Is it OK to be Happy?

In 2017, shortly after my eldest left home for university, I listened to a podcast featuring the founder of a tree planting organization. She was sobbing, and I mean — sobbing — about the destruction of our world. She said she couldn’t understand why we weren’t all on our knees. I found myself weeping with her, comforted by her honesty and unsure whether my grief came from facing life as an empty nester, my distress about the world my kids were inheriting, or both.

Following the podcast, I began reading articles that I used to ignore — reports of plummeting numbers of wild animal populations and insects, polar ice melting and releasing methane gas, and islands and islands of plastic. I saw a video of orangutans being stripped from their habitat and read the summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

I quickly came to understand that our lives are set deep inside a mass extinction event, and that according to climate scientists, we have already surpassed their worst predictions. I read a paper called “Deep Adaptation” by Dr. Jem Bendall, a climate journalist who stated that as he “studied the climate science more closely, [he] reached [a] personal conclusion that societal collapse in most countries in [his] lifetime is now inevitable.”

For months, I couldn’t stop my tears. I’d sit at a traffic light and flinch at the cars around me. The impact of our collective behaviour side-swiped me. I’d walk up and down the grocery store aisles — something I’d mindlessly done my whole life — and see only excess and harm. I imagined every store in every corner of the world selling the same stuff: all the yogurt containers, palm oil products, plastic balloons, the forests of toilet paper and every tortured animal in every factory farm.

The everyday display of our cruel and consumptive society made me woozy. I’d push the cart into the parking lot and white knuckle it for balance. I’d load my car in a dazed trance, looking at all the cars in the parking lot and see every car in the world. If a neighbour saw me and stopped to chat, I’d put on a brave face and choke back my tears.

At home, I was consumed with worry and grief. I quickly wrote and published a dozen articles pleading with readers to face what we were doing to our planet and to our children. My friends stopped following me on social media and eventually avoided conversations with me entirely. My mother said I was exaggerating the risk and robbing my children of optimism.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “Humans always have.”

I recognized her denial as the same that had served me well while raising my kids. When Greta Thunberg surfaced, I felt some small relief. Finally, climate change was centre stage.

My eldest son came home from university that summer. A month into his visit, he pointed out the severity of my mood. He said that I only seemed to connect with anyone on the topic of climate change. If he wanted to engage with me, that was his only through-line. I was, in his words, obsessed.

We sat down at the kitchen table, home of countless card games and carefree family dinners. I thought about the years where our biggest priority was getting him and his brother to basketball games. In an awkward and tear-filled conversation, I said that from a sense of loving responsibility to him and his generation, I somehow had to address this crisis. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. Over milk and cookies, I mourned my mistakes and the choices I made as a parent. I shared my grief for it all — the species loss, my own ignorance, our collective hubris, and how I hadn’t prepared him for what was ahead.

“No one is prepared,” he said. “We can’t prepare for this.”

My son said he admired and felt some comfort from my commitment to staying with the problem, but he also asked for my presence. Specifically, my joy. Without it, he said he felt abandoned. He compared me to a distracted workaholic parent who says they’re doing it all for their kids.

He told me he was glad to be alive and that while life is still good, he wants to enjoy it.

“Isn’t it OK to be happy?” he asked.

In relaying the conversation later to my mother, she said, I hope you haven’t traumatized him.

I grew up surrounded by self-help books who said that happiness is something we can control. Just get your shit together: lose weight, exercise, learn your love language and get your financials in order. The subtext for years has been if you’re not happy, it’s your fault. The solutions are out there.

When it comes to climate change, I’m way happier when I don’t think about it. Ignorance is 100% bliss. Avoiding our ecological crisis is still occasionally possible even for someone who has had their awakening — cue Netflix.

Like many parents, I try to be true to myself while balancing the paradoxical demands of raising kids in a sick society. I started with cloth diapers and moved to plastic with my second child. I held my nose once and took the kids to Disneyland only to have a really good time. I want to participate in their world even if it’s destroying everything.

Living during a mass extinction event presents a new set of challenges. Never mind getting them into good schools, how do we prepare the most pampered generation alive to live and die in chaos? What do we give them to hold on to when so much of it is out of their control?

I heard my son’s need but I wasn’t going to discredit my knowledge and slap on a smile. If he was asking me to go back to a permanent state of denial, that wouldn’t be possible. I had crossed a line from which there’s turning back.

“We’re in a climate emergency,” I said. “I can’t pretend not to know.”

“I’m not asking you to,” my son responded. “But if you’re saying there’s no hope, then what’s the point of anything?”

Hope. Happiness. What do those even mean when we’re facing collapse?

Who can be happy with a status quo that kills everything? My hope rests on a quick and radical transformation — yet I enjoy all the comforts of modern living. I still spend a lot of my energy keeping this shit show going. I carry a heaping load of cognitive dissonance. I’m writing this during a pandemic, so I see it’s possible for global society to do a 180-degree turn. But when it comes to climate change, will we? Facing this kind of uncertainty, should happiness even be a concern? Or is that just my privilege talking?

I spent most of that summer in my garden building new beds while exploring novel emotional territory. I didn’t forget that business as usual is abysmal but was open to feeling some joy. With my hands in the dirt, I turned my heart to our Earth and remembered a time when the wind was my pal. I swear, when I was a child, I heard it whisper my name.

By summer’s end, I was singing a different tune. It was still in a minor key, but the wind played the melody. I worked alongside life as it transformed my soil and marvelled at the resiliency of my garden. I even had moments when I felt curious and excited about this precarious moment. I ate from the gifts and felt nourished. I found moments where I didn’t require that our culture be worthy of my joy. I just felt grateful to be a part of the miracle it all.

I planted a seed there and watered it.

It’s tough to be giddy while facing into the trauma we unleash upon the living world, but I can joyfully reimagine our place within it. I can vote, speak up and decolonize my own thinking. I can stop unessential travel and buying unessential things, get on my bike, support healing, and community building.

I can also fall back in love with the living world and feel/pray/collapse my way back in.

I can even rest my mind without going into full blown denial. The garden reminds me that rest is so crucial that Earth dedicated a whole season to it.

We may well be doomed, but no one knows what that actually means. I think of Howard Lindsay’s quote that “an optimist is a person who knows the future is uncertain.” That’s a realist also. Doom or denial: the hubris of certainty could be our downfall. This may be a good time to humble ourselves to the limits of knowledge and discover ourselves within a larger imagination.

Life’s intelligence resides in us in ways colonial culture doesn’t cooperate with or comprehend. We simply don’t know how to fit into our ecosystem — we don’t know how to “fix” it either.

The Buddhist environmentalist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “only when we’ve truly fallen back in love with the Earth will our actions spring from reverence and the insight of our interconnectedness.”

This love, according to him, is the true source of happiness. Advancements growing from a loving and interconnected worldview may be our best hope in regard to climate change.

Is it OK to be happy? Sure. But, it’s also OK to grieve. Both are probably necessary — as long as our joy comes from loving our Earth and our grief accepts impermanence. Maybe more important than happiness is cultivating a curious and loving humility.

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Canadian writer of Egyptian and German descent who doesn’t know if her grandmothers are cheering her on or rolling over in their graves. www.sandyibrahim.com

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Sandy Ibrahim

Sandy Ibrahim

Canadian writer of Egyptian and German descent who doesn’t know if her grandmothers are cheering her on or rolling over in their graves. www.sandyibrahim.com

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