Grieving Our Loss in the Gulf of Mexico

How is one to respond to the oil spill in the gulf? The most common reactions are anger, followed by a sense of powerlessness. As a student of ecopsychology, this situation presents a challenge that is becoming more and more common: if we are to become intimately attached to the Earth, we will feel upset by losing it. This is not an uncommon aspect of human psychology – that to love something or someone means to risk hurting when we are forced to grieve its destruction.

Oil slick moves onshore - how do we cope with environmental loss?

Our sadness is compounded by the factors of the loss being preventable, being slow and steady, and by the mixed messages we get about whether or not we should hold out hope for our loved one's survival. One response is to not become involved. If love equates to loss, the line of reasoning goes, then I’ll protect myself from being hurt by withholding my affection. There are some camps of belief that say that the Earth will survive what some call the “human virus,” that it can and will outlive us long after we destroy ourselves, just as it teemed with life long before we came into the picture, and will perhaps breed new and more sustaining species.

But this nihilist attitude quickly turns into apathy, in which all our efforts are seen as futile. As a thinking, breathing, feeling species, we have been gifted with emotional connectivity. And as a part of the global ecosystem, we realize on some level that there is not much difference between hurting the Earth and hurting ourselves. As this light of awareness dawns, it becomes increasingly harder to unlearn the lessons that brought us out of darker times, when we threw trash out the windows or let the stream carry it away. And so, we are left with an attachment that brings us pain.

Buddhist philosophy warns us to be wary of attachments, as they often become our identities and obscure the bigger picture of who we really are. But nondual psychology, which holds us as capable of liberation from attachments, does not contend that the answer lies in working to transcend all human reactions. Rather, by accepting and facing the very difficulties that our attachment brings, we dive below the surface and find that the true nature of our fragile anger, fear, pain and sadness contains elements of beauty as well.

As BP continues to tell the world that the spill won’t reach Florida, that the chemicals used to clean it are not as harmful as the oil itself, that the estimates of its size are overblown, the blame is misplaced, and this is an opportunity to learn how to do things better in the future, it may behoove us to begin to accept the scope of the catastrophe, to get serious about decreasing our dependence on oil, and to grieve the loss of ecosystems, livelihoods, and habitats. As we allow ourselves to grieve, we allow ourselves to heal. And then, we remember that the Earth is not full of pain. There is also joy.

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Gina-Marie Cheeseman
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