About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
—W.H. Auden Musee des Beaux Arts
They say that by 2050, the effects of climate change will be so severe that the world we now know may be over. “What if the world is ending?” I think to myself as I pack one more box to get ready for a move I didn’t expect to make this year. Perhaps, the world we know is always ending in one way or another.
This essay was late to the editor. The work of it was in my mind for weeks. It lived in my head, never quite making it to my fingertips that type out the words one letter at a time. Each time I sat to write it down, little emergencies cropped up—my emergencies, and, because I’m a friend and an employee and a parent, everyone else’s emergencies too.
I’ve been thinking about emergencies for quite a while—what they are, who they belong to, the sheer scope of them. For the last year, I have been working on a film about climate change called The Face of God. We traveled to locations across the United State and Canada to speak to scientists, climate change experts, clergy, and ordinary people in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in particular. We were not building a case; we were gathering together the story of faith in a rapidly shifting world. It was a life-changing project for me. The trouble is that my life had its own rapid shifting, its own earthquake, tornado, hurricane, drought.
My year was spent vacillating between the changes I faced in my corner of the world and large-scale changes confronting the planet. I moved from big picture to little picture to medium picture and back again. So many pictures, so little time, energy, heart, brain. So many emergencies, so little me.
Once, when I was a kid, I was looking through my grandfather’s things in the basement and I found a set of magnifying lenses. A thick one blurred everything in the room when I held it up to my eye, but when I looked down at my lap, it brought into crystal clarity the black zig zag pattern of my yellow dress. I hadn’t even realized the pattern was there until the lens showed it to me. Thinner lenses helped me see minute details across the room. Big picture, little picture. Thin lens, thick lens.
So, after a year of changing lenses back and forth, moving between my emergencies, my friends’ and family’s emergencies, and my world’s emergencies, I only know that I am tired. My eyes hurt. When the news reports come on, I can’t handle it. I don’t know which lens to wear to handle the news that the world, as I know it, might be ending in my lifetime. It’s not real, I think, I hope, because it doesn’t seem to be happening to me. The planet can’t have an emergency right now; there’s already too much happening.
But the planet is having an emergency, and emergency is all about perspective. If I only look through thick lenses at my own local, personal life, I might miss it entirely. In Chicago, we might feel the weight of extra hot summers or an oddly “light” winter, but does it really bother us all that much? What’s one more day of short sleeves in early October? I know how to handle the hole in my ceiling, the kid throwing up at 3 a.m., the late mortgage, the pressure of my job—the micro crises that occur in my life daily. When I keep my eyes on my own little emergencies, everything exterior fades into the background, like an abstract painting. It’s harder to put on the thin lenses and see beyond myself, to see how climate change is already an emergency in someone else’s life—how it is changing the lives of millions of people across the globe. When only focused on myself, climate change is someone else’s emergency.
Except that it isn’t.
Here is something I heard over and over in this year of filming The Face of God: “What can I do about it?” It feels like there’s nothing we can do. It’s corporations, it’s government, it’s under someone else’s control, someone else’s emergency, someone else’s responsibility. Our individual actions feel like they can’t do anything on a grand scale. It’s not the same as simply calling someone to come and pack and move all of our things, or finding a way to fix the hole in our roof, or cleaning up the kid’s throw up in the middle of the night. We might not be able to wipe the slate clean and start again.
But we must deal with both kinds of emergencies—our individual emergencies and the world’s. We cannot choose one lens or the other. We need both lenses to look out into the world, read the news, understand larger issues, and look inside ourselves, read our own hearts, understand our own crises and how we contribute to larger emergencies, too.
Climate change is an emergency that belongs to us all. We can change. We can adapt. We can move. We can help. And it’s time.
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