I get this question every few months, usually spoken from a kind face (but in a condescending tone, ready to ask and then move on), always from someone younger than myself. At first, it really irritated me. All right, it STILL really irritates me. What, do I look like someone who has nothing more to offer the world? And what would I do for the next forty years, anyway?
The fact is, I have a more than full-time job that I just can’t seem to quit. It’s called, “Empress of the World Wanna Be.” I have been trying to save the world my whole life. Which, I’ll admit, has been a pretty long life. And you know what? The world isn’t saved yet! As a matter of fact, most people don’t even notice that I’ve been working my head off to save the world since I was twelve. That’s a long time to be worried about things that are too big for me, like nuclear proliferation and the ozone layer and global warming and the general movement away from compassion and community and toward fear and gotcha-ism and zero-sum thinking and the media echo chamber. That’s a long time to feel a heavy weight of grief about the state of our people and our planet.
I’ve heard repeatedly that one of the ways to process grief and trauma is to connect with other people. To take action. I didn’t seem to be having any luck with finding effective ways to do that, so the answer seemed to be to just give up. Give. Up. Take a rest! Fold in on myself and sink into some distracting pursuits, like writing science fiction or maybe learning drums. Then my phone did one of those creepy things it does when it reads my mind and sticks an ad into my YouTube feed. This one was an announcement of a new program at Portland State University. “Change the world. Get a Master’s degree in Emergency Management and Community Resilience,” it said.
What? I can’t go back to school. I’m too old. It’s too expensive. Who would hire me?
Wow. I really want to do this.
Two days later, I had read everything I could get my hands on about the program and spoken to the program director at length. It seemed that this program really would teach me what I need to know to leverage my efforts – and in concert with other people, not all on my lonesome – to help solve seemingly intractable problems. I had no idea where it would lead me. But if you want to get to know dolphins, you’ll have to swim where they swim. Jump into the ocean and see if you float.
To my surprise, I floated. As a matter of fact, during my third term, one of my professors asked me to be part of a multi-agency committee to produce Heat Week, an event meant to bring city and county officials and community-based organizations together to talk about ways to prepare for extreme heat events in the Portland area. Even though I was “just a student,” and didn’t know anybody, I ended up being asked to help put together a climate aware grief panel. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve had trauma therapy, and I certainly feel a lot of grief about the planet, so even though I felt a lot of trepidation, I said yes.
And everything turned out fine. Committee members who work for agencies like the City of Portland and Multnomah County and environmental non-profits jumped in and organized things I didn’t have the resources or connections to get – like our terrific speakers, IT support, funding, and a huge Zoom platform. I contributed a helpful perspective and helped create a framework for the panel. My worries that “If the other committee members realize I don’t know what I’m doing, they won’t want me on the committee anymore” turned out to be unfounded. They were just happy that I showed up and did my part.
I report all this to let you know that if you feel overwhelmed and afraid of the future and think that you can’t make a difference, you are almost certainly wrong about that last part. I’m pretty sure a lot of us feel overwhelmed and afraid of what the future will bring. But I will tell you that meeting these people and contributing to this group effort has made me feel more reassured, contented, and calmer. Less alone. I didn’t have to be a rock star or even a runner up for Empress of the World. All I had to do was show up and try.
I can’t wait to jump into the ocean again and swim with the dolphins some more.