The absentee ballots have arrived at my house, and I’m voting for Barack Obama. Please stick with me for a few minutes while I take a little detour to tell you why.
A friend sent me a link recently to an extremely interesting piece in Wired. Clive Thompson writes about an Australian philosopher who has coined a new term—solastalgia—for the new type of sadness his fellow Australians are feeling as climate change leads to losses in plant life, animal species, the familiar terrain that becomes the heart’s landscape for anyone deeply connected to a sense of place. Solastalgia, the philosopher Glenn Albrecht wrote, “is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.” Thompson says that this adds a dimension to concern about global warming: “the huge toll climate change will inflict on our mental health.”
And cultural health. It reminded me of something I wrote last spring, exploring Jonathon Lear’s book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation:
The book tells of the Crow people, forced by encroaching white power a century ago to trade a way of life shaped by hunting and battle for settled life on a reservation. A powerful account from the great Crow leader Plenty Coups says it all: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
Lears’ book describes how this Crow leader, facing ultimate despair, had a dream that opened the possibility of a new way of life and of reckoning the value of a life, one remarkably different from counting coup, a system based on vanquishing enemies:
Young Plenty Coups’s dream calls on him, and it gives him ethical advice—advice that seems designed to help him survive the cataclysmic rupture that is about to occur: become a chickadee! “He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words.” Becoming a chickadee, then, is a virtue—a form of human excellence. One trains oneself by sharpening one’s ears; one acquires the ability to learn from the wisdom of others. And after one acquires this character trait, a new form of excellence opens up: one can survive the coming storm. “The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.”
The other day I was talking with a friend about why people resist change. “It’s the fear of loss,” she told me. “So one way to bring about needed change is to help people get through loss.” Response to climate change seems to prove this point. Everyone who sees the issue clearly is saying that we Americans will have to lose some of the privilege we’ve gotten from being hogs at the energy trough; we’ll have to waste less, to make do with fewer and smaller energy-eating devices, to narrow the distance between ourselves and the way much of the world lives. And everyone who fears that loss is now balking, even as solastalgia begins to take hold.
When we think about loss, we enter a maze of paradoxes and contradictions, clutching to our hearts the hope that we will be able to emerge intact. So many of us spend our lives accumulating, insulating ourselves with things against the existential loneliness that defines the human condition. Yet the stark truth is that whatever we own will in the end be taken from us, even our bodies. Facing this full-on is not for the weak. Beyond the global losses of climate change are other losses our country must face, such as the loss of moral standing and heart we’ve sustained through George Bush’s cruel and stupid policies; the loss of hope that younger generations have suffered through the mismanagement of our educational and economic systems; the loss of vibrant community that has attended the commercialization of absolutely everything.
Beneath the bluster and hustle, we become sad, homesick without leaving.
I am glad to count myself in some small way among those trying to integrate and respond to those losses, trying to dream a new dream. But as with the Crow people, it isn’t enough for individuals to take this on. We also need leaders who can help us learn new forms of courage predicated on accepting change and facing the unknown squarely, without false bravado.
Lears imagines voicing the new understanding Plenty Coups’s dream brought him:
I recognize that in an important sense we do not know what to hope for or what to aim for. Things are going to change in ways beyond which we can currently imagine. We certainly do know that we cannot face the future in the same way that we have been doing. It is no longer a matter of planning another buffalo hunt or another raid on the Sioux. We must do what we can to open our imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities.
Here is why I am voting for Obama:
- He has demonstrated imagination and openness to very different future possibilities.
- I am convinced he is genuinely committed to facing our greatest challenges, not merely to winning.
- Everyone I’ve met who knows him personally testifies to his genuine presence and integrity.
- If he is elected, I will not be ashamed to face the other peoples of the world.
- He is willing to work for wisdom.
- There is a light that shines from his face that lifts people into hope, and we need that lift.
No politician—nor me, nor you—is perfect. Each candidate has made as many missteps, displays as many shortcomings, as any other human being. But the thought of voting for Clinton, who says whatever she thinks will get her what she wants, makes me feel like taking a shower. If we put all the inside-baseball chatter about “electability” and “experience” aside and ask ourselves whether Obama would be good for the country, I have no doubt that a solid, solid majority would say “Yes.” I hope you will join me in saying it now.