Coming to Terms With Our Grief for the World

I could barely look at the pictures of mothers crying in agony at the loss of their children to the gunman at Uvalde, Texas. Being a parent and having lost a brother to violence in recent years, I could begin to grasp the depths of their grief. Raising a child with all the hope and promise implicit in the act, and then losing them when they have barely started their lives, is the worst.

Uvalde keyed me to a feeling that has been growing in recent months and helped me to identify it. Grief. The sense that comes with loss and failure.  Of a world coming to grief. For there is no doubt, we are leaving a wounded world to our children, one wracked by climate catastrophe and general ecological deterioration. I’ve felt grief about that for a long time.

But the Ukraine War and the intensification of great power conflict have deepened that feeling immensely. This is the decade we were supposed to be undertaking a vast transformation in infrastructures to bring climate-twisting pollution down by at least half. To leave our kids with a world they can cope with. A Green New Deal. A new World War II with that scale of investment. Instead, we seem to be setting up for World War III, with nations amping up their arms spending, while the fossil fuel industry gains the clout to reverse drilling bans. Replacing Russian fossil fuels with renewables is on the margin, while increased oil and gas production is the main show.

Writes climate and energy expert Michael Klare in a piece entitled “The Ukraine War’s Collateral Damage,” “All this — and it’s just the tip of the melting iceberg — leads to one conclusion: the world’s ruling elites have chosen to place their geopolitical rivalries above all other critical concerns, including planetary salvation. As a result, global warming is indeed likely to surpass 2 degrees Celsius sometime during this century. It’s a given that almost unimaginable calamities will ensue, including the inundation of major cities, monstrous wildfires, and the collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world.”

The natural human response is grief, a sense that we are losing precious years, and that the collective failures of the people who run the world system are leading to a global hell. Meanwhile, society seems to be disintegrating, with mass shootings from Buffalo to Uvalde, human rights for women and others being rolled back, and reactionary politics on the rise, with good chances to consolidate power in the U.S. and elsewhere in coming years.

I have to confess that on a personal level, I am often overwhelmed by all this in ways that make it difficult to function some days.  I sense many of you are in the same situation, so let me share how I deal with it, as best I can. I am kind of a cafeteria Buddhist, with no formal practice, but with a few key thoughts. One is to be present in the moment, to be here now, with what I am feeling.  It is most important to not deny or ignore our feelings, or to “tough it out” by putting on a false façade of strength when we’re shaking inside. I am not a machine, but a thinking, feeling human being, and despite the need for action sometimes I just have to stop, and let the feelings roll through like water until the stream clears. Real strength is to feel our grief in full, acknowledge its reality, that there are losses we cannot avoid, and collective failures beyond our power to overcome. And go on with life, doing what we can do.

Buddhism, as other wisdom paths, teaches that one of the great goals is compassion. It profoundly helps to look deep into our grief for the world and understand that it roots in compassion, the best in us. That identifying with the pain of the world builds our compassion and increases our insight, another of the great goals. The insight of a world system in deep, collective failure, grievous as it is, can increase our determination to build a world based on compassion. Where the fundamental principle is caring for others as we care for ourselves. Grief, understood as compassion for a world in distress, can move us to action.

In coming years, there will be losses and heartbreak. It is unavoidable now. The trends in our world are too much in the wrong direction. There will be many mothers crying over children lost to the world’s many horrors, and much grief caused by the breakdowns that are coming. We will have a great work of rebuilding ahead of us in the coming years, beginning in the communities and regions we live. If we are courageous enough to feel our grief for the world, and understand its roots in compassion, we will understand how to do that rebuilding. We will know our direction.

This first appeared in The Raven