Change Is Coming, Whether You Like It Or Not, LaUra Schmidt’s Earth Day Keynote for University of Utah, April 2021
Thank you for being here today.
Let’s turn inward for a moment.
How are you arriving to this space?
Were you rushing to get here?
Did you just get out of another meeting?
Do you have assignments due or another obligation right after this?
Let that all go.
Let’s arrive in this space together.
I invite you to feel into your body.
Are there any sensations asking to be felt?
If you’re sitting, where does your body touch the chair?
Can you feel your feet on the ground?
Let’s do a breathing exercise together:
I invite you to exhale all the air from your body through your mouth,
almost like you’re blowing up a balloon and when you think you’ve let all the air out of your lungs, exhale a bit more. A natural inhale will follow.Let’s do it together.
Exhale all of the air from your lungs. Through your mouth. Picture the balloon you’re blowing up is filling. And push just a little bit more. And maybe a little bit more.
One more time: Exhale all of the air from your lungs. Picture the balloon you’re blowing up is filling. And push just a little bit more. And maybe a little bit more. This is a calming breath. It’s available to you any time during this talk, tonight, tomorrow.
It’s a tool for your toolbox.
Let’s take a moment to honor how difficult it is to be a thinking/feeling person in today’s world.
I grateful to be here with you today.
I am LaUra Schmidt, cofounder of Good Grief Network, a global movement to bring people together, lean into the hard realities of our time, and figure out some meaningful action we each can take.
I was supposed to be joined by Aimee Lewis Reau but she unfortunately is suffering an endometriosis flare up and cannot join us. Her words have helped craft this talk, and of course the first part of our time together was because of Aimee’s influence.
We’re going to talk about some hard things today, but we’ll provide some pathways for emotional discharge and greater connectivity.
Please arrive with your full self. You can take one of those long exhale breaths we practiced if you feel overwhelmed. You may see me take one or two throughout our time together.
I’m used to being up here with Aimee, and she usually gets nervous enough for the both of us. But now, the nerves are all mine.
Some of the things I’m going say may make you have a strong reaction. I invite you to notice that reaction, don’t judge it. Notice and be with it.
First, let’s get real about the severity of the predicament.
Years ago, I was at University of Utah, in the Environmental Humanities program, as I came to an awareness of the severity of the predicament. My question throughout that time was what to do with this knowledge. The foundations for the Good Grief Network start here, at the U. I had some really great professors who mentored me, some of whom are no longer with the program. I’m happy to see some of them still are. I am grateful to the U, the EH Program, the sustainability office and the larger Salt Lake community.
Now, let’s get real about it, as social science researcher, Susi Moser, suggested. James Baldwin once said, “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So we’ll face it here, today. Together.
The climate emergency, social injustice, income inequality, the destruction of entire ecosystems, political polarization, 6th mass extinction event, the erosion of our democracy, and the global pandemic…. are just a few of the many overlapping crises we’re facing right now. I believe they’re all interconnected. And they’re all overwhelming.
In 2019, and in front of the United Nations, youth activist Greta Thunberg said, “Change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Life, as we know it, cannot continue the way it’s been going. The overlapping crises point to the truth of that statement. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (better known as the IPCC) stated that if we want a chance at a livable future, that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
All aspects of society.
This is not just about carbon emissions. It’s about all aspects of society. Change is coming, whether we like it or not. A reorientation of our systems, our priorities, our values, and our ways of being are in order. It’s already happening. But there is so much work to do. This awareness can lead to fear, panic, hopelessness, helplessness, and of course great grief.
We can often times feel too small to take on such huge, overlapping issues. I commonly see two responses as a result of these hard truths. One is the tendency to avoid or deny the truth. Or, we shut down.We hope someone else will fix and we keep going about our day-to-day. Despite these hard and painful truths, we know that “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” (This quote is from Flannery O’Connor).
The second response, and the one I’ll focus on today is that we can see the convergence of these multiple crises as an invitation to start co-creating new ways of being together. We can start transforming our lives to invite in more collaboration and connectivity.
We must act with courage because there is no one pathway marked ahead of us. Grace Lee Boggs said, “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.” First task on the path to this heart-centered revolution, as we’ll call it is to practice being with Uncertainty
How can we begin befriending uncertainty?
Certainty is an illusion. It’s not real and it’s culturally constructed. We are told from a young age that if we go to school, get the degree, land the job, and retire that everything will work out well. That’s a life well-lived. Certainty doesn’t factor in illness, accidents, and now our social, political, and ecological systems breaking down. We are much more nimble if we’re able to go with the flow, to remain open to surprises, and to let go of expectations about the way “things are supposed to be.” Pema Chödrön says, “If you’re invested in security and certainty, you are on the wrong planet.”
Life is always in flux. We could get hit by a bus, struck by lightning, or be a victim of a mass shooting tonight or tomorrow… We only have the present moment. Fearing a future that hasn’t come yet, is to give away our personal agency to live meaningfully in the present.
The future is not set — there are many unknowns about the Earth and systems. We’re living in a wild, global experiment. And though things look pretty bad right now, this is not a reason to delay doing all that we can to start creating a truly just and life-centered way of being. We also have to stop waiting for the potential of a favorable outcome to get started on the meaningful work being asked of us in this time.
When we start putting the puzzle pieces together, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that “we’re fucked,” so why bother doing anything? This is nihilism in the trust form. If you are alive, right now, there is time to make meaning, to help regenerate ecosystems, to minimize the harm you’re doing. And to further connection.
There is no more time to waste. How can each of us create more connection, creativity, and cooperation in our lives, right now? Courage asks us to act without a guaranteed outcome. This is where the inner work must inform the outer work.
We at GGN start with building emotional intelligence, and by feeling our feelings. Being able to identify and manage our own emotions and being with the emotions with others.
How many of us received the message that feelings are a weakness and we have to shut them down at all costs. Unless of course, they’re deemed “positive.” Research, and personal experience, has shown that we cannot selectively numb our feelings. Trust me on this, I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard.
It doesn’t work.
If we want a full experience of the so called “positive” feelings, we have to feel the fear, rage, grief… the heavy and painful ones, too. Many of us have the belief that if we let fear, rage, or grief in, that we will be overcome by them. This is not true. No feeling is final. They don’t stay forever. Feelings are transitory by nature. If allow them some space, try to name them, and see if there is a body sensation associated with the feeling, it will pass. It will move. You will be open to feel something else. If you avoid or stuff the feeling, it gets stored in the body. Over time, this can result in more avoidance and denial leading to clinical anxiety & depression. Feelings are data points. They’re information and if we can learn to recognize, feel, and process them, we open to a depth, a maturity, a wisdom.
What is this feeling telling me?
What’s on the other side of this feeling?
If we feel our feelings, they become less overwhelming when they arise again. We don’t just feel them once and we’re “cured”. Feelings like grief, fear, hopelessness, despair, and rage may come back again and again. We can greet them as an old friend and say “Oh, fear is here again.” Or grief, or rage. I recognize this feeling. I can sit with this feeling and let it move.
Again, it’s hard to be thinking/feeling person in today’s world, and we can use our feelings to connect with each other. But only if we’re not scared of them or shut them down. We cannot sit with other people, with their feelings, if we cannot learn to be with our own. There is an impulse to fix when someone is actively emoting. We minimize their experience instead of just being there, and just listening. Listening is a practice, it’s an art. We can get better at it over time. If you feel an impulse to fix, to problem-solve the next time someone is expressing emotion, try to be still. Listen. You don’t have to say or do anything. Just be there. This is a way to authentic connection.
In Good Grief Network spaces, we often say, “be with, don’t fix.” Culturally, we often try to rush into fixing because being in the pain, or the fear, or the uncertainty is uncomfortable. This is true for our own experience of these feelings and also witnessing painful feelings in others. Our inability to endure discomfort can be terribly problematic.
What if fixing, either individually or collectively, in an attempt to avoid the painful realities, causes more harm than good? What if this causes further disconnection? I believe there is something to be learned in the grief, in the anger, in the despair. If you’re new to feeling, it can easily become overwhelming. As an adult child of alcoholics, I’ve had to relearn how to feel, how to be vulnerable, and how to endure discomfort without rushing to solve or avoid it. So, now I’ll share some tools & techniques to help you discharge powerful feelings.
Grounding Exercises In GGN
-Meditation/Mindfulness Practice. It’s hard to start a meditation or mindfulness practice. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we don’t see immediate results, it’s time to give up the activity. Meditation & mindfulness don’t work that way. It’s more of a slow, internal transformation.
If you’re like me, and meditation or mindfulness feel too difficult, you can start by letting your feelings catch up to you. Create some space in your day, where you’re alone and not distracted. Breathe. See if there’s any feelings welling up. What wants to be felt. Allow that feeling some space. Breathe. Don’t judge the feeling. Don’t create a story around the feeling, just feel the feeling. What does it feel like? Breathe. Let it go.
See if there’s another feeling wanting attention. Do the same process for that one. Breathe. Don’t judge the feeling. Don’t create a story around the feeling. Just feel the feeling. Breathe. Practice this process for a few minutes at a time.
-Breathing Exercises are another great way to ground yourself. You can do the long exhale, the power exhale, from the start of the talk.
Or you can practice 4,7,8 breathing developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. This is a great exercise for anxiety or overwhelm. This is where you inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. This practice can be done for a few minutes at a time.
-Focusing on gratitude, awe, and beauty. In a talk the other day, Terry Tempest Williams, said that beauty is grace and grace points to wholeness. In a fragmented, disconnected world, beauty and awe remind us that we are a part of the whole. We’re connected to everything.
-We at GGN also recommend a Journaling Practice. Notice what’s wanting to come out on the page. Are any feelings arising? Can you write your feelings out? What is it like to see you reflect on feelings and the inner work?
- If my wife and Good Grief Network cofounder, Aimee were well enough to speak here today, she’d tell you all about her dance practice (80 minutes a day) and how everyone is a dancer, it’s just that most of us have just been shamed out of it. Aimee would say how dancing is really just listening to your body and finding freedom and comfort in your own body. And, you don’t have to pay a gym membership to dance.
Body movement is huge for moving feelings. Running, walking, yoga, shoulder circles… it all helps.
We also recommend spending time out of doors
-Nature can hold heavy and painful feelings, even if it feels like you cannot. Even if it feels like no one else can hold you.
Start to minimize Doom Scrolling, News, and Social Media.
-adrienne maree brown teaches that “Our attention is our most valuable resource.” Our emotions are manipulated by the media. The news and social media are businesses. They make money by controlling your attention and your emotions. Limit your interact with the screen. Notice if you’re trying to use it to numb.
Connect with trusted people
A friend, partner, sibling, parent, therapist.
Connect with animals or children
They are present moment and offer new perspectives.
We can also begin to rewild ourselves. I invite you to consider, for a moment the stories you carry with you from the culture we live in. Some of these stories involve our inability to be with discomfort and uncertainty or the systemic oppression of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.
What are your cultural stories surrounding death? Or Vaccines? What about politics? How do these stories keep us from seeing reality? How do they cloud our perception? The dominant culture in the Western world has some really toxic, disconnecting messages…. About racism, speciesism, body image, queerness, meritocracy, and overconsumption, to name a few.
Imagine this for a moment, who are you at your core, before the culture told you who to be?
Were you an artist? Or a dancer? Were you a storyteller or a rock collector Did you howl at the moon or skip in public?
Domestication is full of rules about how to be, in relationship to the culture, and each other. But many of these rules aren’t serving us and the larger vision of reconnection. In addition to limitations placed on our wild, intuitive selves by the culture, we often fall prey to our biases and limitations of our perception. It’s normal and natural to make mistakes, to be off in our perception of reality. Our brain is wired to take shortcuts. Our brain is wired for group-think. Our brain is wired to conform with our in-group. Even if our in-group is wrong.
It starts with noticing. Being aware of our patterns, of our responses, of our feelings. And, I’m here to tell you that you have permission to be wrong. We all do. We can practice self-compassion (patience and understanding) and extend that outwards, with others. The more patience and understanding that we can offer towards ourselves and others, the more we can connect.
As poet Micky Scottbey Jones says, in an Invitation to Brave Space, “We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.”
Many of our problems happen when we “other” people (human and nonhuman). This othering, this disconnection, makes it easier to cause harm, to enact violence, or to witness violent acts and do nothing about it. And in tumultuous times, we can minimize harm by offering compassion and patience. We can start creating connection and community instead of fear and hate.
Think about a time you were wrong. What did it feel like to be wrong? It didn’t feel good, did it? We can come back to the reality that we’re human animals that are limited by our own perceptions. We can hold ourselves with compassion. We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
This allows us to Grieve the Harm Each of Us Has Caused. This is an essential step towards the heart-centered revolution. We’re all harm doers in some form or another. Even if we have the best of intentions, we’re faced with impossible choices constantly. Many of us fly, many of us eat meat, many of us use single-use plastics. We’re taught to track our individual carbon use by fossil fuel companies like BP, who emit way more carbon dioxide than anyone else in the room. We also come with prejudice and judgements toward those who we view as ”Other.” We perpetuate racism and sexism, because the system that we live in is racist and sexist.
These systems live within us, and it’s up to each of us to recognize when we’re perpetuating harm. Just this morning, the Climate Psychology Alliance put out their newsletter focused on decolonizing ourselves. This is hard work and requires us to deconstruct the cultural narratives we carry with us. It’s the work of undoing.
Therapist and author, Resmaa Menakem, says:
“Trauma in a person, decontextualized over time, looks like personality. Trauma in a family, decontextualized over time, looks like family traits. Trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, looks like culture.”
If we have unresolved trauma on an individual level, we think trauma’s impact on our lives IS US. It becomes normalized. I act a certain way, because it’s just how I am. Perhaps I act this way, because I have unhealed trauma. If our families have unresolved trauma, our familial traits are unquestioned. The impacts of the trauma become normalized. It’s just the way my family acts. For example, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a concentration camp survivor. My mother has mental health and addiction issues. I have mental health issues. Our family trauma looked a lot like “family traits” because our intergenerational trauma hasn’t been healed and has been passed from my grandmother, to my mother, to me.
Our culture also had tremendous trauma and perpetuates harm because of it. As we unpack the hard truth that the dominant cultural systems were created to uphold racism and othering, from colonization, to slavery, to imperialism, to xenophobia, current day police brutality and how we treat asylum seekers at the border… We notice that this trauma becomes normalized, It’s just the way it is.
This cultural trauma looks like CULTURE. This means that we embody, and normalize, our traumatized ways of being. We forget to question them because it seems like what we’ve always done and what everyone else is doing. I’ll read the Resmaa Menakem quote one more time.
“Trauma in a person, decontextualized over time, looks like personality. Trauma in a family, decontextualized over time, looks like family traits. Trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, looks like culture.”
We can heal these traumas. We can heal these divides. And it starts by questioning our assumptions, about life, about cultural norms and othering. We question what it means to be a feeling/thinking human being alive at this time. We start looking inward to see the ways that this trauma, these systems of oppression live within us. We must do this undoing work. The time of exclusion and othering is over. The future of humanity is dependent on collaboration and connection As we become more aware of the ways in which we have caused harm, we must grieve the harm we’ve caused and begin looking for ways to live in greater alignment with our values.
There is room for your grief. We have to make space to grieve. We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow. This gives us permission to be messy humans, together. When we’re willing to show up, as imperfect people trying to align with our values and minimize harm, we can create community.
Community is the foundation of Good Grief Network’s programs. Creating community is key to the heart-centered revolution. We know that in community, changing our patterns of behavior is easier. We’re social creatures, we’re cooperative animals. Behavior change for individuals is hard; it’s a whole lot easier if we’re supported and encouraged in community. It’s a whole lot easier if we know the community wants change, too.
Community breeds courage and inspires emergence. One reason for this is that we know we don’t have to do everything ourselves. We move out of our individualistic, alienating, “every person for themselves” mindset. Instead, I’ll do my part, and you do your part, and they’ll do their part. In community, our isolation is reduced. We feel connected, like our work in the world matters.S. Kelly Harrel says, “We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.”
We know that connected people are healthier. More vibrant, more innovative. We also know that by sharing ideas through conversation, new ideas emerge in community. We level up together. One idea inspires another, which inspires another, which inspires another. Eventually, we’ve arrived at a place we never could have gotten to alone.
We at GGN are creating communities of practice where we open up about our feelings, we deconstruct our cultural narratives, and we hold space for what can emerge. But this only works if we listen to each other. Not listening to respond, but practicing deep listening. Hearing each other. Being courageous enough to be witnessed. adrienne maree brown recently wrote, “community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong… to heal. To recover. Community feels responsible for each other.” She writes, “community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.” We can be together in times of grief, anger, despair. We can be together in the tension. We can live the questions together instead of rushing to solution-making just for the sake of ending the discomfort. We can learn to care for each other. We can heal, together.
Grace Lee Boggs said, “The only way to survive is by taking care of one another.” We’re learning that people don’t need a perfect interaction, a perfectly scripted talk. What we need is authentic connection. We want to see each other and be seen. We can move past our aspirations of perfection, and instead, we invite you to show up as you are, be seen, be moved, and feel connected.
Can we create spaces for each of us to speak our truths, our fears? Our hopelessness? Can we be witnessed in our messiness? Cheryl Richardson says that “People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” Terry Tempest Williams taught me that “Bearing witness is not a passive act.” Especially in times of uncertainty.
So, we know the previous ways of being are coming to a close, and the new ways of being are being created right now. How can each of us best contribute to this transformation?
Bayo Akomolafe, often shares a nugget of wisdom from Nigeria, “Times are urgent, let us slow down.” How can we slow down, and prevent the impulse to rush to solutions in times of panic, frenzy and discomfort? Bayo Akomolafe also says, “The idea of slowing down is not about getting answers, it is about questioning our questions.” adrienne maree brown suggested that “We have to practice something new, ask different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a species.”
How do we get to the questions that cultivate more connection and meaning?What helps contribute to the healing of our world and of each other and of ourselves?
As I wind down our talk for today, I have a few invitations to leave you with as you start to envision ways to bring the heart-centered revolution into reality:
- Stay soft when you want to harden.
- Stay open when there’s an impulse to constrict
- Be gentle with yourself and each other
- Question your questions
- Stay open to surprises.
- Make time for celebration & Play
- Imagine what a truly just and life-centered future can look like
- Start moving towards that vision