millions. As we watch the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico and the effects of global warming around the world, we feel both sadness and anger. Anger, as a mental health professional once told me, is really just unexpressed fear. And sorrow, too, perhaps.

If the Earth did have emotions, as the motel sign suggests, methinks it would wear a countenance more of sorrow than of anger today. But isn’t the real question why we continue to countenance the destruction of the planet, and humanity, with our continued use of fossil fuels?

The reasons are many, but I believe one of them is that we are terrified of heartbreak. We fear that the surge of negative emotion that could wash over us if we look straight at the reality of the unfolding climate catastrophe might undo us. We fear we could burn up or burn out, lose all hope and fall into a pit of despair deeper than we can claw our way out of. But look at what I just wrote in that last sentence. The word “despair” follows the word “fear,” and the words “sadness” or “sorrow” are nowhere to be found. If we allow fear to be the dominant emotion, we do indeed risk despair. But if we accept rather than fear sorrow and heartbreak, amazing and unexpected things can happen.

Wisconsin son Parker J. Palmer writes a lot about heartbreak. His forthcoming book is titled Healing the Heart of Democracy. In an article for the March/April 2009 issue of Weavings, Palmer writes that there are at least two ways the heart (he uses the word in it’s root meaning as the core of our sense of self) can break. One way is for it to shatter “into a thousand shards, sharp-edged fragments that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain.” We see this kind of shattering every day as people with differing views on global warming scream at and deride each other over the radio airwaves, on TV, in cyberspace and sometimes face to face.

But a broken heart can also enlarge our capacity for empathy and the ability to act effectively for the good of others and ourselves, Palmer says. While acknowledging that there are diverse ways people can turn what poet John Keats called “the vale of tears” into a “vale of soul-making,” Parker believes there are three things we must do if we’re to unleash the immense power of a broken heart. First, we must name our suffering honestly and openly. In this case, we must not flee or fight against our feelings of sorrow or helplessness over global warming and the many other ways the only planet we have is being despoiled; rather, we should face our suffering squarely. Second, Palmer says, “we should move directly to the heart of our suffering,” and allow ourselves to feel the pain fully, rather than numbing it with anesthetics, fleeing from it with distractions or fighting it off by blaming and attacking the external source, as our culture so often teaches.

The third thing Palmer believes we must do if we’re to learn from heartbreak and use it to energize our response to problems, whether they be our own personal problems or the problems of the world, is to “create a micro-climate of quietude around ourselves, allowing the turmoil to settle and an inner quietude to emerge….” “Nurtured by silence,” Parker concludes, ” we can stop taking our leads from the voices of ego and world and start listening instead to the still, small voice of all that is Holy.”

Did you catch that? A micro-climate of quietude. Parker never mentions climate change or environmental damage in his Weavings piece, and yet he provides those of us who are engaged in the struggle to mitigate global warming with an apt and highly useful metaphor for coping with the negative emotions that grip us as we confront the horrors climate change and related disasters like the BP oil spill are causing. Such emotions often tempt even those of us who are enlightened on the issue to revert to the reflexive, primitive-brain responses of fight or flight (or deny or flee) when it would be far better to use our creative capacities in the form of language, education and art to change the hearts and minds of those who think climate change is either nothing to worry about or a vast conspiracy. Creating a micro-climate of quietude around ourselves is one way we can prevent the fight-or-flight response.

Palmer isn’t talking about escapism. He’s talking about cultivating practices like meditation. Such practices not only give us a break from the barrage of often negative messages the world and our own egos constantly bombard us with, they also help to break the stream of compulsive thinking and worrying we are plagued by.

In a sense it’s fighting fire with fire. We engage the worldwide climate crisis with our own micro-climates of quietude. As with real backfires, it seems counterintuitive. For some it might seem more than counterintuitive, it might seem downright new age. After all, most of us active in the struggle to mitigate climate change put a lot of our faith in science. As well we should. But as James Hansen, Bill McKibben and others have made crystal clear with their work, global warming has created a new Earth, if not a new age, and the problems this new Earth and new age are visiting upon us demand not only new solutions but new ways of seeing those problems.

So instead of checking out the next exciting roadside distraction the next time we find ourselves on what seems like the highway to hell (or at least a hellish future), maybe we should consider checking into the heartbreak motel. It probably won’t be the most comfortable stay we’ve ever had, but in the morning we’ll be far more likely to head in a better direction.