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The Art of Coping
In my previous blog post, I discussed coping, critiquing and creating as three necessary and related actions that help everyone, whether activist or not, maintain their wellbeing and full humanity. In this time of ecological and social crises, it is essential to be the best human beings we can be, to carve out conviviality and convivial spaces in the midst of the struggle to create something better. Even in desperate times, there is a lot of potential for this.
Coping, critiquing and creating exist in a dynamic relationship with each other. In this post, I single out the activity of coping for a slightly deeper look. This may or may not be a good idea, since I have already emphasised how inextricably linked the three actions are, along with their related offshoots such as resistance, renewal and repair. Everything is interlinked and interdependent; so ideally, this post will be read in the context of the earlier and later ones.
Coping or surviving?
Anne Goodman, in whose work I first came on the idea of the three actions, draws on the work of the ecotheologian Thomas Berry and uses the term survival, together with critique and create. Feasta’s 2012 publication Sharing For Survival also used that term. But in my own work I generally use the term coping, more often than the term survival. I have found in workshops and conversations that people are more likely to engage with the idea of coping well.
Many people worldwide are in dire situations where physical survival is paramount. When we are in pure survival mode, there is little room for critique and for helping to build the new. However, even people in desperate conditions such as concentration camps, refugee camps and fleeing natural disasters have found ways to survive that were more than just physical survival.
Both coping and survival may become even more important with increasing breakdowns in society and economy. Collapse is happening in many parts of the world already.
Public coping work
Coping has important social and collective forms. This work is largely concerned with supporting people, social systems, animal populations and ecosystems that have been damaged by the present economy and society.
It ranges from working with people and living systems that are barely surviving – homeless and displaced people, refugees, animal populations on the verge of extinction – to work that is more focused on healing, restoring and repairing.
Coping work in the public realm includes mental wellness groups; supporting refugees; bibliotherapy; men’s sheds; community gardens; forest and woodland therapy; habitat restoration; flood management works; peatland restoration; seed saving; rebuilding ecological and social systems; litter clean-ups on land and water; invasive plant management; animal rescue; creating refuges and sanctuaries for wild marine and land animals under threat or that have been abused; walking, running and other exercise groups.
It also includes keeping alive and restoring older knowledges, skills, crafts and competencies that were once widespread, which have receded, but which may be needed again, not just as hobbies but as part of the provisioning of everyday life.
In society at large, there are many different levels of awareness of our problems and different capacities and readiness to work towards beneficial change. For many people, activists or not, it can be hard to face life, to get up in the morning and go on through the day. It is not new for humans to experience existential angst and the possibility that life is absurd, terrifying or not worth living. Whoever we are, if we choose to go on with life, it’s important to give it our best, to find and express the best that humans can be.
For people still wedded to the idea of a future of ever-more accumulation and growth – an idea that has dominated economics for a long time and which the modernist worldview sees as progress — the future may seem wholly about loss. When they think of climate breakdown and ecological catastrophe, when they experience drought, flooding and displacement, this involves a real loss of material things. Without a vision of how things could be better, the rest of the future can seem utterly bleak. Growth-oriented economy and society offers distractions in the form of escaping temporarily via retail therapy, extraordinary adventures, drugs or alcohol. But such distractions are increasingly lacking.
Many activists, publicly concerned with morality, ecology and global justice, have long been challenging that modernist drive to accumulate. For them, there is also a need to sustain the tension of having a vision of better ways to live and better systems, yet living in a world that is so wrong. As the poet Adrienne Rich put it in Dreams of A Common Language:
My heart is moved
By all I cannot save
So much has been destroyed.
Working with other people and groups to resist what is wrong, to engage in critique and to build the new can provide reasons to get up in the morning; they can help overcome the despair we may feel at the desperately slow progress towards a better world. But the work of trying to make things better can be exhausting and discouraging. We must not turn away from the pain and despair.
Part of coping with all of these challenges, whether we are activists or not, is to accept that one day we will all lose everything in death. Modern culture insists on prolonging life, but letting go of the idea that this is desirable could help ground us and help us to appreciate everyday life, events close to home, the beauty of nature and the value of ordinary things.
Facing our dark emotions can inspire courage. Fear, pain and grief can bring the value of the ordinary into focus – ordinary beauty, small things, connections with other people can help us realise that the world is still a beautiful place. We can acknowledge the relationships we have and the joy that is possible, even if it’s just in very small ways and in the details of life. Modernity-focussed culture teaches us to always seek out the extraordinary, the special, the ‘excellent’. But there is huge value in the ordinary.
Taking the time to sit over a cup of tea and to savour every drop; admiring the way a shaft of sunlight falls to make a pattern; having a pleasant encounter with a shopkeeper or someone on the street; enjoying a smile or moment of play with a child; taking time to cook a meal and enjoy it alone or with friends; walking with the breeze on your face – simple, modest things like this can help us cope. In our very capacity to get successfully through a difficult day, with some small moments of enjoyment, kindness or humour thrown in, there is beauty.
The quality of attention to oneself and to others is important. We need to practise self-care and to recognise that need in other people and to keep expectations appropriate, of oneself and of others. There is a need to take on appropriate load, get adequate rest, go at a sustainable pace and keep renewing our personal energy.
Singing, dancing, playing an instrument or listening to music or birdsong, wind or waves; being playful; theatre; exercise – these bring the body into the picture, which is essential to our wellbeing, since we are also persons of flesh, blood, bone and senses. Just talking face-to-face to another person or listening to them is an expression of the fact that we are embodied. As humans, we have a need to connect with other people, to know others and to be known. There are also times when it is necessary to be alone, to do nothing, and to ‘just be’, without any purpose.
How this can be a radically different foundation for politics and economics
Essentially, coping requires that we attend to the things about being human that never change, and which we share with other people, even if they take different cultural expressions: temporality, death, sociality, language, pain, joy, suffering, doubt, anxiety, rejection, loss, uncertainty, sexuality, fun, creativity, imagination, curiosity, love, inventiveness, the capacity to express ourselves. There is also a deep human need for safety and security, at the same time as we experience a need for adventure. These things connect us with other people and can move us towards ways to resist the commodification of humanity and of nature.
We share with others a need to attend to deep feelings and to our deepest humanity. This has value as an activity or a focus in and of itself; it is its own reward. We may have the incentive of staying well and in shape for the struggle. The personal life of an activist, organiser, advocate or anyone trying to create change can become very busy, stressful and harried. The art of personal coping enhances our capacity to take courageous public action.
But incentives are not the whole picture and may not even be necessary. If we lived in a society where everybody knew how to attend to their deep needs and was mindful of the deep needs and humanity of others, we might not be seeing the awful things that have happened to the living planet and its people.
This reminds me of Audre Lorde’s work on the uses of the erotic, and the possibility of an erotic economy and society. Eros is the personification of love in all its aspects; it is the opposite of pornography, which commodifies sexuality, and emphasises sensation without feeling.
Erotic knowledge and energy, combined with the care work of the household, could be a radically different foundation for politics and economics, and for the work of critique and of building the new. They could connect us with a deep source of energy that supports life without exhaustion, by tuning in to the common origins of humans and all other living systems. I’ll try to explore this theme a bit more in my next post.
1. Anne Goodman 2003. Now What? Developing Our Future, Understanding Our Place in the Unfolding Universe. New York: Peter Lang
2. Audre Lorde on the erotic economy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFHwg6aNKy0
Featured image: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/bird-1388294
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Anne B. Ryan is a coordinator of Basic Income Ireland and a former chairperson of the Feasta board of directors.