A new word for a new year?

I enjoyed having a break between Christmas and New Year that was long enough to do a thorough review of 2020 and of what I achieved, what I didn’t achieve and what I want to focus on in 2021.

The sun rises on 2021

One of the things I did was to consider what my Word for 2021 might be. Finding a Word for the year is a practice that I have unsuccessfully dabbled in for a few years now, the idea being that you choose a word (with some supporting words if you want) that will help you shape your year and remind you what you want to focus most on. You can use it any way you want, so it’s a very forgiving practice. The process I started to use is outlined in Susannah Conway’s Find Your Word 2021 workbook, but before I got halfway through the work, my Word for 2021 had come to me.

Listen.

This year, I want to make space to listen. This means many things to me, but it particularly means to listen to myself, which is something I’m not good at doing. 

As I was flicking (aka mindlessly scrolling, you know, that thing I’m trying to do less of) through my social media feeds, I saw a lot of positive posts that were glad to see the back of 2020 and hoped for a better 2021. Looking at these posts, I couldn’t help feeling that this wasn’t right and that things aren’t going to be better in 2021. I knew I had to stop and listen to this feeling because it wasn’t just a passing feeling. It gnawed away at me over the week and the voice within me kept getting louder and louder.  

What it said to me was that, even though I’ve not been personally badly affected by any of the truly awful things that are going on in the world right now, I have been incredibly fortunate when so many haven’t. And, while it would be easy to stay asleep to the realities of what’s going on, I’m really just dodging bullets and I won’t be able to do that forever. It will catch up with me. My voice was telling me to wake up while I still can. 

As I scrolled, I started thinking how, in the past few years, many people have chalked up the shitstorm that was the preceding year as “a bad year” and have expressed great hope that the next year would be better. This is understandable: A new year is an obvious time for a reset. I’m doing it right now. But increasingly, the next year hasn’t been better. Every year the threats posed by environmental collapse, war, poverty, famine, bushfires, old white men in power are increasing, not to mention effects of the pandemic that keeps on giving. Who, in closing the door on 2019, would have expected that? This stuff is not going away just because the western calendar has moved on to another number. And in the same vein, hearing people say that they hope that life returns to “normal” post-covid sets alarm bells ringing within my soul. We can’t sustain what we once called “normal”. 

I find it very easy to shut down when faced with what’s going on and retreat into my “I’m okay, everything will be okay” bubble, thinking that someone will do something, surely one day the people that can make a difference will do something, they won’t let this happen to us. 

But they haven’t shown any inclination towards doing anything so far. To me, it seems like most people with any influence over what happens to this planet don’t care and won’t do anything in case it upsets big business, or whoever else they are beholden to. The western world is drowning in consumerism that encourages us to buy more stuff to keep “the economy” strong, demanding that the planet give more than it has to give, and the mainstream media does nothing to dispel the many lies out there. And so humanity hurtles towards its doom. 

Kramstable asked me why people aren’t doing anything if our current course of action means humans could be wiped out, possibly in his lifetime, as some of the worst-case scenarios suggest. Other than being horrified that a 14-year-old was wondering if he would even get a chance to get old, I didn’t have an answer for him. (On reflection, there is nothing horrifying about this. Greta Thunberg was only 15 when she started the school strike for climate movement.)

I know that the big guns aren’t going to change anything. They will let the world burn. I partially understand the reasons for this. The system we live in is broken but it’s the only system we know so we cling to it and we hope that things will go back to normal, which is basically the state that created the situation we are now in.

I told Kramstable that I didn’t truly understand why what’s happening is happening or why people seem to be prepared to take no action when they know what the outcome is going to be. Perhaps they don’t really believe it. Perhaps they figure they’ll be dead before the worst of it affects them so they don’t care. Perhaps they think some supernatural being will step in and make everything all right, at least for the worthy ones.

I felt utterly helpless thinking about telling him that I had no answer to his very reasonable question, and I knew that at that moment I had a choice.

In the face of such helplessness, it would be so easy to go back to my bubble, to keep working on the petty little issues that occupy my mind at the moment and to let whatever happens happen. (Okay, they aren’t petty to me, but on a global scale, they’re inconsequential, and the fact that I have the capacity to work through them tells me right there the level of privilege that I currently enjoy). That’s the path of least resistance, and I have to ask myself if that’s what I want, because it’s an option that is always open to me. I could basically go to sleep. Or perhaps go back to sleep. I could stay in my bubble and focus on my own issues and ignore what’s going on around me for as long as I can. 

I could also rage and despair, and feel helpless and scream out that it’s not fair, and keep asking why doesn’t Someone do Something. Another option. Not a very constructive option and the outcome would be the same as the least resistance option. I’d just feel a whole lot more stressed and fearful while achieving the same result. 

Or I could do something. 

I’m currently reading Sarah Wilson’s book This One Wild and Precious Life, which suggests there is hope. But we have to change ourselves. If I want things to change, I have to change. In the book, Sarah argues it’s our responsibility to stand up and fight for our world, to do something, to practise what we preach, to “wake up and to come back to life and to do what matters”.

I’ll come back to this book in another post because it has a lot to take in and I’ve been making lots of notes from it and tossing ideas around in my head. But I have to do more than take it all in. It is a call to action. 

I look back to that conversation with Kramstable and I wonder how in good conscience I can complain that other people aren’t doing anything to address the situation we find ourselves in if I don’t do anything myself. How can I look him in the eye and say that no one is doing anything when I’m not doing enough to fight for my own future, much less his? It would be so easy to blame the government, the Murdoch media, people who use disposable coffee cups, people who drive their cars everywhere, people who think changing a word in the national anthem will make us a united country . . . and to sit back and whinge about everything that everyone else is doing or not doing.

I’m part of this too. My choices are contributing. 

I can either put up and shut up, or I can start listening to the voice inside me that doesn’t want to give up. The voice that says I need to take personal responsibility and start taking real action. I need to listen to that voice, I need to listen to the world and I need to learn. I have a lot to learn, about what’s happening and what’s needed, but that isn’t enough. I have to do something with what I’m hearing and what I’m learning. Because if there was ever a time that action is needed, it’s now.

We often avoid taking action because we think, “I need to learn more”, but the best way to learn is often by taking action.
—James Clear.

Thinking, as I usually do, that I need to know everything before I do anything is one way to not take action. Sitting down and writing about needing to take action is another way. Neither of these things change anything. But, as I read about what’s happening in the world and what this means for our future, if I really take it in, I am really scared. I’m fucking terrified. Part of me doesn’t believe this is actually happening, despite all of the evidence around me that it is. Part of me does want to crawl back into my privilege bubble and go back to sleep. 

Trying to squash those feelings or pretending I don’t have them won’t help. Acknowledging them, accepting that I have them and embracing them, then taking action in spite of them, is the only way to deal with them. As Sarah writes, we can be more than one thing. It follows that we can feel more than one emotion. It’s okay. It’s okay to be scared and it’s okay to be in denial. It’s also okay that the super critical voice in my head that constantly tells me I’m no good is screaming that I shouldn’t be writing stuff like this because I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I’m over-reacting, that nothing bad is going to happen. That is especially okay because the louder and more insistent that voice gets, the more I know that it’s freaking out and wants me to stop, which really means that I’m on the right track and I need to keep going.

It’s okay that right now, writing this, I want to burst into tears and I don’t know what to do. But I can find out, and then I need to do it.

Sarah’s book is a start, and now I’ve read (most of) it I know I mustn’t go back to sleep. It’s discouraging to think of the many times I’ve committed to making changes, made a start and gone back to my old ways after a few days or weeks. But nothing bad has ever happened to me as a result. Super critical voice is telling me that this is just like one of those times. Nothing will happen to you if you fuck this up. But if you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, well, aren’t you going to look like an idiot then? Best to calm down, shut up and go back to writing about how you can’t stop scrolling through Instagram. Everything will be fine. 

Yeah, thanks for that, SCV. Not helpful.

This time last year, I was in despair about the bushfires that were ravaging our country and I sat, feeling powerless and guilty as so much precious vegetation and wildlife was destroyed, some of it never to return, terrified that the fires would come my way eventually. I can remember someone saying to me that feeling guilty or living in fear wouldn’t help and that instead, I could turn these feelings into action, to do what’s good for the planet and to keep fighting for it. That sounded positive, so I signed up for a challenge that suggested one change you could make every week to make a difference. I gave up on week 2 because it was too hard to decide which not non-ethical financial institution I wanted to transfer my money into when I divested from one that supported fossil fuels.

It would be funny if it weren’t true.

Meanwhile, a year has passed, the world is still getting hotter, Australia continues to support the fossil fuel industry and avoid its international obligations, Arctic sea ice keeps melting. Oh, and we’ve been hit by a global pandemic. I had committed to changing and I had done precisely nothing, exactly as I had done in the past in the multitude of my own personal challenges.

But unlike in those challenges, the stakes here are real and I don’t know how to convey to myself that this isn’t a practice run. It’s not a new habit that I might or might not take up with no harm done if I don’t. This is the real deal and there is no Plan(et) B. 

There’s a quote often attributed to Anne Frank that goes something like how wonderful it is that no one need wait a single minute before starting to change the world. I’m not sure what part of her diary it’s from but I’ve seen it used in many places. What it’s saying to me is that I can’t sit around and wait for someone to tell me what to do. No one is going to do that. There isn’t a checklist that starts off with “stop using disposable coffee cups” and ends with “planet saved”. Permanent lifestyle changes are needed, not things that can be ticked off a list to make me feel good. But I can’t sit at my desk making lists of all the things I need to change and make a big, detailed plan of how to change my lifestyle spanning the next three years, with everything in perfect order. The world doesn’t follow a Gantt chart and climate change isn’t going to wait for me to get my shit together. I need to go and do something. Now.

(Also, you may recall, I am brilliant at making plans but terrible at carrying them out, so that wouldn’t work anyway.)

I think right now, there’s no wrong thing to do, no wrong place to start. There is just simply so much that I need to change. And there’s so much to do that nothing will be wrong. Anything will be right. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know everything I need to do right now. All I have to do is know the first step. And take that. And then the next one. What I need to do next will start to become obvious the more I do the more I listen and the more I learn. 

I’m going to start listening more, educating myself, feeling the fear that comes from what I learn, and using that to drive me to make changes, to speak up and to take action.

As I thought through all of this, I cycled back to my Word for 2021. I wondered if “listen” was the right Word for me or if it should be something like “awake”, “learn”, or even “action”, since that’s what I have to do. But my own voice, the one I’m terrible at listening to, kept insisting that “listen” was the right word. So I honour that voice and, with a view to listening more to myself and to the world, that is my Word for 2021.

To be continued . . .

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