Honing Our Relationships with Our Gods: Emotional Discipline in a Time of Climate Crisis

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

The ability of Homo sapiens to adapt to radically changing conditions has played a significant part in human survival over the past few hundred thousand years. Looking back, it is fascinating to speculate, wondering how generations faced the increasing cold of ice ages, the rising waters of global thaws, pandemics of plague, long periods of famine, and cataclysmic wars—the crises that wiped out huge swathes of population again and again. Amidst the millions that perished, there were individuals who pulled through, the survivors, our own blood ancestors. Their courage and strength is much acknowledged in many spiritual traditions, for without them we would not be here.

The past, however, seems less glorious when we accept just how much suffering each crisis would have provoked. Though as a species we have adapted and survived, the retrospective perspective is always cleansed of the raw sensations of reality. In fact, as individuals we are seldom graceful when faced with serious change. We are comfortable with habit, objecting when that ease is challenged. And though our technology is quite different from that of our ancestors of fifty years ago, let alone fifty centuries or fifty millennia ago, our human nature may not be so dissimilar: we live, love, laugh, value the bonds of family and friendship, fear the unfamiliar and the unknown, shriek in terror, strike out in rage.

Most Paganisms are based upon a reverence for nature. We are asked as a spiritual obligation to live in a way that is respectful, sustainable, causing the least unnecessary harm. In other words, we are required to study, carefully learning how nature works so that we might be flexible, adapting to cope with crises as they arise, both within our immediate environment and the wider world upon which we depend. Paganism, then, is an ancient tradition that teaches us to be graceful in the face of change.

It isn't just nature around us that we must strive to understand; it is also human nature, the storms of emotion and the torrents of desire, the prickling of instinct and the itching of discomfort. Although we may suppose we are making decisions autonomously, our emotions, beliefs, and assumptions are powerful, particularly those that lurk in the shadows of the mind. Too often we are overwhelmed by feelings, kicking off with rage, frustration, or fear, or sliding into apathy with resignation, the dignity of our reason slipping just beyond reach.

Climate change is a fact. Unusual and extreme weather is increasing, nature's cycles are becoming less predictable, the wisdom we have built up over generations is losing its relevance. Environmental activists, scientists, politicians, and priests are giving us differing data, often communicating in ways that incite fear and anger, hoping that such emotions will elicit the momentum needed to stall the crisis.

Given that our ancestors faced such extraordinary changes, for many Pagans there is value in seeking ancestral wisdom. Yet, what we now have before us is more daunting in a number of crucial ways: firstly, figures suggest that shifts in temperature will be greater than they have been in the past, implying a more global and comprehensive catastrophe. Secondly, while our ancestors migrated to alleviate the problems of environmental change, neighboring lands are now already fully populated. It is not surprising that many are feeling fearful or angry, some sinking in the despair of believing that nothing can now be done.

However, the third reason why this is more daunting is that it is us, now, facing the crisis; the onus of responding is on us. There is no point in leaving it to some notion of government or society. We, as individuals, need to face the crisis with grace. How?

Primarily, allowing nature to be our teacher, we must be wakeful to our human nature: to the surges and floods of our emotions, their forces, drives, and weight, and to the beliefs that are hidden in the shadows of awareness. Only then can we learn how to ride the emotional energies, using their power positively instead of letting them batter and break us. Many traditions are slack in this teaching, even though playing in our own emotional mess is essentially selfish, often leading us to antagonize others and cause unnecessary harm. Yet the luxury of emotional indiscipline becomes less available as the reality of crisis increases.

Within the wholeness of nature, its multifaceted plurality must also inspire us each to walk our own particular path, guided by the various and different gods that speak to us as individuals. Amongst us there are those whose principal gods are those of light, understanding, communication; those of loving care, healing, and nurture; those of connection and effect. Some are fueled as fighters, while others walk with the dying and the dead. We cannot be other than ourselves, and honing our relationships with our gods is a way of honing our own strengths, through sincerity and commitment.

Facing our future is not, then, about responding to the fear, in fear. It is about working on our emotional fluency, maintaining clear responsibility within community, and honoring our gods, right up to the moment when we die.