A friend recently sent me a link to an interesting Youtube video featuring a short interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, Canadian environmentalists David Suzuki and Jim Hoggan discuss the ecological emergency we are facing on this planet, and the problem of public apathy about or denial of climate change.
Thich Nhat Hanh listens carefully and then responds, “You have to accept that this civilization can be destroyed. Not by something outside, but by ourselves. In fact, many civilizations have been destroyed in the past.”
What did the revered Vietnamese Zen master mean by this? And what did he not mean?
I’ve heard this kind of pronouncement from all different kinds of people, and it is usually spoken from a resigned and pessimistic point of view I believe is both dangerous to the world and a denial of what people really feel deep inside. I understand people are trying to find a way to cope with the overwhelm, fear, and despair our global situation inspires. It probably seems adaptive to resign yourself to the fact that everything might – or even probably will – go to hell in a handbasket.
From a pessimistic point of view it makes sense to start taking emotional leave of the world sooner than later. You can mitigate the terrible impact of hearing about hundreds or thousands of deaths from another human-influenced “natural”disaster by saying, “Oh well, it looks like humans are going to kill themselves – we’re a maladapted species.” You can distance yourself from the pain of contemplating a world without humpbacked whales by pointing out how many species have gone extinct on this planet before, and look – life went on and new species evolved. Taking the perspective of geological time can make the disasters we’re facing seem smaller, less important, and, at least theoretically, less emotionally and psychologically devastating.
Thich Nhat Hanh was not advocating for this kind of resigned and pessimistic view. What he was suggesting was something much more challenging – but also much more authentic and helpful.
You might think this kind of opening to reality will lead to despair, but it doesn’t have to. That’s where taking a bigger perspective is helpful. We contemplate how civilizations have been destroyed in the past not to decrease how much we care about this one, but to remember how precious and fragile this one is. We become motivated by love and compassion to do whatever we can to help. It has nothing to do with how likely we think we are to succeed. Would you stop taking care of a loved one who was sick and likely to get worse, telling yourself, “They’ll probably just die anyway?”
Thich Nhat Hanh says in the interview, “”You can look like this: 100 years, 200 years is nothing if you talk about geological time. This civilization might be destroyed and it may take one billion years more in order to have another civilization… We have to accept reality as it is, and acceptance like that can bring us peace.”
In short, if your acceptance of the global environmental crisis leads you to emotional deadening or despair, it’s not the right kind of acceptance. If your acceptance opens your heart, brings you a measure of peace, and motivates you to help, it’s the kind of acceptance our world needs. It might break your heart, but it will be the kind of breaking that you will survive. In fact, it will probably just make you feel more alive.
I’ll let Thich Nhat Hanh finish: “If we allow despair to take over, we have no strength left to do anything at all. That is why we should do anything that can prevent despair, including meditation… Because people know what is happening but allow it to happen and cannot do anything – there are so many of them – because they have despair in them, and they try only to survive. You can help them to sort out [what is] inside, you can help them to have hope, to have peace in themselves, and suddenly they have strength to come back to themselves… and that person will be an instrument for protection of the environment.”