Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Fear; part two ‘What can climate change and cancer teach me?'

Found on a beach near Cardigan, South Wales
Earlier this year I started a series of blogs looking at fear but I didn’t get further than the first blog as the subject challenges me on many levels. In the previous blog I had just met sociologist Heinz Bude whose book ’Society of Fear’ shows how fear is a growing part of our lives. 

I recognise that fear is a necessary part of our survival, but now we all know about every possible danger and threat, there are so many of us are living lives that are full of fear. Barry Glassner writes in his book, “The Culture of Fear”, about how specific fears are created and sustained by the media; often with enormous discrepancy about the reality of what might happen. The media seem to use this constant message of doom to keep us watching, reading or listening to their news. The disturbing thing is that fear encourages intolerance, racism and actions by authorities that are often not in our best interest. Worse still when it comes to some of our most serious threats, our media is silent.

Russ cartoon
Someone asked me recently what was my biggest fear?

I think they were expecting that cancer would be my answer, but my response came straight out; 'Climate Crisis’. 

My generation has failed, and failed spectacularly. Some might have heard about Professor Jem Bendell’s paper last year; the most downloaded paper on climate change (i). He analysed the latest studies about climate change and its implications and writes in the introduction; "That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.”  Fellow Green Party member, Dr Rupert Reed, wrote a very slightly more positive response (ii). However both reports are beyond bleak. 

Fear makes me hesitate to even to write this blog. Fear can shut people down but it is also a necessary response that activates people to recognize danger and take action. 

Russ cartoon
Following Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greta Thunberg and the school strikes, we are hearing more in our media. The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report highlighted the calamitous difference even a fraction of a degree above a rise of 1.5C can make to ecosystems and all our lives. The Met office have warned we could reach 1.5 within five years rather than some reports that suggest twelve years (iii). To have any hope of holding at that disastrous level we would have to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Read that line again. This is so big. Yet there is so little leadership and we fail to even reach most of the targets to which we have previously agreed. The science is done. We are in a climate and ecological emergency. There are no words to describe the horrors we risk. So is it any wonder that we are finding that climate change is affecting many people’s mental health? (v).

So why write and share this in a blog about cancer?

I think because, like with my cancer - and yes wow,  the fear around cancer can be huge at times - I need to find a way to let in hope. Getting cancer was almost like a second potentially life-threatening diagnosis, the climate crisis being the first. So I want to start to explore more what these two have got to teach me?

Russ cartoon
Rebecca Solnit (iv), author of a great book, ‘Hope in the Dark’ writes: "Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the 21st century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now." She quotes Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, who said; “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”

We can have both grief and hope. 

Hope is not about just being optimistic, just as despair is not the same as being without hope. Vaclav Havel writes: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well; but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." A despairing person may still act, perhaps with even more determination because of their dire situation - and isn’t this what we are seeing with many of those who are prepared to get arrested with Extinction Rebellion? I think, what we need to be worried about is hopelessness and the lack of any meaning. In contrast hope is all about meaning.

Dr Catherine Zollman, Medical Director of Penny Brohn Centre, talks about realistic hope as the ‘sweet spot’ on between false hope and false hopelessness. Getting to grips with realistic hope is to understand and accept uncertainty with resilience – essential when facing life-changing or threatening situations. She says being hopeful is an essential part of being human (vi). 

This is all so relevant to my own cancer journey. The self-help book shelves groan with the number of books telling us if we be more positive anything is possible. We seemed to have bought this line well and truly. Many times people have said to me 'you are so positive, if anyone can beat this, you will.' This is all so well-meaning but misses a crucial point - and indeed implies that if you die you have not been positive enough.

Author, Sophie Sabbage, wrote a recent article entitled, "Don’t tell me to be positive... when I’ve got cancer”. She wrote about how this positivity is 'stressful and unsustainable’ (vii); "Positivity, like negativity, is an attitude. We think we have to be positive for fear of being negative, to belong and be liked, to conceal our insecurities in a world of shiny smiles on Facebook and Instagram. Where negativity paints dark clouds on blue skies, positivity paints storm clouds pink. One wallows in pain, the other denies it. Neither represents the half-dark, half-light nature of reality, the sometimes-up, sometimes-down nature of the human condition.”

In the West we have forgotten the value of so-called negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and fear. Each of these have lessons to share with us and when understood they can be key in helping us move more towards our more authentic selves - where I believe healing lies. Yes of course changing our thinking can change our feelings, but it's also about being true to ourselves.

Sophie writes: "Let’s weep together in hospital waiting rooms and take hold of our fear so it doesn’t take hold of us while we’re smiling for the nurses. Because inside our fear we can find what we’re willing to fight for. Inside our rage we can find what we stand for. Inside our despair we can find what we long for. There is no flow without ebb.”

In my 40 second film below there is a clip of Sophie Sabbage talking at Trew Fields this year about ‘fear’. Both her books are wonderful in helping navigate that territory; as she says ‘we need to take hold of our fear and pass through it’.

Renee Lertzman, in her book “Environmental Melancholia”, talks about unprocessed grief about ecological devastation as being a big part of what prevents people from tackling environmental challenges (viii). She says we need to have conversations about climate change that allow space for people to acknowledge and process their feelings. This is what many who are part of Extinction Rebellion have been doing or trying to do. Indeed XR has been a great guide for me with my cancer and the fears around it. Many of us living with cancer also need to have conversations that help us process and acknowledge our feelings. For me that has been crucial in helping take actions to build a protocol that will heal me. 

I also agree with Bill Turnbull in his Channel 4 documentary this month about living with prostate cancer - he says for him says 'love takes you through the fear'. Certainly the love from my partner, friends, work colleagues and even strangers has been extraordinary.

Perhaps one of the most useful bits of advice I've been given is about living my life now and not waiting - as Cancer Thriver, Nick Parker said in my last blog (ix): ‘Remission is not the goal, life is’. This reminds me that I once had a poster with a great quote by Paul Goodman; “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” 

Seen outside Wigtown bookshop
I was going to finish with that quote but I wanted to share one more thought about the parallels between climate change and cancer - both are a direct result of our lifestyle. Furthermore the progression of climate change and the delayed effects of our emissions give us a sense of unreality - this is so like a cancer diagnosis before we see debilitating symptoms. It seems to me all this is a huge opportunity to bring changes to the way we live that enhance, not just in our own health but also that of the planet. I want to write more but must stop as this is too long already!!

And I strongly urge any folks reading this to find support; particularly around fears. Many of the cancer charities offer helplines and XR have great groups across the country that help explore fear and grief.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this 'It’s Time to Reclaim the Apocalypse' by
    Chelsea MacMillan:


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