“Nothing Will Ever Change!”
In a Facebook conversation last week with some BPFers, my friend Rachel expressed frustration with her chronic cynicism in the face of massive problems. I often feel as Rachel did last week, “No matter what I (or we as humanity) do, nothing will ever change!”
While a healthy dose of skepticism can be useful, the cynic’s extreme focus on the negative had become paralyzing. As we tried to explore the cynic’s usefulness, Rachel said “The cynic’s just piling up the evidence – 350.org vs. the Keeling curve and the quantity of cars on 19th Ave (a major North-South thoroughfare), for example… My guess is that underneath all this is a ton of (unexpressed) grief…”
Ah, grief! This naming of an unexpressed feeling seemed to finally break the cynic’s grip. This ability to drop down into the feeling underneath the feeling is a critical strategy that meditators can bring to our activist work. By observing experience at the level of bare sensation, we develop the capacity to feel into underlying emotions. We crack through the cynicism that we have developed as an effective strategy to distance ourselves from the pain of grief.
Susan Piver offers some useful language in distinguishing between the related emotional states of depression and sadness:
When you are able to look under the surface of depression, which has a kind of hard, acrylic-feeling veneer, when you look underneath that what I have found is sadness. And while depression seems unworkable and completely brittle, sadness is soft and tender and very workable.
What is the difference between depression and sadness? I learned a clue about the difference when I read an interview with the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was being interviewed on the death of her husband.
The interviewer said, “Aren’t you depressed?” And (I’m paraphrasing here) she said, “No, I’m not depressed, I’m sad.”
When the interviewer wondered what the difference was, she said, “When you’re depressed, nothing has any meaning. But when you’re sad, everything does.”
– Susan Piver on Meditation, Depression, and Sadness
As we study this year under the rubric of The System Stinks, I find it’s also important to look at the systemic conditions that contribute to cynicism, doubt, and depression. In the book Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman describe what they call liberation psychologies, psychologies that take systemic, historical, and cultural contexts into account:
While working to understand the interdependent relations between the intrapsychic, interpersonal, community, economic, and environmental contributions to the structure of experience, liberation psychologies turn to the larger frames of culture and history in which these are embedded. Here the psychological legacy of 500 years of colonialism and its evolution into transnational capitalism, and then twenty-first-century globalization weighs heavily in the analysis. Such psychologies turn as well to the particular social and ecological location of individuals and their communities. Resolutely working from an interdependent paradigm, they seek to ground us both in the global waves of history during the last 500 years and in the specific location where the legacies of this history are experienced in the present. The strands of individual, community, cultural, and ecological well-being are held tightly together, and are seen to be necessary to one another. Psychological health is understood to emerge as capacities to create meaning are reignited, hopes are rekindled, and actions forged for achieving peace and economic and social justice. As the chains of racism and economic oppression are cast off, it will be possible to more deeply reclaim cultural histories, traditions, and languages. The hope for peaceful, just, and ecologically vibrant communities that support psychological well-being inspires a set of practices that seek to nourish capacities for dialogue, complex and multifaceted identity formation, critical analysis and action. (p. 10)
In the section on “Psychic Wounds of Colonialism and Globalization,” they analyze the effects for not only victims and perpetrators, but also for bystanders to injustice who are “attempting to live daily life detached from the violence around one by defending against knowing about it too fully or allowing its presence to change the way life is led” (p. 50). Are cynicism and depression not natural responses to hearing that our politicians will likely approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, despite it being “game over” for humans to survive climate change? While depression can have many causes, a psychology that only looks for causes in brain chemistry or interpersonal relationships conveniently ignores systemic causes. Who benefits when cynicism and depression are our default responses to injustice and oppression?
BPFers, what tools do you use personally to crack through the hard exteriors of cynicism, doubt, and depression? How do you experience these as a normal response to global capitalism, colonization, patriarchy, and racism? And if it’s true that our cynicism, doubt, and depression have systemic causes, are there collective tools and rituals you’ve found helpful?
Photo credit: 350.org