words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers a holistic look at life on Earth, seen from above.
“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Upon starting hormone replacement therapy, my doctor warned me that I might become “more sensitive to the world” as my levels fluctuate. It was an interesting choice of words, ones that I dismissed at the time as obligatory caution. I have always felt the world deeply, I thought. What else is new? A lot, it turns out. The last three months have been a journey of many ups and downs. On a particularly emotional day earlier this week, I sought advice from my mother about what I was feeling, and she offered the following: “I guess there’s nothing to do but live it.”
Before we can talk about “living it,” we should probably start by exploring what, exactly, an emotion is. According to Britannica, an emotion is “a complex experience of consciousness, bodily sensation, and behaviour that reflects the personal significance of a thing, an event, or a state of affairs.” Whew! Lots to unpack there. Firstly, emotions are complex experiences, despite all the ways we try to simplify them. Secondly, they are held in the body, rather than some ambiguous “mind space” separate from our physical being. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, our emotions are reflections of how we experience the world.
Out of 7,000 people surveyed over the course of five years, psychologist Brené Brown found that the average person can only identify three emotions as they are experiencing them: happiness, anger, and sadness. How can three feelings possibly speak to this body of experiences, which are by definition complex? In her new book, Atlas of the Heart, Brown charts 87 different emotions, and the key distinctions between each. If you saw the viral Ted talk that made her famous, you might already know a few, such as the difference between guilt and shame; the former tells us we did something bad, while the latter tells us that we ourselves are bad.
If our emotions reflect our experience of the world, how can we possibly hope to feel our way through all that’s happening to it without an adequate map? In a recent feature for Atmos, journalist Mélissa Godin wrote of ecological grief around the world, citing some staggering statistics: “This year, nearly 60% of people aged 16 to 25 from 10 countries said they feel worried about the climate crisis with 45% saying it affects their daily mental health.” She spoke to a number of experts who confirmed the importance of naming that grief, as well as activists and land defenders from the Global South who know this grief better than anyone.
It’s tempting to want to escape our grief, and our world certainly offers no shortage of ways to. This is a theme of Netflix’s latest star-studded film, Don’t Look Up, which follows two astronomers—played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence—as they try to warn a disaffected and superficial world of an apocalyptic asteroid headed toward Earth (read more in Hannah Méndez’s Atmos review). Humanity’s unwillingness to properly address the climate crisis represents its greatest trap, one that has been written about by scholars and spiritualists throughout the ages: the more we try to escape our suffering, the more of it we create.
On top of ecological catastrophe, we are living through a global pandemic that’s going on two years now. I might be more worried about you if you were okay. As I have written about previously for this newsletter, we grieve because we love; to deny one is to deny the other. Every person out there feeling and naming their grief for our world is another person declaring their love for it. And that is no small feat. Nor are the many other victories we saw in the climate space this year, as climate director Yessenia Funes pointed out on The Frontline this week.
I’m still feeling my way across the landscape unfolding before me—as I suspect you are too—but I’m learning that the only way forward is through. The day after that conversation with my mother, I received a voice note from our photography director, Laura Beltrán Villamizar, in Mexico. She was taking in the beauty of the natural world around her, the immensity of which was overwhelming. In wondering aloud how to hold and articulate the immaculate artistry of it all, she shared something familiar: “I guess there’s nothing to do but live it.”