Friends and family tell me I too often focus on the negative. My doctors and therapists have told me me this, too. Diagnosed as I am with severe depression and surviving two suicide attempts, I used to believe them.
Part of my recovery involved completing a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program. CBT assumes that changing the way a patient thinks leads to changes in mood and behavior. Patients keep “thought records” where they document negative thoughts and then challenge the validity of those thoughts with the help of a therapist. On the surface, CBT seems like a good way to combat depression, right?
I do not think so, anymore. I came to therapy feeling like I was the problem. My sensitivity to the problems I saw around me caused me profound grief. I felt guilty for my ineffectiveness as a public defender to stem the tide of poor people being thrown in prison. I felt guilty as a member of a natural community for being unable to stop the destruction from raging on. My doctors and therapists insisted that if I changed my perceptions then I would alleviate the grief. In other words, my doctors and therapists told me, “You cannot change the world, so change yourself.”
The chill seeps through my best efforts to insulate myself riding on the back of a snowmobile at Unist’ot’en Camp. Two pairs of long underwear, snow pants, a $200 jacket, a scarf, goggles, sock cap, and gloves prove inadequate to the task. The best I can do is focus on the landscape as we pass.
At first glance, the forest is pristine. White snow on evergreens. A bald eagle circling yonder hill. Marten tracks in the powder.
But, looking closer, in some of the trees I see black lichen hanging from black limbs. Many trees stand dead and ripe for a strong wind to blow them down. Ditches line the forestry service roads crossing the territory. Every once in a while, the snowmobiles drag us from tall, mature woods into startling open spaces representing logged clearings. In some of those clearings, mounds formed by heavy machinery seem out of place against the beauty surrounding them. These images demonstrate that even a place as strong as Unist’ot’en Camp is not immune to the processes destroying life on the planet.
My first instinct is to distrust my perception. Surrounded as I am by beauty, why am I caught up in small indicators of the land’s illness? The short answer is I cannot help it.
Psychologists describe the process by which a sensory cue triggers emotional responses as involuntary memory. French novelist, Marcel Proust, coined the term in Remembrance of Things Past with the famous “episode of the madeleine” where Proust described how watching a man dunk madeleine cakes in tea triggered memories of Proust’s childhood. A similar thing happens to me. When I see logging cuts, I cannot help but wince at the image of felled trees. When I see power lines, I also see coalmines and nuclear plant meltdowns. The lacerations of jet exhaust crisscrossing the sky on an otherwise beautiful, clear day scar my vision. The memories that are triggered are not necessarily personal, but they are real none-the-less.
Many accuse radicals of letting the same negativity I’ve been accused with skew our perceptions of reality. The United States is a fundamentally good place they tell us. Yes, the government imprisons more black men today than were enslaved in 1850. Yes, one in four American women will be raped in her lifetime. Yes, we’ve lost 95% of old growth forests. But, look at the comforts you enjoy, our accusers say. You took a hot shower this morning. You can visit Hawai’i when you want. You can call your mother on your cell-phone. Surely, things are more good than bad.
When we point out that our hot showers are made possible by a terribly destructive industrial complex (where does that water come from, after all?) or that Hawai’i is only accessible to us through physical force exerted over native Hawaiians or that cell-phones come to us through the inhumane labor conditions in rare metal mines, they shrug and give us the tired old, “you cannot change the world, so change yourself.”
When I tried to kill myself, I gave up on the possibility that the world could change and I was exhausted from focusing on changing myself. I had been in therapy for over six months the first time I tried to kill myself and close to a year the second time I tried to kill myself. After my second attempt, I entered the CBT program, but declined continuing my therapy after the program was finished. In so many ways, I feel much better away from therapy. The bottom line, of course, is I haven’t tried to kill myself since quitting therapy. Now, I am not encouraging the mentally ill to forsake therapy. If it works for you, by all means, continue. If it’s not working, though, it may not be your fault.
Frankly, I am sick of trying to change myself. I am sick of forcing myself to accept the way things are out of concern for my mental health. I will no longer accept that I should suppress my grief while the world burns. I am alive and feeling the destruction of natural communities is staggering. Yes, feeling the grief hurts, but running from the grief hurts more. As I’ve written so many times now, emotions cannot kill. They can, however, be a powerful motivator.
Radicals get to the root of the problem. I despair because the world is being destroyed. For too long, I have tried to address the despair. I have tried to change my perceptions. I have tried to tell myself my perceptions are the result of a sick way of seeing the world. It’s time to dig deeper. My despair is the result of the destruction of the world. To truly solve the despair requires stopping the destruction.
My experiences at the Unist’ot’en Camp have given me a renewed sense that changing the world is entirely possible. The Unist’ot’en Camp reflects the truth that we can no longer rely on someone else to save us. We have all signed petitions. We have all hoped and prayed our hearts out. We have all voted for candidates we think will do the least amount of harm.
And, it hasn’t worked.
Stopping the physical forces destroying the world requires stopping the physical forces destroying the world. It really is as simple as that. The Unist’ot’en Clan is doing this by building up a camp directly on the proposed routes of fossil-fuel pipelines. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels threatens the planet’s ability to support life. Stopping climate change requires stopping the burning of fossil fuels. One way to stop the burning of fossil fuels on a large scale is to stop the functioning of infrastructure carrying those fossil fuels to be burned in markets worldwide. In this way, we can maximize our collective strength. In this way, a few people can change the world. And, when you change the world, you change yourself.