The tragedy and beauty of our existence

A student from my Ethics of Global Climate Change course this fall (2017) wanted to share this, but is feeling a bit shy so I’m sharing it anonymously for her. I’ll try to make sure she gets any comments you send.

Part way through my semester taking Ethics of Global Climate Change—as I began to feel a sense of sadness with being more connected to and responsible for climate change—I wrote down these words in my notebook:

“the tragedy and beauty of our existence is that we may dance and kiss and sing in the most chaotic and problematic of times. And who could ask us to do differently?”

I’ve gone back to these words countless times during the semester because they sum up and relate well to many of the ways this class made me feel with the material we learned. Multiple times during the semester, I became so disheartened by the information we learned—the ways that people and other species will be harmed and already have been harmed, as well as how hopeless it appears to meaningfully address anthropogenic climate change (or even adapting to it in equal and just ways). Despite how depressing the material could be, though, I found it startling just how easy it was to find myself laughing uncontrollably with a friend or smiling at the sunshine a few minutes after leaving the classroom. There is a part of me that felt, and still somewhat feels, that the knowledge I now have of such a huge problem demands me to live in such a way that gives it attention. I almost felt guilty multiple times for being happy or light-hearted because these feel so far from what the truth of the current situation on climate change demands of me. It is difficult, though, when “giving attention” to the problem is so daunting and depressing that it leaves you feeling crushed. When the problem is surrounded by emotions of fear or anger or worry, it makes it difficult to think of the issue in a productive manner … because it makes it difficult to look at the problem at all for a very sustained amount of time. It is here that I often reflected upon the fact that emotions matter so very much within the knowledge that we are given. If you are educated on all of the problems in the world, but crushed by despair from all of these issues, the knowledge does not do much good.

This is why, although it may seem hypocritical to learn of a huge problem and not be saddened by it, it could also be seen as a form of human resiliency. Your words from one of the last days of class lecture really have stayed with me, that it “comes in fits” and “the veil is lifted” for a short amount of time. This, in a way, is problematic because, if we put the cover back over our eyes after learning of something—in order to be happy—it can keep us from addressing the issue. However, if we force ourselves to dwell on the issue so constantly that it causes us despair, we are powerless against what we have seen. The fact that we can hold the weight of the knowledge we have of an issue, while laughing and smiling during our lives, can also be seen as a blessing.

I do not think we were designed to be disheartened creatures. The fact that we can move and find happiness inside a context of great trouble is problematic if we let this human resiliency keep us from working towards a more just world or from trying to address real issues (climate change being a large one). If we let this ability to live in a positive attitude (contrary to our contexts and knowledge) be a sign of hope, then it can be used a skill set for addressing the problem. I think this really goes along with one of the concepts from my favorite class lecture, which was on the need for a more “full-bodied” and positive vision for environmentalism. I realized how true it is that there fails to be an overarching positive goal to work towards. This is so incredibly troublesome. It is too difficult to ask for change in a way that states the problem with despair. Emotions matter, even in this.

Optimism and hope are some very under-valued tools in the environmental movement and things that have definitely not been used in addressing climate change—and I think maybe they should. I think this is mainly where I have ended up at the end of this semester, wanting to use my life to spread a message of hope and optimism in issues that we face (definitely including the climate change issue).

For me, the way that I keep optimism and actively combat feeling crushed by the weight of a problem as daunting as climate change is through constantly reminding myself that I’m not being asked to address it alone. In “The Great Work,” Berry talks about how we are left by the generation before us with both the great work we must carry out and the tools to do this work. The sense of being asked to do something, but that it came from someone who has left us with the tools to do it—and that it can be given to (shared with) those who come after us—is incredibly comforting. I think it is an ultimate comfort of community that comes from being in tune with the humanity of others that I feel from his words. To gain this comfort, you need to feel a sense of connectedness to those who will come after you and those who came before you and those who share the world with you now. This sense of connection to humanity that I am suggesting probably sounds daunting in itself, but I don’t think it means being asked to have a deep care for all of humanity all at once—but rather a genuine love for another human being. To truly love another human being enough to want to make the world a better place for them (and knowing that the world is full of humans who genuinely love others the same) is sufficient for feeling the connection needed for hope.

As a single human being, we can only hold so much. We hold the world in our consciousness for such a short amount of time. Our burden is only so large. However, as a humanity, we can handle much larger issues—perhaps even issues as daunting as global climate change. I think part of the problem is learning about climate change and feeling as if we—as a single individual on the planet for a short amount of time—need to fix it. There is comfort in knowing you can only do so much. The burden we hold as an individual is so small compared to the whole, so it feels less burdensome to carry what it is we are being asked to carry. It is easier to work towards something that you know you alone can’t fix … because it is here that change becomes more about progress. I am very aware, now, that slow progress is not enough to slow global warming enough to keep the planet in a state that is really very livable for people.

This is frightening, but it is not a reason to quit. If anything, it is more reason to keep trying for the promotion of the best possible lives for ourselves and for others. If we fail, what will we have left behind? Why were we here? For me, it really comes down to kindness and love for others. If we “save the world” but were not kind, lived our lives in constant despair, or never loved, it would have all been for nothing (in my opinion). On the other side, if we fail, but were kind, lived our lives in hope (and valiant effort) of progress, and loved, then the human mark we left behind was still a positive one. I can settle very happily with that.





  1. **Please forgive the poor spelling and/or grammar in this relpy, as I am responsing with my Cellphone 😝.

    This is a beautiful blog a true uplifting and very real insight into our current global situation.

    I graduated from GU 2 years ago, with an ENVS bachelor. Since, I have worked in the commercial cannabis industry for a year, and have spent the last year in NZ doing volunteer work on farms and immersing myself wthin the native Maori culture. I have gained a few insights here that have helped me work through the struggles of the current global environmental crisis.

    While the entire task of saving the world seems ever more daunting, realize that as we are all connected beings, in an infinite universe. we are exactly where we are supposed to be in this very time. I am by no means dismissing that we have a problem on our hands that needs to be addressed, but to be discouraged and feeling defeated at any point in time is not helpful to anyone. We can only change this world by manifesting immense amounts of love for our fellow creatures (everything from biota to human life). We are all one connected energy, that feeds off one another in a never ending exchange. Visualization, meditation, and manifesting love for those around us brings an uplifting energy to the whole picture…what could create any change in the world other than love for the planet.

    We have a long battle ahead of us, and keep fighting the good fight while realizing that this is just one phase in a never ending infinity of life. We may doom the planet if we focus our energy on worry and the burdens of a seemingly impossible task. We will save the planet if we uplift all those around us and instill love into the hearts of ourselves and those creatures around us.

    Much love!
    Kenneth Wilbur


  2. I find your positive vision for the environment truly inspiring. The blog mimics my own ideas about feeling helpless when I learn about the Earth’s environmental issues. For the past couple months, I have tried to reduce the amount of waste that I produce by using less disposable items such as utensils and paper towels but lately I have been feeling like I should be doing more to develop positive “eco-friendly” habits.

    Currently, I am taking an environmental engineering course and I often feel discouraged and even helpless because there seems to be too many environmental problems to solve in my lifetime. My classmates and I get excited when imagining possibilities for solutions but like you mentioned, maintaining optimism for a positive change is difficult because the issues seem daunting. This blog has given me hope because you gave me an entirely new outlook on how to handle these environmental problems. I know that I can do more as a student than just reducing the amount of waste I use but I can learn and teach others to genuinely care and love one another in order make a gradual, effective and positive progression.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is a lot about this post that I relate to. I know the feeling of thinking you should be doing something about the world’s environmental problems, especially after learning about them. I go to class, just like you, and learn about problems such as climate change and it worries me. I feel like there is something I could be doing about it. It is something I should tell other people about that are not in environmental classes, but once I leave the classroom I just carry on with my day as if nothing was wrong.
    There is not much I would be able to do while still in school, so I feel like just knowing about it is a good start. At least we are aware of the issue and try our best not to contribute to it. It is a hard to actually do something to make a huge difference, just as one person, but the more people are made aware of these issues, the more likely a progress will be made in counteracting the effects of climate change and at least we will have an idea of what we want for the future. I would say it is completely normal to feel helpless because we cannot fix everything. The important thing is that you care and you know that there is still work that needs to be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post gave me a lot to think about, as I feel like I can relate with some of the deep, troubling issues the author has. The environmental crisis is thorny, huge, and completely daunting when looked at head-on. We’ve covered so many topics in our semester of Environmental Ethics that there’s almost a sense of paralysis. Which issue is the most important? Which should be addressed first? If we solve one, can we solve others? While I realize it’s impossible to section out the entire issue and “solve” it piece by piece, it sometimes seems as if that’s the only option, because the big picture is just too much to look at.

    I agree wholeheartedly that being disheartened is not part of the human condition. We are surprisingly resilient; great difficulties often spur us to be our most creative and strong selves. However, I think this inherent optimism, or whatever it is, could be part of the issue. I’ve noticed it in the news many times. A huge story breaks (a super storm, a mass shooting, a Trump tweet), and the entire nation is outraged and talking about it for a while. Soon, though, something else catches our attention, or we just get bored of being upset, and we move on. Our temporal scale is so small, yet we live our lives and plan our futures accordingly. This lack of gravity and lack of foresight is potentially a cause of the environmental crisis. We can’t see far enough forward to make decisions that will benefit the planet in the long run, only the human race (or our own interests, honestly) in the short run. So this optimism, this lack of disheartenment, is an interesting aspect of humanity that is admirable, but potentially dangerous.

    Despite this critique, I do find this blog post compelling. It’s easy to get hung up in the fearmongering and forget to solider on. Making human connections is important, and it’s the only thing we have to really make a difference. Collective efforts are all we can rely on in dealing with a crisis of this size. It’s important to stay optimistic (and realistic) when tackling the issue of the climate crisis, otherwise the enormity of the issue can prevent us from doing anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed the positive message and vision you have about such a large and terrifying problem. I too find myself in situations where I am immediately overwhelmed by the never ending list of environmental issues in desperate need of a solution. But as you stated above, it is comforting to think about how many other people think about these same issues. As one human race I believe we are capable of finding solutions to the most pressing issues. The solution may not be here tomorrow, but in time it will come. I believe the optimism and resiliency found in all humans is our best characteristic. I look forward to seeing how all of the people who care about the environment make a difference in our political, cultural, and social lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoyed this post, I too sometimes feel disheartened and lost when I learn the facts about todays environment and climate. And I too find myself laughing with friends and deep down thinking, ‘how can I laugh right now, the world is being destroyed and we aren’t doing anything’. But I have to remind myself that being conscious and learning these facts and information is the first step to making positive changes for the earth. Maybe the way we feel after ENVS classes (depressed or sometimes, energized) can help us materialize the changes needed in our current time.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I appreciate the perspective you put on an individual’s place within the vast issue of climate change. I find it is easy to get discouraged by the feeling of taking it on alone, but like you said, it goes beyond the scope of individuals and is something everyone must work at together for years to come. I also feel that learning about these issues it one thing, but actions brought from this knowledge and the education of others on these topics are what will actually create change. Those of us with the privilege and position to take action should empower others to do the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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