Recently, Helen Cox spent a weekend with an energetic group of community organisers from Doing It Ourselves at Commonground, an intentional community and social enterprise located in the country of the Taungurung people (Seymour, north of Melbourne). Doing It Ourselves, along with many other community groups, frequently use this wonderful space as a retreat and strategy weekend, or perhaps we could say ‘retreat as strategy’ weekend!
The group was kind enough to let Helen record a discussion, for this post she has pulled out some of the highlights for Plan To Thrive readers.
Having attended an event Doing It Ourselves had run previously, aptly named ‘Sustaining Ourselves’, I was keen to have a discussion about what people in the group had found helpful for staying balanced in order to perform work of sustainable community development in the face of precarious economic and environmental conditions. What emerged was a series of sophisticated arguments that place emotional health at the front and centre of action:
“(When) building communities of practice where political action and social relationships fuse together… political action itself becomes a form of therapy and so we should try to keep our actions with this. If you end up looking at various collapse models and what have you, a lot of people are really going to struggle to let go of modern identities – its not going to be easy and has a certain grimness. So yeah, we need to create communities of social and political practice and relationships behind that which can act as some form of therapy, for us and for anyone involved” (Tim)
“I find a great deal of activism, at least the first 3-5 years of peoples activist careers is probably them working out all of their issues, which is why people get so bloody passionate about stuff. I think it is important, if you’re going to be taking on this stuff, you need to do some counselling, you need to get yourself into a really healthy place so you can better do that and not feeling like being overwhelmed is a necessary state” (Kat)
Emotional health was strongly linked to action in ways that might seem counter-intuitive to some. Part of the discussion focused on the role of pessimism and depression in order to ‘see the world’, a phenomenon well known to cognitive psychologists but less often explored by abnormal and bio-medical theories of psychological health. Arguably, the pathologization of the hopelessness has become one of the major stumbling blocks of contemporary social movements; perfectly understandable reactions to environmental stressors such as climate change are instead reframed as psychological deviance. While depression is a debilitating state of consciousness for some –
“That state of depression is futile and doesn’t empower me into action, in fact I go ‘oh my god its too hard, it’s too overwhelming’ “(Ellen)
for others it is a ‘function of optimism’, a call to action as well as a useful tool for risk analysis:
“I think its a really natural part of greiving and healing process with coming to understand that the world is fucked. For me, it took about three years before I got through that and feeling optimistic for most of the time. At first I was pessimistic 100% of the time, and then for 80% of the time, then 70% of the time…and now I’m pessimistic 5% of the time. I’m really happy with that and I don’t want to get rid of that 5% of the time because its useful” (Theo)
“For me, it will probably be like what this guy Antonio Gramsci says, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. I think that probably summarises the best state of affairs for me, I don’t think I’ll ever be optimistic intellectually but I think I could be optimistic about what I can do. I think it really comes down to finding what you can do, and what you can do with others and just getting on with doing that. Its an open question – what you can achieve” (Johnny)
“I could do lots of stuff but there wasn’t any kind of reward or an optimistic outlook about what my actions contributed to and so now I feel its important to use more optimistic forms of meaning to reinforce the things that I think on some level are useful. I delegate pessimism only to things that are big risks and eliminate it in areas like complaining about uncomfortable beds. I use it to to get to the point where I see things like collapse in the first place, which I think requires some level of pessimism ultimately, in a more useful sense” (Vaughan).
Depression or powerlessness were named as holding a certain humility:
“Maybe its a humility or a groundedness of what our capacity and role is, just to go with that and try to create as much of the kind of reality that we want and if that’s a centrepoint, maybe thats a place where you can be whole and work well” (Roger)
“I think for me, following from humility, what helps me not get totally depressed is to forgive myself for not being able to do the things I feel I should do and to regularly remember ‘alright, I’m allowed to not have done all the things that I’ve got on my list and its totally o.k.’ and then to recognise the ‘I’ that I am did not choose to exist, I did not choose to come into this world the way it is” (Luke)
These small steps, or crossing a few things off our personal ‘lists’, were acknowledged by some as creating meaning in the world and being personally empowering in spite of a sense of impermanence:
“Because we create all the meaning in the world it is possible for us to wipe ourselves out and cause pain and destruction, which is already happening, but it is also possible for us to change our course and do things differently. If I’m focusing on the meaning that we’re creating, that it is possible, rather than that it isn’t possible, then it empowers me to be in action rather than just focus on the impossibility of it” (Ellen)
“Theres a difference there between rationalism and perfectionism. Rationalists also tend to move towards absolutism. We can actually do really awesome things and we don’t have to be a perfect world-wide movement because the world is too dynamic for that to ever happen. We think ‘oh no, we can’t do that because its not going to be perfect’, but actually we can because we can do lots of things” (Kat)
“There is something in Taoism that I like, I guess non-attachment but still doing what you want to do, so slightly different to Buddism. I remember talking to this Taoist dude in China and saying that I really want to change the world, its fucked, and he was just like ‘the world doesn’t exist’, and I was like ‘ah-hem’. By the end of the conversation he’d kind of talked me around to yes, the ‘world doesn’t exist and nothing is fucked because the world doesn’t exist, but if you want to fix it then go for it but don’t stress about it’” (Theo)
The theory of non-attachment hinted at by Theo was a common theme during the discussion, but should not be confused with emotional indifference, as Kat points out:
‘A really important thing in the face of vulnerability is to maintain vulnerability. What that means in practice is not just being vulnerable to the things that can hurt you but its more important to, and often the thing that we forget, is being vulnerable to the good things, to actually feeling good things when they come about’.
For everyone in the group, its is the ‘good stuff’ and the community that keeps them engaged with organising. The weekend I spent with the group was littered with group activities that were, for want of a better word, downright joyous. Preparing and eating meals together, exploring nature, swimming, singing, laughing and chatting around a pot-belly stove helped people reconnect with a sense of purpose and collectivity, arguably two of the most significant social foundations for localised community-based responses to environmental and economic crisis. The activities that build interpersonal relationships are ‘infinitely important’, but as Roger and Youbi point out, need to be accessible and mediated with openness and tolerance.
“Realising that [relationships] are really meaningful and valuable even though they’re not the whole world. It’s as infinitely valuable as fixing the whole world, this moment of beauty and this love, even if its just this one bubble it’s as infinitely valuable and beautiful. I feel that I get a lot of energy from talking about collapse, it really fills me up but if I try to put my energy back into that same situation you end up trying to work on the political level and it bursts the bubble. I feel like I get energy from it, but its that whole ‘think globally, act locally’, try and grapple with it but put that passion and energy to something smaller or what is real for you- that’s infinity, that’s huge” (Terri)
“Something I got from climate activism just punched really hard in the head that you need to have a face-to-face manifestation of what you’re on about and not just an abstract systems oriented politics. Doing It Ourselves, it just integrates really well the ‘doing’ and the broader aims of the group. People being ‘post-despair’ is also really interesting and so is the idea of ‘black humour’, laughing in the face of death’, that might be an interim coping strategy but it seemed to be a really big thing among my friends” (Roger)
“Its very important to, as Terri said, make a beautiful community. To make strong relationships – I love you and you love me – its really important. I think another important thing about activism is to be open to other people as well, even if some people have a very different opinion or if they are against your opinion. If they just shut down the door for example, some people have a very wobbly mind about social problems, they don’t have much idea sometimes or really haven’t thought about this or that. I have spent time in some groups that have beautiful community between each-other but as outside person I can’t really access it because the relationships are too strong. Its difficult to break in. A balance between community and openness is really important” (Youbi)
I would like to thank everyone who took part in this discussion, particularly for sharing so openly and honestly. Expect to hear a lot more from Doing It Ourselves in the future regarding the psychology of social change and community development for a more sustainable future, I strongly recommend attending any event run by activists from this network. Join the mailing list or keep and eye on Facebook account for information about upcoming activities.
These activists throw around some interesting ideas about the relationship of emotions to community and political action – what do you think?
For more discussion of emotional and psychological adjustment to climate change and peak oil see our review of The Transition Handbook.