How do we cope?
I recently attended an online discussion on eco-anxiety from a psychological perspective. Four speakers, from Finland, the USA, Canada, and Sweden each gave a short presentation of their work exploring the emotional responses of mainly young people to perceived threats from climate change and ecological degradation. Several references were made to the 2021 survey led by Caroline Hickman of Bath University, UK, which had questioned 10,000 young people from around the world. Other, smaller studies were also described: all of them showed worry as a main climate-change emotion, expressed in each case by a substantial majority of those questioned.
The talks and discussion brought out the psychological complexity of eco-anxiety, against the background assumption that anxiety and sadness were a rational rather than a pathological response to our global crises. Methods of coping featured prominently, and I was introduced to Folkman’s work which helped me to understand more clearly what the Borrowed Time project is about.
Susan Folkman and others developed a “transactional model” of coping in the 1980’s which framed the issue in terms of the response of the individual to external threatening or harmful circumstances. Their early model identified two types of response, not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first, “problem-focused” coping, was where the individual responded to the threat by taking action- i.e. by attempting to mitigate harm by altering the external circumstances. The second type of response was “emotion-focused”, where various strategies might be used to change how the individual felt about the situation.
Folkman later added a third type of response – “meaning-focused” coping. This recognised that the meanings we give to events in the world and in our lives have a vital role to play in our emotional wellbeing. In psychological terms, people can cope better with trauma or threat if positive emotions about it can be activated: in other words, if the narrative which frames the event can impute to it some kind of positive meaning, rather than it being entirely negative or simply meaningless.
Borrowed Time, on this analysis, is about “meaning-focused” coping. Various studies have confirmed that religion “can provide a framework for understanding emotional and physical suffering and can facilitate perseverance or acceptance in the face of stressors”, according to the Encyclopedia of Behavioural Medicine. In contrast to this positive view of religious faith, it must also be recognised that a religious narrative can prove inadequate – as Job, for example, insisted to his “comforters” when they continued to claim that his extreme suffering was his own fault. When that kind of severe crisis is experienced, the outcome can be either a loss of faith, or a reappraisal and readjustment of the narrative.
When the religious narrative “fails” in this way, it means that it can no longer bear the meaning of the trauma. This, I believe, is the crisis that Western Christianity is facing from the threats of climate change and ecological breakdown. Many of the narratives by which comfortable Christians have envisaged their place in the world are inadequate as ways of coping with what the scientists tell us is coming upon us. Underlying assumptions about God, creation, incarnation, and redemption are being called into question. It is becoming clear that events are pointing us to a radical reappraisal of much we have taken for granted: not because the truth has changed, but because the way it has been understood and lived is increasingly “out of sync” with our experience.
There is often a jarring discord between the explicit and implicit narrative about God and creation “in church”, and the narratives of mass extinction, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events in the world outside. Recognising this cognitive dissonance is challenging, but it is an essential first step. The road ahead may involve an often difficult and painful process of “self-emptying”, as our old emotional and psychological securities are challenged. Borrowed Time is about this journey into the desert, a journey not of our choosing, but an unavoidable one if we are to try to live with more integrity, to live in the truth, and thereby to make our own tiny contribution towards making whole what is broken.