Out of Calamity
February 25, 2022
Tricia Keith (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer
Learning to deal with ambiguity is a mighty verse of words. Holding two lines of opposing thoughts at the same time, within the same window of perception, is mighty. How do we continue living our lives to the fullest while watching the shoreline wash away over and over again? Life goes on, and so does ambiguity.
Learning to deal with ambiguity is an approach to living that involves your whole person. Two pioneers in the social sciences who have been researching ambiguity and developing treatments and practices to reduce stress and enhance the connections between individuals and strengthen communities are Dr. Pauline Boss and Joanna Macy, Ph.D.
Dr. Pauline Boss, a psychologist, coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s. Due to the global forces of COVID-19 and climate change in the last two years, her work is still profoundly relevant. Nearly everyone today is living with some degree of ambiguous loss.
With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution, whichever word you prefer to use. Therefore, it ends up looking like what the psychiatrists now call “complicated grief.” That is, in fact, a diagnosis, complicated grief. It’s believed that it requires some kind of psychiatric intervention.
My point is very different, that ambiguous loss is a complicated loss, which causes, therefore, complicated grief. But it is not pathological. Individually, that is. It’s not a pathological psyche; it’s a pathological situation. As clients frequently say back to me, “Oh, you mean the situation is crazy, not me?” That’s exactly what I mean. – Dr. Pauline Boss, from a 2016 interview on On Being with Krista Tippet
Ambiguous loss involves the absence of a person’s physicality but not the psychological connection they have with us or vice versa, the loss of a person’s psychological presence with us, though their physicality remains. Common examples of ambiguous loss can be found in chronic and terminal illness, divorce, aging, parental absence, immigration and addiction.
What is different nowadays is that we have environmental and social forces that none of us can turn away from. These have woken a deep sense of loss for which we have no clear resolution. The despair we feel around climate change, the coronavirus, racial injustice or political polarization, with the attendant secondary losses of trust in our health care systems, police, government, or educational systems create massive, floating, ambient clouds of grief, the presence of which leave many of us feeling both out of control and lost at the same time.
That is, if you are not numb to it all. Numbness and avoidance of painful feelings does not mean that you are cold-hearted. It’s simply one way your nervous system protects you. It shuts down the feelz.
So, what’s next? Dr. Boss’ therapeutic approach to ambiguous loss involves six guidelines of new perception, through three channels of expression. While it is highly teachable and effective, it is at this point I would like to introduce the work of author, teacher and scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology, Joanna Macy, Ph.D.
Macy has spent the last 60 years of her career developing community engagement practices to get us out of the mess we are in without each of us going crazy (one of her books bears a similar title).
Macy’s understanding of our highly evolved inter-connectedness to the world within and around us includes our deep feelings, our deep questions and our deep fears. Her work connects communities in the immensely important opportunity to, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “rise up rooted, like trees,” with compassion (for ourselves and others) and wisdom, seeing the interconnectedness of all life.
Macy’s body of work, largely written collaboratively with others, stands rooted under the canopy of her group workshops, The Work That Reconnects: they contain a promise that offers no hesitancy or heroism in their commitment. Applying each person’s authentic intelligence as part of the whole, as well as their emotional states, is fundamental to the community’s ways of uncovering what pains people and developing flexible responses to our world. The creative format she brings, ancient and contemporary, lean community members into systems thinking that connects their feet to the ground, their hearts to one another and the whole of a cell to the whole of our galaxy.
If Macy’s work sounds heady and in the clouds, it’s true; she loves theory, though her work is also beautifully playful as well as practical.
The Work That Reconnects involves poetry, dancing and systems thinking that mirrors nature. Rational analysis combined with theatrical storytelling speaks to the whole person, with multiple gateways to shift one’s perspective out of calamity and into interconnection, activism and advocacy for a safe and sound world for all living species.
Dori Midnight’s artwork below (a gift to Macy) illustrates how the whole can and does sustain us, when the production values of the industrial growth model does not override the wisdom of living for the preservation of seven generations ahead. Sustenance is, rather, a state of wholeness that is not threatened by evolution or diversification. Learning to deal with ambiguity means holding both hands open to complex adaptations, finding new meaning in paradox and rising up resilient over and over again.
If you are feeling lost or out of control, I hope this blog post helps in some way, and that you find your interconnection with living and perceptive trees, sky, water and caring people.
Tricia Keith is passionate about care for the dying, carrying loved ones across and walking alongside those who have passed on. Equally, Tricia is inspired by communities that imprint their wisdom of how to become decent ancestors for future generations.
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