Bringing our Feelings into the Work of Changing the World

Elizabeth Sawin
January 20, 2004

This column appeared in the Valley News, Lebanon, NH.


A Brazilian friend of mine has created a slideshow out of images of the Earth and its life. The other week, at a training session for environmental leaders, I had a chance to watch it.

Amalia’s slides took us to the base of towering mountains and over endless glittering oceans to see sunlight flashing through tree branches, children laughing, women dancing, wolves standing in snow, tropical fish painted with color as if by some mad, joyful painter.

They also took us to some of the messes we humans have created. Industrial wastelands. Strip mines. Hunger and war and extinction of species.
It was a lot to absorb in three or four minutes.

When the slides ended and lights came back on, I noticed another friend of mine, sitting beside me, quite composed in her chair, with great silent tears running down her cheeks.

This woman is no newcomer to the story told by Amalia’s slides. She’s an international consultant who travels around the world working with groups of people, from large companies to local community members, on issues of environment and development. I know that she knows, in statistics and graphs, the state of the world as well as any of us. No single image of that short slideshow could have really surprised her. But something in the combination of images burrowed right past her reasoning mind and into her heart. And that left her in tears.

“What do you think it is you are feeling?” I asked her after a few minutes, curious to hear her answer because, even though I myself have shed tears for the fate of the polar bears, or for children orphaned by war, or for my own children exposed to toxins from the moment of their conception, it is never easy for me to find words that explain the tears.

“It was that last photo,” she said. The slide was still projected onto the screen, the Earth as seen from space, an obvious whole, gleaming and solitary in the blackness. “Here we are being offered such an amazing ride on this beautiful planet and all we are doing is poking, poking, poking at it. Like children with sharp sticks.” She stabbed the air with her pen each time she said, “poking.”

“I don’t understand it really, why it affected me so deeply,” she went on to say, “I’m not usually like this, not so emotional.”

I’m sure that is true. In the board rooms and conference centers where she works her sharp mind, her fluency in a handful of language, her poise, and her confidence are accepted, valued, rewarded. But what about her grief, her sadness, her fear, her anger? How often are those invited in the door along with her spreadsheets and her reports?
“Well, I think it’s normal sometimes to cry like you are now,” I said, as much to myself as to my friend. “All it would mean if you didn’t cry is that you had completely separated yourself from your feelings. How can you know what you know and not feel sad sometimes, or angry?”

I have another friend, Sara, whose environmental work involves, among other things, helping people to recognize and deal constructively with their feelings. Sara says, “emotions in this culture are in shadow,” by which she means, I think, emotions are present, but suppressed, with most of us having internalized that big boys don’t cry, and good girls don’t get angry, and leaders are never afraid or uncertain.

Well maybe we have been trained this way, and maybe our bosses, and clients, and partners, and neighbors – who after all were mostly trained in the same way – would feel more comfortable if we sent our feelings back in the “shadows,” where we were trained to put them. But there are actual things to feel frightened about – the climate is shifting with unknowable consequences, supplies of freshwater are declining with no plan for changing the trend, and fundamentalists in all corners of the world wield violence as a tool to achieve their ends. There are things to be angry about – children are dying of hunger, the gap between rich and poor is growing, and the quality of common resources, our air and oceans and forests, is being steadily diminished. And stuffing down our feelings about these realities doesn’t do anything to change them.

My friend Sara teaches that feelings have a purpose, an ancient biological purpose that allowed our ancestors to survive. Anger tells us to act, fear tells us to pay attention, sadness tells us that we have deep needs that are not being met. I find this a helpful way to think. Now when the latest news report leaves me frightened or angry or grief-stricken I try to accept the feelings as information calling me to action, keeping me honest, keeping the fact that our current way of doing business on this planet is just not working.

That’s what the spreadsheets and the computer models tell us as well, of course. Feelings aren’t the enemy of analysis; they are its ally.

So, at a time when we need every survival skill we’ve got, I say make room for feelings, make way for our oldest method of interpreting the world. Invite them up to the front of the room with the spreadsheets and the computer models, not as replacements for analysis, but as full and equal partners in the work of creating a better world.