by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
updated February 2020
A Personal Story: the Climate Emergency & Childhood Trauma Collide
Many people who know my work know I grew up in a fundamentalist religious family. They fervently believed that the “End Times” were near and warnings and admonitions from our church leaders (including my pastor father) and propoganda (such as the movie A Thief in the Night) were a regular part of my upbringing. As a result, I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence in a state of terror about the imminent end of the world. And though with age, my intellectual intensity made me question and ultimately reject our church’s doctrine, the fear was still wired into my neurons and soma. When I left religion in my early twenties and finally had access to other thought systems, I was existentially, intellectually and somatically relieved to not have to live under that constant threat. With support from therapists and coaches, I started to heal the trauma I had incurred from feeling chronically unsafe in the world, and life started to become much more open-ended and hopeful.
That was in the early 2000’s and the discussion on climate change was already well-underway, but healing from religious abuse and other trauma and rebuilding my life took the focus of my attention. Additionally, I believed that climate scientists would work together with government in order to make the necessary changes at the policy level; after all, who on earth would they ignore such an important problem when they had the power to fix it? But as the years passed, I healed and had more space to consider the state of the world; I realized our leaders were for the most part not responding to the specialists’ pleas for change. I started to feel increasingly uneasy about the situation because if we can’t trust the leaders who have the power, who can we trust? This paradox triggered memories of my religious childhood, where leaders made choices that hurt me and compromised my well-being and survival.
I once again found myself in a state of terror about the “imminent end of the world” and the inability to trust the people in charge. All too familiar with complex trauma and the four f’s, I could see that I was having a “trauma reaction”. I felt frozen and overwhelmed. It was like I couldn’t differentiate between then and now. Though I continued to live my life and do my work and find moments of joy in daily living, I often found myself thinking in a trauma-triggered loop, “It’s not fair that I should have to live my whole life feeling terrorized that the end of the world is near” and “It’s not fair that people in power can’t be trusted”. Often, I heard my gifted side say, “Yeah, and it’s also not fair that I’m still having to dedicate my intellect to managing ambient terror after working so hard to heal!”
Feeling Ecological Grief
There was something else in there too: grief. Regardless of my particular past, I have always loved and felt deeply connected to the Earth, and watching it undergo so much destruction on such a massive scale has been really painful. In my trauma-triggered frozen state, I struggled to find the inner resources to process the grief in a healthy way.
It helped when I learned that ecological grief is a real thing, and that like me, many people are struggling with it now. Additionally, many of the gifted people I work with have told me that – like me – they’ve been feeling additional grief and helplessness over the fact that there’s no amount of applying their uncommon smarts which will solve this highly complex emergency once and for all. Not rarely that feeling of helplessness triggers gifted-specific trauma: memories of times when, no matter how much we tried to use our fast minds to resolve agonizing family or cultural or other societal dysfunctions, we were just kids and didn’t have enough resources, strength, social support or lived wisdom to be able to make a big enough difference to really change our fate. Once again, the emotional reactions are layered, complex, and across time dimensions.
The time dimension issue was key for me. I often heard myself thinking, “This is an emergency. I don’t have time to grieve or come out of the ‘freeze’!”. And yet, there was no way to pressure myself into having a solution both for the world and for myself today. The only thing I could realistically do was to accept the situation in a non-dualistic way: yes, the climate emergency was threatening my life as I knew it, and yes I needed to – once again – work through more layers of trauma and very real grief. It was my full, complex reality.
Starting there, I researched ecological grief, opened up to my husband and friends about my feelings, and asked others how they were handling their feelings; I booked therapy and bodywork sessions to help me process the trauma triggering; and spent a lot of time (even more than usual) out in nature. Answers came, and while I wished they would come faster, I comforted myself knowing I was doing my best in a highly complex situation. The pain hung around like a heavy storm cloud, but I didn’t push it away.
A Compassionate Breakthrough
In InterGifted’s Creatives group, we did a group exercise in which we put our feelings on an important matter into a piece of original art. I made a sketch of hard, but sincere feelings: me sitting in the ocean with all the plastic that now ubiquitously lives there, while meditating and sending compassion out to the oceans and the rest of the Earth suffering with it. Sharing this piece with our group was a real breakthrough, as it acknowledged something important: I wasn’t powerless, even in my state of freeze and grief. I was connected to the world through my compassion for it, and that meant that just by feeling the compassion, I was doing something positive for the world.
Yeah, but what good is that? a skeptical part of me countered. Yet I knew from my years of mindfulness practice that our compassion makes a big difference in situations where it seems that no difference can be made, so I ignored the inner skeptic. Mindfulness has opened up connections and entrained energy fields even when circumstances have appeared immovable, and inspired and motivated me in situations even when action felt impossible. It has lead to increasing returns, as it builds over time. So I knew that while compassion itself wouldn’t heal the world and reverse climate change, it would have positive reverberating effects on me as well as on the people with whom I was engaging on this topic, and that meant something to me.
As I reconnected with that compassion, I kept getting the message that I am just human; that I can only do what I’m able to do; that I may be gifted, I may have a fast brain, I may be powerful in some ways – but I’m still just human. That I didn’t single-handedly create this emergency, wasn’t responsible for the situation I had been born into, and didn’t create my body and how it as a biological system reacts to – and needs time to heal from – trauma. Finally, as I felt completely embraced by this “it’s okay to be human” context, I felt safe – not safe from the emergency, not safe from world destruction, but safe within my own self. I also started to feel more connected to the Earth as a present-moment friend, rather than as a tragic representation of a dying entity “out there”.
That led to many healing conversations, meditations, new connections with nature and wonderful discoveries (such as finding the book called How Forests Think, by Eduardo Kohn). With my friends and within InterGifted, I started to explore creative, constructive and compassion-driven ways of contributing to the collective response. I discovered people who are creating games, art, and literature for ecological education and awareness-raising. I saw Greta Thunberg daring to reject “business as usual” and creating a new path for collective constructive action. I found a fellow therapist, Margaret Klein Salamon, who is leading a strong, psychologically- and trauma-informed movement to help people transform themselves individually and respond collectively. These and many other inspirations helped me to identify more clearly where I felt my own passions guiding me to contribute. Given what I had been through, I felt inspired to create a collective “place” where we can gather together to cultivate gratitude, love, compassion for and connection with the Earth. And to that end, I started a climate response project, I Heart Earth.
Finding Your Unique Role
If you are in the freeze, there are ways to encourage safety and to come out of dissociation and paralysis: talk and somatic therapy, group support, self-education, art-making and self-compassion are wonderful ways to actively engage in helping yourself work through trauma. Additionally, coming out to your friends and family about how you feel, if it is safe to do so, can be a very important step. Often, even the closest people to us don’t know what we’re going through inside, and with these complex and sensitive issues, they will likely never guess unless we tell them. In order to get the full support you need, you must speak up.
If you are in a more constructive, building and reaching out energy, you may be ready to take inventory of your passions, values and skills and to see where they match up to what is needed now. Where do they overlap? Where can you jump into the collective effort now? What are the next steps for doing this? It may take some slowing down and mindful attention to your life: where you can make changes, how you can redistribute your energy to include earth advocacy, and how you can shift your lifestyle to match the changing times. Practicing mindfulness with us and coaching might also be helpful ways to get support in this phase of your personal process.
Wherever you find yourself on your own journey of reconnecting with the Earth, I warmly welcome you to join mine over at I Heart Earth. You can also follow a more intimate art-making & interbeing process at my art instagram account.