Grieving And Loving A World in (Climate) Crisis
Content Note: This piece includes descriptions of a movie in which a child dies and a personal story about a frightening health scare for my own child that turned out well in the end. I know there are many stories where it has not turned out well in the end, and that human hearts and bodies carry grave losses of all kinds. I am holding all of these stories in heart with tenderness and care.
Also: Spoiler alert for the 2016 film Arrival.
When our eldest child N was nine months old, my spouse and I got our first chance to leave her with the grandparents and go see a movie.
The movie we chose was Arrival, a beautiful sci-fi film based on a novella called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, in which an intelligent alien race comes to earth to teach their language to humanity.
A brilliant linguist named Louise Banks leads a team in an effort to communicate with the aliens, as political tensions rise across the world in fear of their intentions. In the end Banks cracks the code just in time to save humanity (from itself, not the aliens) and realizes that learning the aliens language unlocks a non-linear experience of time that allows her to see the future.
We learn only at the end of the film that the plot has been jumping around in linear time to reflect Banks’ understanding of time after the alien encounter.
James and I are always game for some thoughtful science fiction, but in the first half hour we found ourselves weeping and cursing that no one had thought to warn us, brand new parents, of the prelude to the film, in which we watch Banks lose her daughter to a rare disease, an event that lends a theological depth to the film.
We begin the movie thinking that Banks begins her work with the aliens as a bereaved mother, only to realize at the end of the film that the prelude was set years after her alien encounter.
We learn that Banks sees her future daughter and that future daughter’s fate in the alien encounter — sees the joy of her life with a daughter she has not yet conceived, sees every moment of beauty and pain, and sees that her daughter will die.
We are left at the end of the film knowing that Banks sees all of this and chooses to conceive and birth her daughter all the same. She says yes to life in full knowledge of the outcome.
The supposed primary plot line of the movie is the crisis point of the alien encounter and the tension of global politics as the world responds. But I was left gobsmacked by the deeper and more intimate plot line, exploring human choices about life and love in the sure knowledge of death and loss.
Four years later, I remembered the plot to this movie as we went through the process of getting N diagnosed with what turned out to be a mild auto-inflammatory disease called periodic fever syndrome, a cyclic recurring illness that she is already beginning to outgrow a year after diagnosis.
Periodic fever syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion for an illness that manifests with sometimes severe bouts of high fever and head and stomach pain. Starting in March 2020, just as Covid-19 was spreading through our community, every three weeks like clockwork, N appeared to be a very sick little girl.
To get to get to the deep relief of the periodic fever diagnosis we had to have her tested for a number of far more dire illnesses. One by one over the course of about four months in the spring and summer of 2020, with lots of needles and tears, a very brave trip into an MRI machine and another very brave trip into a CT scanner, we ruled out cancer after cancer as our hearts walked a tightrope wire of fear and love.
The night before she was to lie very still in a clanging MRI machine to look for any sign of brain cancer, N was floating in the bath. Her hair was spread out all around her and she looked up at me with big eyes and such trust that I cannot describe it even now.
I don’t know if she understood the seriousness of the tests she was receiving. We tried to be matter of fact and non-anxious, with truthful age appropriate information that did not project our fears. She knew that she would be lying down inside a machine the next day that would take a picture of the inside of her head to see if we could find out why it was hurting.
Maybe she was thinking of her great-grandmother, whose death a year earlier she was still working to understand. But that night in the bath, she asked me where people go when they die.
I took the deepest, longest breath I have maybe ever taken.
And I told her that we don’t know for sure what it is like, but that I believe we go back to where we were before we were born. “Oh,” she said, with perfect peace and perfect confidence, “it must be like floating in the bath.” She closed her eyes and smiled with her hair drifting like stardust around her face.
That night after N was in bed, I got in the bath myself and sobbed in fear and love. And I remembered Louise Banks in Arrival and her terrible and beautiful choice.
And I knew that even if we were to lose our precious four year old, even if we did not survive the pain of it, every single moment of her life would have been worthwhile. That I would choose her again and again and again and again no matter the outcome. It wasn’t even a question. It wasn’t even a choice. Yes to N’s life, no matter what becomes of it. Yes.
The truth of this world is that bringing a life into it means bringing a death into it too. I sealed my daughters’ ultimate fate to die the moment I consented to birth them.
My womb is the source of life and death alike, and so was my mother’s and hers before. It is a fearful, sorrowful, beautiful power.
No wonder scared white cis-men seek to control the womb.
When we nourish a life, we do so with deep hope and profound desire and perhaps untold faith, that life will be long and full of beauty and love.
But we also do so knowing that life is sometimes short, and always holds pain, and is bound to bring loss.
When I chose to bring children into this world, I knew, deep down of course I knew, that they would sometimes suffer, and would eventually die.
And I said yes to life all the same, I chose that for them, believing life and the beauty of this world to be worth the probability of their pain and the inevitability of their end.
It is the glowing end of the harvest season in my corner of the world, when so much is dying in a glorious burst of color and sustenance and abundance. We are gathering in life, life, life, while we crunch through dead leaves and grieve the waning shorter days.
We are harvesting beets and squash and greens and carrots while we prepare for the scarcer months to come.
The seasons remind us the truth of the womb, that deep grief in the world can and must and always has and always will exist right alongside its exquisite abundance.
That we say yes to life most profoundly in full knowledge of its limits.
And right now it is also the heart of a climate crisis across the world, when so much is tenuous and at risk, and there is so much pain, and we are so afraid of what is to come.
And the sunsets are more glorious than ever and the aspens are quaking and the redwoods are taller than our dreams. People are suffering and making art and loving each other and failing to love each other.
This season of human life on earth also reminds us the terrible truth of the womb, that deep grief in the world can and must and always has and always will exist right alongside its exquisite abundance.
That we say yes to life most profoundly in full knowledge of its limits.
And that indeed it is accepting its limits that allow us to create a culture of mutual thriving. And that indeed it is ignoring its limits that hastens our suffering and deepens our pain.
A few weeks ago now, the world’s leaders met at the United Nations Climate change summit in Scotland, and it felt to me and perhaps to you like one more last chance to accept our limits and turn toward thriving.
We will see what comes of it.
The climate, of course, has already changed, despite our best attempts at denial. The earth, of course, maintains its limits, despite our our best attempts to ignore them.
And here I am with two beautiful small children who will face the consequences of what we do now, a fact I knew when I chose to bear them into this world of beauty and suffering.
And the thing I want to tell you today, in the deepening of fall, and the ever-presence of death, and the crumbling around us, and the abundance of harvest, and the beauty of the world, is that despairing grief and burgeoning life are not mutually exclusive.
That they exist together at the heart of things.
And that all is not lost. That in this moment too, a deeper, more universally mortal moment than we have ever known, we can still say yes to life, must still say yes to life, in full knowledge and deep respect of its limits.
Indeed, yes to a limited life is the only way forward. It is the way we fight like hell for the beauty that remains, every moment precious no matter how long it lasts.
Speaking of climate grief and our love for the world, the deep ecologist Joanna Macy told Krista Tippett the following in a 2019 On Being Interview:
There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. We’ve just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world.
But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway. But this moment you’re alive, so you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.
That last half stopped me in my tracks: “There’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever.”
In a sentence, Macy reminded me that the way we live into a climate changed world is the way we have always been called by the world’s spiritual teachers to live as self-aware mortal creatures in a beautiful and terrible world… creatures who lose everything we love, one way or the other, but whose loving is the point of being here at all.
The way we live into a climate changed world with whole hearts is by attending at once to despairing grief and burgeoning life.
It is, in the words of Mary Oliver from her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
It is to acknowledge the limits, to grieve them, and to love the world wildly, passionately, and actively in a way that magnifies and celebrates its beauty for as long as we can.
This is not a concession to those who would plunder this earth and enact our destruction.
The thing about deeply, powerfully loving something mortal is that once you accept its limits and rejoice in its fleeting days, you fight like hell for it to have the longest, brightest, most shockingly beautiful life possible, even knowing the inevitability of suffering and death.
That’s absolutely what I’m doing for my children and family, for myself, for you, for our world.
I am grieving and that is part of the fight. I am rejoicing and that is part of the fight. I am loving the world, and that is the whole fight, isn’t it?
In her work over the last two decades, Joanna Macy names that we are living three stories at once in this age of climate change: “Business As Usual,” which is denial-filled narrative that everything is going great even as we live beyond our limits and hasten destruction, “The Great Unraveling,” which is a narrative about all that is being destroyed and collapsing as the climate changes, and “The Great Turning,” which is a story of profound shift, transitioning to life-sustaining cultures.
Macy points out that we are already living all of these stories at once, and the question that remains is which one we put the bulk of our energy behind.
Of course, her argument, which I echo with every fiber of my faith, is to align ourselves as fully as possible with the great turning toward collective liberation, mutual thriving, and a just transition to life-sustaining cultures.
Perhaps more profoundly, Macy gives us a prescription for how to stay aligned with that turning even as the concurrent unraveling deeply grieves us… she calls this the work that reconnects, and it is the work of our lives in the face of climate change, but also as humans who love what is mortal.
She describes this work as a spiral:
- Coming from Gratitude by rooting ourselves in the wonder of being alive in a living world
- Honoring Our Pain by welcoming our grief as an embodiment of our deep love for the world
- Seeing with New Eyes the resources that our love and interconnection bring
- Going Forth with a clearer vision of how we can act.
We circle around again to wonder, and the work spirals in a dance of presence, grief, connection, and action. A dance that speaks to this collective moment, but also to every intimate and connected moment on this mortal earth we love so dearly.
As we dance this spiral together in the time that remains, we remember the truth of the womb, that deep grief in the world can and must and always has and always will exist right alongside its exquisite abundance.
That we say yes to life most profoundly in full knowledge of its limits, and that we must say yes to act for life’s thriving.
In this moment of collapse and transformation I am grieving, and I am grateful.
I am aching for all that is lost and leaving, for the death that enters the world with every life, and for the plunder that brutally sharpens the ache.
And I am glad that I am here now, that I can be one who loves the world passionately, wildly, just as it is now, and so doing can become some small part of what carries the world through.
And if I knew that this world would be plagued by oil spills and guns, pandemic and plastic, species extinction and the specter of its end, would I still choose it?
Behold the world.
Behold the orange and browning trees and the birdsong, the taste of chocolate and the smell of baking bread, the way our hair floats around us in the bath and the skin of the creature you love most in this world.
It’s not even a question.
Yes to this world. Yes to life. Yes.