Rabbi Rachel Mivka’s finale to this wonderful event sounded like it could be depressing and undermine our enthusiasm, given that it asked bluntly what the point of exploring vocation is when the world is going to end. She teaches “Living into our Commitments and Enacting Social Change,” and observed that no matter where she puts the climate crisis in the syllabus, it triggers despair. Before that they are fiery activists. A clip from the TV showThe Newsroom conveys the data and the reason for this reaction.
We seem to already be doomed, with it too late to reverse what is happening. If so, then what is the value of working on these things?
This phenomenon has led to the development of a new term: “solastalgia” (Glenn Albrecht, 2005). Some speak of “futilitarianism.” It can also be called climate depression, ecological grief, or similar things. These terms denote mental or existential distress caused by climate change. Mikva mentioned the acronym TEOTWAWKI as well. Students get their news from John Oliver, and he provides this attempt at “a statistically representative climate change debate.”
The prospect of future doom impacts how we discuss vocation. Here are her recommendations:
Cultivate resources for and reservoirs of hope. Social scientists have shown overwhelming fear distances people from a problem leading to disengagement, giving up. Repentance, prayer, and charity (righteousness) transform the evil of the decree (from High Holy Day liturgy). Later in her talk she quoted Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, saying that hope and focusing on more than our own selves is essential to making a difference in the anthropocene).
When you are starving with a tiger, the tiger starves last (quote from Pogo the Possum). We need to focus on cultivating what kind of people students will be. Some prepper sites acknowledge we cannot make it alone, but still focus on the individual. Those who study the impact of catastrophe know that we will depend on each other in ways we can hardly imagine. We need to focus on vocation in terms of us and not just me. Resilience and meaning-making are critical. Denial doesn’t help children cope, posing the problem as something to be solved in the long term doesn’t either; what does help is a combination of problem-solving and meaning-making. Relinquishing is also a key skill. We need to challenge an overly anthropocentric focus. She also quoted from the Tanna of bei Eliahu and Joseph ibn Kaspi on Deuteronomy.
Isaiah called people to change their ways in response to approaching catastrophe. The nation chose door B, eat and drink and deny. Mikva quoted Plenty Coups, Alaxchiia Ahu, 1848-1932, Chief of the Crow: “The hearts of my people fell to the ground…after this, nothing happened.” She also shared that when a Catholic she knows insisted that even if the science is true, God has a plan, she quoted Laudato Si and Thessalonians back at them. She spoke to us about Revelation as “the inescapable sourcebook for Western anxieties about the end of the world.” The Republicans created national parks and the endangered species act and can be reminded of this.
65-85% of Muslims believe the Mahdi will come in their lifetime. It is not just Evangelical Christians who think about eschatology. Every religion can be understood in a way that leads to complacency, and all offer resources for activism. Religious studies classrooms provide a perfect place to think about vocation in relation to these topics.
Some have been asking whether a college education is worth it in this context. This provides an opportunity to make a point that many of us in higher education have been making all along: the purpose of education only makes sense if it is considered in a broader context tha career preparation. Focusing on this topic is not about sending all our students into climate science. As Thoreau said, “If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity.” One can teach a course on “Vocation and The Apocalypse” that has McCarthy’s The Road as a central text.
One can sum up this wonderfully helpful presentation in this way: Vocation matters now more than ever. Our task as educators is to figure out the ways in which it matters, but more importantly, to teach courses that allow students to figure that out for themselves.
Just a few notes on the Q&A after the presentation.
As a pedagogical practice, it may be worth asking students to conclude with something that gives them hope.
I found myself thinking about developing a course about sacred and secular visions of the end of the world.
A key point is that it is a problem when we focus on a topic (including a crisis) at too large or too small a scale. We need to find and organize things around our human scale of activity.
Here are some linksto other things that relate to this post and this workshop’s theme: