by George LakeyEmbed from Getty Images
I’m no stranger to despair — it almost killed me. At age 39, I was diagnosed with a kind of lymphoma that was usually fatal. I’m exactly twice that age now. The healing took an extraordinary mobilization of resources from inside me and from my community. But first I had to learn the biggest lesson of all.
I remember that challenging time now, as I read the news from the Paris climate talks. Many of us, frankly, did not hold high expectations for the gathering. In 1973, I published my prediction that governmental leaders would fail us on fundamental environmental issues. I proposed an alternative strategy that would not rely on politicians to take care of us and called it a “living revolution.”
Still, when heads of state gather in the bright lights of mass media, there’s often hope against hope. Against our better judgment, we can set ourselves up for discouragement and worse.
When facing the prospect of my dying, I found an approach that went beyond both despair and desperate hope. I remember groaning in a hospital bed after massive surgery when the surgeon came in. He explained, “We couldn’t get it all, so radiation and chemo will be next.” I noticed the surgeon would no longer meet my eyes. Today’s analogy to his ominous message might be the environmentalists who tell us that it’s already too late — we can’t really save ourselves from climate calamity.
As I digested my grim diagnosis I began to feel a complete victim. I asked myself, why me? I’m young and chose a healthy lifestyle. I have children to care for, and I work for a better world.
My primary community, Movement for a New Society, organized a care team for me in the hospital. MNS member Ellen Deacon invited her dad to visit me. When he walked into my room, the pain was roaring and tubes were coming in and out of me. Ellen’s dad simply said, “My daughter told you I’d drop by in case you needed anything. Not very long ago I was where you are now.”
That got my attention.
“I realize we’re all different,” he said, “but what turned me around was when I decided to take responsibility for the cancer I had grown.”
Every fiber within me shouted “No!”
“I’m not talking about blame, here,” he said. “I’m simply talking about owning my situation, realizing that the rest of me had something to do with the cancer cells multiplying. You might want to consider it.”
I said as graceful a goodbye as I could under the circumstances, and went back to feeling sorry for myself. Later, though, his words came back to me, along with his healthy vibrancy. I began to consider what he said. If I somehow had the power to cooperate with the growth of the cancer cells, would that imply that I had the power to non-cooperate as well? If I can grow tumors, could I also shrink them?”
The idea was too far-fetched for me to believe it. Yet, as a working hypothesis, it was very attractive. I like being powerful. I felt powerless at the moment, pathetically so. I could choose to stay with pathos (I do like opera), or I could choose power.
Ellen and the others in the Movement for a New Society community put me in a love bath, 24/7. To the alarm of the supervising nurse, they wouldn’t let me alone. They sat beside me while I slept, sang and held me while I shook with fear. My dad had reared me to be a stoical individualist, but even his influence couldn’t prevent my surrender to the love. I could tell it was surrender because I so often became a blubbering idiot with them, pouring out decades of stored-up pain and disappointment and, yes, despair.
I was unprepared to strategize my healing, so my comrades helped out. They researched, helped me examine my lifestyle with a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), pointed me toward resources I’d never heard of. They wisely left each decision to me — this was about empowerment, after all. I kept in mind the very real chance of dying, reading books about it and building into my life qualities that I wanted to enjoy on my way out, if that’s how it went. My strategy also included new disciplines and new forms of struggle, to support a renewal of life. Even if the probability is low, I asked myself over and over in the middle of the night, why not go for it?
Dealing with our collective threat
Afterward, I looked back on that year of mobilization, painful as it was, as one of the best of my life. I realized that, because of my stubborn denial, I needed the death threat to get myself together. My growth curve transformed limiting beliefs and gave me glimpses of what the mystics and saints have long been getting at. I did know of people who resigned themselves to their cancer, turned on the television, and sank into oblivion. I chose love and possibility and reached for a new degree of liberation. Maybe our society’s denial also needs the death threat to get itself together and make its own breakthrough.
Already in the late 1960s I “got the memo” about environmental crisis. I did little activism for the cause, however, because the movement’s mainstream was so determined to bark up the wrong tree. Most environmentalists’ belief in a middle school civics version of American politics kept groups to the right of Greenpeace unwilling to tap their full power.
In the past five years I see environmentalists shifting. Global conferences in Kyoto and Copenhagen revealed the truth to some, and Paris is revealing it to more: Politicians will not — and can not — save us, any more than I could have healed from cancer with band-aids. The environmental/economic crisis is way too fundamental to be handled by masses of people who ignore the source of their own power, which is literally called “people power.”
As with my cancer, the turn-around begins by taking responsibility, by accepting that somehow or other we’ve been avoiding operating from our true, life-affirming selves. Once we accept that we gave our power away to politicians and the corporate heads who control them, we can choose to take our power back.
As with my cancer recovery, a self-assessment will be useful. We’ll find we need to love each other instead of playing identity politics one-upmanship. If we’re on the oppressed end of one of the many “isms,” we’ll need to root our action in self-respect rather than attacking our comrades. We’ll need to interrogate class in ourselves, and become blubbering idiots, as we let go of the superiority moves that divide our efforts. By understanding class we’ll see how white supremacy, economic injustice and climate chaos are all maintained by the 1 percent and the institutions they control, such as the university and the Democratic Party.
We’ll also need to accept some good news, which is that the pace of change is not even. Predictions of doom usually assume a steady pace, but in fact there is often acceleration when masses go into motion. The four years between the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1960 sit-ins seemed like an eternity to civil rights organizers, but the years following 1960 were like a speeding train, almost impossible to keep up with. Nor would our SWOT analysis be complete if we overlook the positive indicators that showed up in Paris.
Strategically, the main lesson I learned in getting the goods on cancer was to be holistic. Let’s live the revolution now, even while we engage in the earlier stages that build the revolutionary movement. Let the timid ones see our affirmative organizational cultures that accept the emotional highs and lows that go with the struggle. Let’s act with awareness that a broad social movement includes diverse roles (advocacy, building alternative institutions, and so on), then affirm each role while enhancing the direct action that, in the United States, has suffered decades of neglect.
As environmental activist Joanna Macy teaches in her books and workshops, denial of despair doesn’t make it go away. In fact, in my life, despair was killing me. Post-Paris is our opportunity to get with friends, and do the raging, grieving and anguishing that might be coming up. Children are right to have tantrums, and we grown-ups are too — without needing to overturn police cars to be all drama-queen about it. When we choose to express our emotions safely and with each other, we send a subtle but clear message to our own selves that we are powerful indeed. By releasing our own emotions in a responsible way we free our agency and restore our sense of confidence.
Will humankind succeed in taking on the unjustly organized economies that are propelling the crisis? No one can really know for certain. I personally know what it means to look at slim odds. And I know I can choose to go for it.