One day early this fall, 19 people gathered in a small event space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and sat in a circle. They included an immigration lawyer, a therapist, an Extinction Rebellion protester, an artist and me. Outside, it was cloudlessly sunny and hot in a way that would have once been described as unseasonable but that nowadays is just mid-September.
We were there for a workshop called “Cultivating Active Hope: Living With Joy Amidst the Climate Crisis,” a title that sounded wildly optimistic. I was there because, for the life of me, I could not understand how anyone was coping with the climate crisis.
Have you ever known someone who cited the Anthropocene in a dating profile? Who doled out carbon offset gift certificates at the holidays? Who sees new babies and immediately flashes to the approximately 15 tons of carbon emissions the average American emits per year? Who walks around shops thinking about where all the packaging ends up? You do now.
Unlike millions, I haven’t been directly affected by the climate crisis — not really, not yet. But the barrage of cataclysmic planetary news, the galloping wildfires, the smack of 90-degree New York autumn days all felt so at odds with the regular tickings of human life that I often felt quite mad. I felt complicit by merely existing. After all, I belonged to the species that was taking most of the other ones down.
As much as I want to chain myself to an old-growth tree (thanks, “The Overstory”), my job at The Times precludes me from going all in as an activist. So I donate to environmental and humane causes, eat vegan, compost, take public transport, carry around bamboo utensils, post alarming articles on Facebook, buy second hand and stock up on offsets — all decisions I have the luxury to make. And yet none of it has been balm.
Asking some people around me how they were faring did not help. I heard that it was too late anyway. That I shouldn’t care since I don’t have kids. That the planet will, one distant day at least, be fine. One friend suggested that my climate angst was an extension of my melancholic leanings, which struck me as plausible, but not quite right. We know that the future is looking bad, that the present already is, and that inaction, especially here in America, is making it all worse. But how are we supposed to live in our hearts and souls with such an existential threat that is also, as birds and bees vanish and trees topple and die, so excruciatingly intimate?
Finally this fall, after a kayaking trip to Alaska prompted by a desire to see glaciers while they still exist — and being greeted by wildfires — I resolved to seek answers.
And what I learned, in the Red Hook workshop and in long conversations with psychologists, deep ecologists, an indigenous activist and Western Buddhists, was more or less a prescription for handling climate grief.
It looks like this: Live like the crisis is urgent. Embrace the pain, but don’t stop there. Seek out a spiritual path to forge gratitude, compassion and acceptance, because operating out of denial, anger or fear only hurts us in the end.
There is dismissiveness about whether individual choices like how we consume and transport ourselves matter: Why cancel that trip to Europe if it’s too late anyway and if everyone is still addicted to fossil fuels? But Lou Leonard, a founder of One Earth Sangha, a Buddhist group focused on the crisis, told me that living like climate change is real and that we can do something about it are signals to others — and can help shift cultural norms. Who would have thought Burger King would one day serve delicious plant-based meat?
“We need to break the cognitive dissonance in as many ways as we can in order to be more real with what’s happening,” Mr. Leonard said. Making seemingly inconvenient changes now, he said, can also prepare us for what might be to come.
Zhiwa Woodbury, an eco-psychologist, believes that we are collectively experiencing climate trauma, of which we are both perpetrators and victims — our assault on the biosphere is an assault on ourselves. Altering habits like how we eat can make people feel more empowered and less overwhelmed, he said, and can shift our relationship with the natural world. After all, the belief that natural resources exist for our heedless exploitation got us to this point in the first place (and made us none the happier). “It makes us feel good that we’re doing something and it gets back to the idea of shared responsibility,” Mr. Woodbury said. “The idea that individuals are powerless only exists because we’ve made them feel powerless.”
Embracing the pain was something I struggled with more. Didn’t we deserve to feel bad? Maybe. But feeling despair is itself a kind avoidance. “What despair is telling you is that you haven’t processed your emotions,” Mr. Woodbury said.
In the Red Hook workshop, which used the pioneering decades-old work of the environmental grief activist Joanna Macy, the facilitator, Jess Serrante, said something that hit me like a thunderclap.
“Our pain for what is happening is the other side of the coin of our love for the world,” she told us. “We feel such depths of despair because we love the planet so much.”
Several psychologists told me they are telling the same thing to patients who are grappling with eco-despair: Feeling depressed about the crisis is actually a sane, healthy response. Yet as a culture, we pathologize depression as a personal failing, and as individuals, we avoid it, partly, Ms. Serrante said, out of the fear that if we dive in we won’t emerge. But that causes us to shut down. By jumping into the pain, it can alchemize into something bigger, Ms. Serrante told us, and reconnect us with our deepest selves.
The key is to channel it, through everyday actions or joining wider movements, and also to figure out a way to face it without being controlled by it, because operating out of fear, anger and blame burns us out. That is where the spiritual component comes in — to find a way to move to a place not of tacit acceptance, but of fierce, roaring compassion.
Mr. Woodbury and Mr. Leonard both got burned out by environmental advocacy and found emotional resilience in Buddhist practices and a more compassionate view of human nature. “There’s nothing more powerful than a broken heart, as long as you have a spiritual container to hold it,” Mr. Woodbury told me.
I’ve begun tiptoeing in that direction, trying to learn how to be spiritually nimble and to have faith in people again. Feeling connected — with others, with ourselves — is an antidote to tough feelings we try to keep at bay by distracting and numbing ourselves.
Still, eco-pessimism dies hard. In Red Hook, Ms. Serrante had us pair off and tell each other why we were grateful to be alive at this time. My eyebrows shot up.
“I’m grateful about being alive in this time because,” I said haltingly to my partner, a man who worked in corporate disaster preparedness, “people are more aware than ever about what we have wrought? Because this is the logical conclusion to what the industrial revolution set in motion?”
“Wow,” the disaster preparedness guy replied.
He told me he was grateful that he was living at a time when we could see gorgeous animals, plants and sprawling wilderness that might not be around much longer. My breath caught. I hadn’t thought of that. Something shifted. I noticed the disaster preparedness guy’s eyes were red and leaky, and that mine were, too.
Afterward, stepping onto the baking sidewalk, I found myself paying greedy attention to the rustling trees, the flutter of teeny birds. I felt a visceral thrum of gratitude for what still exists, for what has to be fought for, while it still can be beheld.