I am moved and grateful to Merilyn Mayhew of Sydney, Australia for this rich essay on her transformational process in my 7-week online class in Thinking at the Edge (TAE). Merilyn and I want to share her story of how TAE led her from helplessness to hope on climate change. This attitude has extended to her actions around COVID-19 as well:
How I moved from helplessness to hope
By Merilyn Mayhew
Thinking at the Edge (TAE) has helped me move from feeling powerless about climate change to a place of hope, with clear steps ahead that feel right for me.
My TAE process developed into how to position myself before any storm on the horizon, not just climate change. So I feel like I’m ready to go with coronavirus, straight into action, without the weeping and wailing. Action, in the instance of corona virus, means:
- Being alert to the needs of those around me.
- Finding the older single people in my street so I can keep in touch with them as the crisis worsens.
- Speaking calm into the panicky conversations.
- Keeping in contact with people in my church so that no-one falls through the cracks.
Heavily burdened by inaction on climate change
I came to the TAE class heavily burdened by my own helplessness in the face of imminent climate change crisis. Here in Australia we were in the middle of an extreme fire season. We’re used to fire, but usually it’s out in the country, away from us, and for a few weeks at a time. I was familiar with bushfires from when I worked for National Parks. At that time I had to travel hours to the fire grounds.
Now, Sydney was ringed by fires. When I went walking I’d see flakes of ash swirling in the air in front of me. The sky was reddy grey for weeks with the smoke and ash from surrounding fires, my throat was raw. The fire season went on month after month, with no end in sight. We were regularly experiencing 400 C days, in the middle of a dreadful drought that had us all on water restrictions. I could physically feel the suffering of my garden in my body. But around the country it was far worse. People were dying in the fires, thousands of people were losing their homes. No one knows how many of our precious native animals died—huge amounts of habitat were destroyed.
I contact my politician and ask others to do so
I knew the consequences of this fire season were going to impact us for years to come. Having read up on the science and having Scientific American articles at hand, I could quote information about changing weather patterns. I posted on Facebook. I could see that the weather patterns and forces that led to this fire season didn’t come out of nowhere. This extreme fire season was completely predictable and future extreme fire seasons would continue to be completely predictable. Laws had to be enacted to limit mankind’s contributions to the problem.
I amassed solid information on climate change and wrote to my politician. I asked everyone to write to their politicians to ask them to enact climate change action plans. But I knew our politicians were tied to the fossil fuel lobby. By and large they had little leeway to follow their consciences and act in integrity for the good of our country. I felt the need to act on behalf of my children and grandchildren, but I felt powerless to take any useful action. I was aware of many groups and conversations around climate change, but I was not ready to engage with them.
The transformative process of Thinking at the Edge
TAE week 1: Sensing and saying the crux of the matter
I paused and sensed the way my body was carrying “all of that”: the fires, the hopelessness, the lack of reaction to my letters to my politician, the fact that fires will come again unless laws are changed…..
Then I wrote the crux of it all:
I feel such despair in the light of politicians who won’t take adequate action on climate change. How can I move from helplessness to hope?
Between classes in Thinking at the Edge, we Focus on our issue with a partner. I sensed how my body was feeling about the whole thing and expressed it to my partner. When I first Focused on my issue, my body was physically affected – I could smell the smoke in the air, I was coughing and my throat was sore from weeks of ash. A felt sense formed of a scythe from nose to throat, and a strong sense of impending danger. The question arose,
How can I live, how can I be in the world, with this impending disaster?
TAE week 2: Sensing and saying what you know about ‘all this’ from your lived experience
I let the felt sense show me “instances”—life experiences that had to do with my felt sense. I described the experiences in detail, then looked for a particular insight [“pattern”] from each instance. Memories came
- of being powerless in the face of authority,
- of situations where I had a voice and where I didn’t,
- where my voice was powerful,
- where my voice was hurtful and not ultimately helpful;
- run-ins with my father;
- times when I could negotiate an outcome, and times when I couldn’t.
I came to realize that most people around the world are similarly powerless to impact their politicians. They are mostly at the mercy of corrupt self-serving governments—this is the human condition. My crux sentence was developing:
How do I move from helplessness to hope, given the reality of feeling and actually being powerless?
Focusing on that, came the sure knowledge that in every situation I have ever encountered, I have always been solidly held, no matter how dire the situation. I remembered some of the strong images that had come to me over the years – a baby bird in a nest, securely held by strong hands; a woman holding a baby, herself securely held by her husband; the sense of a strong solid foundation under me. The sure realization came that though I may be powerless, I am not without hope. Hope and peace were there. And the first forming of the way ahead: though I live a small life, to live it well, being kind and welcoming to those I encounter.
My next Focusing session brought an image of the impending crisis: a small figure bowed down to the earth, in a wide dry land. On the horizon a huge roiling orange dust storm approaches. The figure is scrabbling in the dust, desperately looking for a step to take, a solution. She fears she won’t have taken action in time.
That same image of the approaching storm returned next time I Focused, stronger and more clearly than ever. I was particularly frustrated by the useless letter I’d received back from my politician. In my Focusing, I saw the little person bowed down in the huge open desert, the huge orange dust storm filling the horizon and coming closer, getting bigger. The small figure was agitated, looking for what to do, knowing she is all that stands between the approaching storm and all her children and grandchildren.
But also came the realization that all along the line are many others, standing facing the storm, protecting their own children and grandchildren and communities—and the hope that, despite our feelings of helplessness, we are all standing against the storm, all doing our best to live well, and trusting that something somewhere will work. The insight came: I am not alone, I am not the only one tackling this. The message therefore was:
Don’t give up! Live with kindness and compassion in the face of the storm.
A few days later, I came across Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” This added to my sense of being securely held, standing on a firm and solid foundation, in the face of the approaching storm.
A conversation with a visiting American crystallized my growing sense: I asked him, “How do you as an American live, when Trump is in power?” He said, “I try to be kind.” I understood exactly. He has no power to change who is President of his country, but he exercises the power he does have, to be a kind, compassionate person to all those he meets.
TAE week 3: Exploring the interplay of felt senses in order to deepen what you know
I held the felt sense of “I am not alone” with the felt sense of “I have always been held.” This “crossing” of two felt senses produced a new insight – this is all relational, it’s about the connections between people, the working together. So my feeling became, “We are not alone” and “We are securely and firmly held”. My hope comes from standing with others on a safe, solid foundation.
My crux sentence is now:
In the light of the coming climate change crisis, how then do I live?
TAE week 4: Saying what you really mean
First, we were asked to identify a key word in our crux sentences, then we worked with dictionary definitions of this word and sensed how we really wanted to convey our meaning.
The key word is LIVE. As I looked at definitions and followed up with new words, the word LIVE took on the sense of dwelling, abiding, of having an ongoing connection with Jesus which directs and guides, comforts and strengthens me. The adjective form, LIVE, pointed to burning, glowing, giving out a steady light, attracting, shining.
My crux sentence expands:
In the light of the coming storm, how then do I live/dwell/abide/glow?
That points me to a way of life that is about choosing to be kind, gentle, compassionate, generous, joyful, peaceful and patient in all the small encounters of life. And a bigger picture—understanding that if there is a more specific action step to be taken, it will become apparent at the right time. This brings more peacefulness about the whole issue. I am starting to move from helplessness to hope.
TAE week 5: Drawing your vision; extracting the essence of your new understanding
When I next Focused, again there is the coming dust storm, but the little person is no longer bowed down and distraught. Now she is standing up, living, interacting, moving around, being kind, generous, patient. She is, in effect, creating a garden of good all around her. There is a sense of calm peacefulness. The Great Gardener is with her, showing her how to tend her garden. She is sharing the flowers and produce with others, and there are other people working in the garden with her. As they join in working in the garden together, the storm recedes into the distance. It is there on the horizon, but it has become background.
I remember our actress Noni Hazelhurst talking about waking up in the garden: “Be careful what you plant, and how you tend your garden. Because you’ll wake up in it one day, and it will be blooming or overgrown or barren, depending on what you’ve planted and how you’ve tended it.”
My understanding grows. We are always gardening in the face of some coming storm – whether it’s climate change, or coronavirus, or rampant populist politicians, or something else. There is always some kind of threat on the horizon. So, my issue becomes,
In a world where there is always some storm or threat beyond my control, how do I create around me a safe, secure, solid place of kindness?
Beatrice described her friend Heazel’s Focusing workshops in El Salvador as places of safety, community, healing, peace and self-care for people who really need it. And those words resonated strongly with me, communicating what I want my gardening metaphor to mean.
My crux sentence becomes:
In light of the coming storm, I want to grow a garden.
When I draw a picture of my felt sense, the terror of the approaching storm diminishes as I concentrate on working in my garden with others. The garden is lush and green and full of colour and fruit. We engage with each other with kindness and good intentions. The place is safe and secure, as shown by the protective dome shape of the trees, but it is not locked away or insulated from the coming storm.
My crux sentence develops:
We consider the storm on the horizon from a place of safety, beauty, community and peace, and together work out how to confront it.
Or even, “Together, we face the coming storm.”
TAE week 6: Exploring action steps that fit you
I have moved from helplessness to hope. The process of Thinking at the Edge has allowed me to step out and engage with the climate change conversation out there. I attended a talk, and that led to two action steps:
- In the context of climate change, what does our calling to love our neighbor look like? The poor and the vulnerable are the first and most affected by climate change. I sense the need to join a group supporting them. This is the next step from my image—how to extend the community of care out from my comfortable life to the poor and vulnerable;
- Given that trees and plants decrease the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is much I can do as a gardener to increase greenery. I can plant more trees. I can fill in the gaps left in the gardens I care for by this hot dry summer. My online plant sales need me to propagate frangipani trees to sell cheaply.
TAE class 7: Bringing it all together
A week later, I am finding heart to get back into the gardens I care for and start the work of restoring them. I have taken cuttings of frangipani trees and begun to propagate them again. I have joined a group particularly focused on care for those most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Now, with the corona virus, so much of my busy life has been cancelled. With every new thing that got cancelled, there was a huge relief. This made me realize that I am too busy, and more importantly and surprisingly, carry too much emotional burden for the various responsibilities I have. So now, every day, I am free to work in my garden. I work it comprehensively from one end to the other, a luxury I haven’t enjoyed for many years. It feels only right to take full advantage of this wonderful gift. I’m potting up my frangipani cuttings. I’m culling, clearing, moving, replanting across the whole yard. It’s opening up into a beautiful clean garden that looks loved and cared for, a fitting symbol of my journey from helplessness to hope.
We are contacting our neighbours, making sure everyone has a network around them, becoming aware of who will most need support. We are encouraging everyone to connect with the neighbours on each side of them. If any of us feel helplessness, we can find hope together.