We Need the Storm
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
The last time I felt this feeling, the sky looked very different than it does now, all bluebird and calm, sun falling through the little pink fists of cherry blossoms, scattering light onto the lawns and the dog walkers and the empty streets. The last time I felt this feeling, the sky was dark as dusk, purple, electric, and shaking with sound.
It was day 2 of my solo hike of the Great Divide Trail, a route following the continental divide of the Rockies from the US border North for 1,300 km. I was green as the young aspen and cow parsnip flattening under hail the size of tic-tacs. Wind rattled through the finger bones and ribcages of 38,000 hectares of mountain forest burned in the wildfires of 2017. There was nowhere to take shelter in this regenerating burn, just the sweep of valley and peak stubbled with dead trees, and rocks humming with electricity.
We don’t really have electrical storms on the West Coast, and I felt in over my head, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. I couldn’t stop walking or I would freeze, but I knew that following the curve of the landscape onwards, up and over the ridge was dangerous. There was only the unknown, the magnitude of the sky, and the thunder tearing through my small slip of a body.
Soon I found myself soaked and laughing in the brilliant sun atop a green ridge watching the storm cloud grow small as it rained itself out over the prairie. But there was more to my laughter than relief, or even the metallic charge of adrenaline. Humming in my limbs was an aliveness that lives only in wild places which still insist of us an animal’s alertness. Nan Shepherd describes walking through her beloved Caingorm mountains as “a task that, demanding of [the walker] all he has and is, absorbs and so releases him entirely." I felt like I had approached something so great, so terrible, and so wild that it could not conceivably share a world with things like printer ink, facebook posts, and jogs on the seawall.
“So now. Was the storm beautiful?” asks nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore, after her campground was razed by wind and lightning one night, “Yes, when it was far away. But the inside of the storm was horrid: ‘dark, uncertain, confused,’” she quotes Philosopher Edmund Burke. “…And it wasn’t calm I felt in the middle of that storm, but a heightened excitement, a close focus an intensity close to fear—the very opposite of beauty. But move carefully here, Burke warned. The opposite of ‘beauty’ is not ‘ugliness.’ The opposite of ‘beauty’ is ‘sublimity,’ the blow-to-the-gut awareness of chaotic forces unleashed and uncontrolled, the terror—and finally the awe. To experience the sublime is to understand with an insight so fierce and sudden it makes you duck, that there is power and possibility in the universe greater than anyone can imagine. The sublime blows out the boundaries of human experience. Is this, finally, what we crave?"
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I am in grad school now, doing research with people struggling to cope with the anxiety and grief of a climate barreling towards chaos and ruin. When I began, I could not have imagined how fully these beautiful people would share themselves with me, how deeply I would be impacted, or the tremendous responsibility I would feel to do justice to their fears, hopes and sloppy motions towards coping with the un-cope-able.
What can we learn from the more immediate crisis we are in? As it unfolds day-by-day, I see the similarities to the even larger crisis I am studying. Like climate change, the COVID-19 crisis is characterized by dread and anxiety, it asks of us to change our world and relationships so completely if we are to survive. Here too, the pull of despair is seductive and requires active coping strategies to resist.
The truth is that coping is messy. It happens in fits and starts, small successes amidst epic failures. And when the danger is so large, existential and ongoing, and our individual, or even group efforts are so small as to make a difference imperceptible upon the magnitude of the challenge, traditional concepts of coping get blown out the window.
The coping literature presents us with three tidy categories: The first is emotion-focused coping which uses emotional strategies to eliminate the bad feeling: climate denial, minimizing the COVID-19 crisis, avoiding your grandma because it is painful to see how old she has become, numbing with Netflix, buying a designer doughnut because your boss made you feel stupid. This one is commonly understood to be the least adaptive form of coping, it is also sustaining force of capitalism.
Then there’s problem-focused coping, this one involves confronting the stressor by seeking out information and taking action. Activism, organizing, calling up your damn grandma, having a tough conversation with your boss – these are all problem focused. Though considered adaptive in most situations, problem focused coping will really mess you up when the stressor is uncontrollable.
In 1945, the newly liberated concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl wrote “what is to give light – must endure burning.” Frankl believed in the human drive to find meaning in life, and that this sense of meaning is what enables people to overcome painful experiences. Later, the coping literature took this idea up as a third and final strategy – meaning focused coping. Spirituality, guiding metaphor, and purpose all find there place here. Learning about the meaning of your own mortality from watching your grandma age or writing a blog post about nature and coping and climate change while anxiously stuck at home during COVID-19 (👀🙋♂️) would both be examples of meaning-focused coping. This one is considered the most adaptive for uncontrollable stressors, like the death of a loved one, or long-term war or occupation.
What is maddening in these times, is that the stressor is not uncontrollable, there is still time, that what we do really can make a difference, however small. At the same time there is so much we do not know, and so little within our influence.
It is hard to believe, to really believe, that we can solve the problem. You can drive yourself mad doing all the activism and recycling in the world and still the existential dread keeps coming. At the same time, emotion and meaning focused coping alone leaves one with a sense of guilt for not being part of the solution. The reality is that I see people engaging in complexly interwoven coping strategies. People need to numb out on Netflix in order to go back to the activism the next morning. People take actions which they feel deeply skeptical about such as letter writing, in part because it helps them manage their emotions. And everything, everything we do these days is suffused with meaning. Metaphors run like roots through my interviews: Nature as kin, whale as teacher, future generations under a protective arm.
What frustrates me about this whole conversation though is the dereliction of feeling itself. Antithetical, it seems, to the very concept of coping, is the metamorphic act of just feeling. Of feeling the fear ebb and flow in your chest, of staying with what one of my research participants called "a great heaving grief" until you are cold and clean and honest as water. I don’t mean to advocate for some dramatic catharsis, but instead for an honesty of feeling not permitted in this world as it is… or as it was, before this storm began. * * *
The sublime of the storm, or the emotion that comes in these first weeks of crisis is what Rebecca Solnit calls Disaster Collectivism: “that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”
Since the storm began, my world, like yours has been turned upside down. My work shut down. I’m not sure if I will be able to graduate this year. I don’t know how long this will last. I can’t focus on anything. I miss my friends. I miss my classes. And most terrifying of all, I am worried I will lose my parents. The thought of this is too much to bear.
Since the storm began, I ran for the first time in months, faster than I should, through the sun and the cherry blossoms and the empty streets, my body processing stress like a shaking deer.
Since the storm began, my partner and I have laid together, eyes wide, motionless, music washing through us, every tone vibrating relief through our bodies.
Since the storm began, I have felt a fierce care and love for my friends, coworkers, classmates, family, and absolute strangers heightened by the knowledge of loss and the urgency of care. I have spoken to loved ones I haven’t seen for years. Who spoke blatantly and without hesitance to me of their fear.
Since the storm began, I have plunged into action, seen people extend themselves, become bigger in a matter of days. Big enough to hold their own pain and the pain of others, discarding that which only a week ago seemed relevant – deadlines, coolness, good grades, biting critique - to make space for courage, higher purpose, choosing right.
To me, this sublime blurring of beauty, fear, joy, danger, and the utter unknown is heavy with possibility. When we lose certainty, we also lose the certainty that the world must carry on as it has, or that doom is inevitable. Within this storm, I see that the world I dream of is already present, perhaps here all along.
To quote Solnit once more, “To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on your futures, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”
I want us all to be safe and I long to see the brightening horizon as the clouds move on. But when it’s over, I want for us to remember this feeling, the sublime, the uncertainty, the immediacy that comes with a world made suddenly unfamiliar. When the world emerges anew in the dazzling green wash after the storm. I want to remember how it feels, this dangerous possibility.