Climate change is something that I've been abstractly worried about for a while. I'm not an activist, and the most I've ever done about it is write a feature or two about slow travel. I still eat meat and I still fly but climate change worries me - and I know it's troubling my friends and family too.
Still, we rarely discuss it. I feel anxiety and despair about the future and yes I avoid bringing it up because it’s so negative. It's like I don't want to burden people with it. It feels pointless and self-indulgent, sitting around emoting about climate change without lifting a finger to do anything about it. Greta Thunberg's series of incredible speeches and the impressive recent actions of protest group Extinction Rebellion have shamed the politicians of the world for inaction on climate change. I want to be able to support them. But still, I sit silently, running ever more catastrophic thoughts about the state of the world over and over in my head.
And the feelings of anxiety build.
Browsing Eventbrite recently, I came across an event: 'Active Hope: How To Face The Mess We're In Without Going Crazy'. Organisers promised a one-day workshop and a kind of group therapy for people freaking out about global warming. The philosophy behind the workshop was developed in the 1970s to help eco-activists process big feelings like despair. According to the founders, there are three narratives we can use to process today's climate dilemma. The first, 'Business As Usual', ignores or downplays anxieties about the future. The second, which they call 'The Great Unraveling', focuses on disaster.
The third narrative (which they encourage people to switch to) looks for ways in which society can transition away from ignoring the issue and panicking - therefore finding themselves better equipped to move forward with meaningful action.
So far, so good. But the description for the event didn't give me much of an idea about what to expect. An all-day workshop could get uncomfortable. I imagined myself stuck at some random community centre, isolated among a bunch of strangers and frustrated for losing a Sunday. Would I be expected to stand on a chair and describe my fears in front of people I'd only just met? Oh well, I thought, clicking the big orange 'Book now – £30' button, let's see.
The day the clocks went forward, I got up at 8am on a sunny Sunday morning to go round to a stranger's house in London Fields. As I knocked, blossom billowed like snow down the street. Why was I going inside? Sophie Howarth, one of the co-founders of The School of Life, answered the door. She runs Active Hope workshops with a colleague, Tess Horvath, and the pair formally trained as facilitators beforehand.
The long dining table in Sophie's kitchen was covered in white enamel mugs. She'd made tea, coffee and people passed round a plate of vegan carrot cake bites. A handful of early birds made polite small talk about work and Mother's Day and how none of us knew what to expect from the workshop. Most, though not all, of the dozen attendees were women. I met a psychotherapist, and a woman about my age who worked in marketing at an NGO.
At 10.30am, we began. The group gathered for a moment's silence in the living room. During a day's workshop, you go through four stages: gratitude, 'honouring pain', 'seeing with new eyes', and 'going forth'. 'Gratitude' was first, and the easiest. After the silence, we introduced ourselves and explained why we’d come. Then we paired up, and Sophie and Tess taught us a listening exercise. I was paired with a mum from Whitstable. The way she spoke, full of love and care, reminded me very deeply of a friend, and I warmed to her right away and I immediately softened up.
We had another cuppa before moving on to the 'honouring pain' bit. Still in a circle, we sat around a 'truth mandala': five symbolic objects that represented sadness, anger, fear, emptiness, and ‘other’ emotions about the climate crisis. The atmosphere was tense, but as people started to describe worries and thoughts that ran through their minds, I could finally accept it. I wasn't the only one who felt overwhelmed. I had a cry. So did others. Sniffling into a Kleenex in a stranger's living room suddenly felt sensible (compared with, say, bottling it up for months then weeping alone on the Tube).
Compared with the cry-in, the afternoon was a breeze. I walked around London Fields doing another uninterrupted talking/listening exercise, then we sat in Sophie’s back garden and practised 'getting fresh perspectives' on whatever green and social bugbears (universal basic income, water pollution in India, the privatisation of the NHS) we really wanted to act on by role playing.
We started at 10am and I left at 4pm, a bit early, to go to another commitment. During the workshop I laughed, cried, listened, talked and got a new recipe for lentil soup. At times – for example, listening to other people share private anxieties during the 'pain' bit – I felt out of my comfort zone. Beforehand, I had worried about how I would cope if I felt uncomfortable about something another attendee disclosed or did. Although some remarks that day were intimate, they were still relevant and reasonable. Once or twice at lunch, discussing the latest die-ins at Barclays or obscure types of yoga, some conversations felt a little cliquey but even then, I had not felt alienated or left out. I expect I was just missing some key cultural references and besides, it was only a few moments of an otherwise good day.
Not everyone experiences 'climate grief' or the like, and not everyone who feels that way wants to spend a day discussing it with strangers. But if you feel it, and you don't know how to deal with it yet, it seems crazy to try and sit on it. If you can't share what’s going on with friends or family yet, Active Hope workshops seem like a great way to bring your fears out into the open for the first time.
Overall it helped me gain perspective. I feel more open than before – I went to an Extinction Rebellion meeting last week, something I probably would have swerved a month ago and turns out they're really welcoming. So who knows? Maybe I'm ready to explore activism after all.