Living sustainably is easy. All humans did for most of human history. Animals do it. Living differently than everyone else can be hard, even when you live how they want. People push hard against people who remind them they aren’t living by their values.
Alison, the host of This Sustainable Life: Untethered, wrote to ask me how I handled the challenge around the time she wrote a post, The Diary Of An Addict, sharing the dawning of her of how much her life revolved around craving out of her control. She wrote:
Have you heard of the Kubler Ross change curve? It outlines the emotional journey from starting a new project or change and the different phases that you inevitably go through.
I feel like I am heading towards the valley of despair at the moment with regards to making personal positive environmental changes. I can empathise with the prior honeymoon period as well where I found much joy in learning and developing of new skills.
The theory says that such a curve is inevitable but the trick is to minimise time spent in the valley of despair and climb out of the other side quickly.
Have you experienced a similar thing after you started making positive changes? If so, how did you climb out?
I knew that diagram and had recently found a two-dimensional version also connected to Kubler-Ross at Wikipedia’s page on Five stages of grief, which I found when learning about the stages of exiting an addiction, which you wrote about too.
To answer your question “Have you experienced a similar thing after you started making positive changes? If so, how did you climb out?” in some ways, yes, sometimes every day for a while, especially when picking up litter, seeing more of it every year, seeing people casually litter, imagining the mindsets that make that behavior acceptable or desirable to the people doing it, seeing the scale of the problem of influencing that many people. My parents love me, believe they support me as a person, and believe they understand some of what I’m saying and doing, but misunderstand me and support a cartoon version of me, which is more than frustrating.
How do I climb out? This emotional skill is the main work of acting on ones values and improving ones life. It takes practice. Some of my tools, all of which take practice and experience:
Role models: you’ve probably heard me talking about Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl. Mandela lived in prison 27 years, befriending his captors to understand them better, and emerged to become president, where he looked pretty happy. Frankl was tortured by Nazis in Auschwitz, but wrote about bliss and love. He couldn’t change his physical world but he could choose his response. They were no more or less human than me, so what they could do I can. My episodes with Blake Haxton, who lost his legs to flesh-eating disease are closer to home. Even before finding I liked living without using so much power, I’d have preferred living sustainably to losing both my legs, and he’s happy, describing himself as lucky except for one thing.
I learn to handle “gravity problems” to not affect my emotional state: Say you’re carrying something valuable and drop it so it breaks, like an expensive camera or bottle of wine you’d saved a long time for a special occasion. You might get mad at yourself for being clumsy or the rug you tripped on or someone for distracting you, depending on the circumstance. But you wouldn’t get mad at gravity. Gravity doesn’t change. It’s outside your control. It does what it does.
I’d prefer to live in an unpolluted world where people were more open to seeing the consequences of their actions and changing their behavior quicker. I don’t. I live in a world with gravity, plastic in the oceans, and people who cling to old views.
I do my best to value my life based on what I do relative to my potential: While I can’t change the past, I can do my best to influence the future. I don’t measure success based on dream outcomes. I still dream of outcomes, but I measure value based on how close I come to reaching my potential. In this regard, greater adversity gives me greater opportunity to reach my potential.
Community: you and the other podcast hosts, many of my guests telling me how actions improve their lives, and others are growing in number and enthusiasm.
Nature: mostly food, also walks in what parks still exist, riding my bike, looking out over the river, but mostly food.
Volunteering: I love this group I joined where we bring food that stores were going to throw away to a community drop-off point. As volunteers we get to keep some of the food for ourselves and it’s top notch organic stuff. Nobody likes the leafy vegetables as I do, so I get the best stuff and I pay for it not with money but exercise, for which the stores, recipients, and other volunteers all thank me. It’s almost too good to be true.
Sidchas: structure, action, heart pumping. There’s no time for depression to kick in when I get my heart pumping twice a day.
Managing expectations: All that said, I still feel demoralized all the time. I also felt demoralized all the time before my current focus and I see everyone else seem demoralized often too. But my passion seems more meaningful than before I chose this path and more than anyone else’s that I see.
Experience: I tell me coaching clients, “when you start working on yourself, changing yourself, you will inevitably think things like ‘I’ve been at this six months and I’m no better off. What’s the point’ or ‘I’m moving backward. The more I try the less progress I make’ and my telling you that those thoughts and feeling will come won’t stop them, nor will you remembering that I said them in the moment lessen their effect. But everyone who has ever tried has felt them too and always will. They will come, they will go.”
Despite my knowing that pattern, having experienced it many times, and seeing it in others, it still hits me and I still feel as profoundly depressed as ever each time. Knowing intellectually that the feelings will pass helps them pass faster. I guess after all these years I can say it does lessen the depth of feeling.
Most of all, it gives a different part of my mind from the emotional feeling part a way of observing that emotional feeling with some disinterest, thinking “that emotional part of my mind is at it again. We just have to watch it go until it’s done.”
Curiosity: When other parts of me become conscious of that depressed part, sometimes I get curious: why does it do that pattern? Do others feel that way? Is it worse for them or not? Can I do anything about it? What exactly is happening? Is my heart beating faster, my thoughts affected? And so on. It can be interesting to learn about this apparently human pattern. Did evolution cause it?
Spite: I’m not going to let the polluters win. I’m going to be happier than those fuckers. I can beat their ignorance-based bliss with passionate action.
The people at the receiving end of the pollution: Thinking of the helpless people suffering all the pollution, including ourselves relative to the lives we could live if not for how much we’ve trashed everywhere, motivates me as much as anything. The more I learn of our system hurting everyone, the more I want to change it, not succumb to it.
Saving up feeling good: When I feel good and thoughtful, like now, I remember how I feel, knowing I felt depressed before, which didn’t stop me from feeling good again, and that I’ll feel depressed again in the future, I keep the good feeling in mind. When I feel depressed again, even if I can’t conjure feeling un-depressed, I can intellectually remember that I’ll feel good again. That intellectual knowledge helps separate the parts of my mind I described before and prompt curiosity, which distracts and removes me from depression.
I hope what I wrote helps you on your journey, especially to start it if you haven’t.
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