As a parent, I have learned when one of my kids has a meltdown or is feeling very afraid, the most effective thing is to just quietly hold them and reassure them they are not alone and everything will be OK.
I might or might not be able to stop the cause of their distress, but the real benefit seems to be the security that stems from our relationship, the sanctuary they know our home is. That connecting experience leads to long-lasting resilience that supercedes the crisis at hand; it will grow, get us through the ups and downs, to come and provide perspective on what should and shouldn’t threaten our internal peace.
Many in recent weeks have been moved by the Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, and her efforts to bring a definitive change to the way climate change concerns are addressed. I admit I was moved by her speech to the UN, but probably not quite in the way she hoped. Her distressed outcry against “empty promises … stolen dreams … failure to act and betrayal” followed by the accusatory “How dare you!” caused a rising inside of me.
I wanted to just give her a big, warm and reassuring hug, like I give my teenage son when he has been really upset by something. I wanted to validate her anger, but allow her to take a deep breath and just enjoy a bright blue sky, wispy clouds and cool breeze, and know there is still goodness to be found, even when she feels so many reasons to despair.
Listening to Miss Thunberg made me want to issue my own “How dare you!” – but to us parents and adults for not keeping our priorities straight. We have made empty promises, failed to act and stolen childhoods … but in ways I believe are even more consequential than curbing greenhouse gases and investing in renewable energy.
We have pushed relationships to the backseat and allowed short-sighted sound bytes, a vicious cycle of crises and our own frantic attempt to “make life better for our kids,” when what they really need is a climate change in their own home.
That’s not to say that we adults stick our heads in the sand, but that we help our children and young people find joy and peace and hope amidst the challenges. It doesn’t take much effort to see the many, many ways humanity has made progress, the many reasons we have for hope.
Among those, the deep belief in an eternal life and a creator God who brought us into being, does sustain us, is trustworthy in his providential care for our lives, seeks a truly securing relationship with us and is worth staking every hope on.
This isn’t a commentary on specific environmental initiatives – although we do need them, I believe the most effective ones will happen at home. Ever simplifying gift-giving, less running around to countless organized activities. What our kids most want, and need, is just us – to know that they are our world.
How are we curbing the toxic emissions of negativity? What efforts are we making to push back against consumerism and the throw-away culture Pope Francis talks about? How do we translate that into reaching out to important relationships threatened by extinction – with grandparents and elderly or disabled, or just lonely people, in our parishes and communities?
It all starts in the family.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Pope Francis subtitled his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, “On Care for our Common Home.”
A home is shared by a family – and that is the environment most on the verge of mass extinction. There are many cries for people to have fewer children, or no children, to help save the planet.
My experience growing up in a large family and connected community is that it is the prime setting for the virtues society needs to be organically cultivated: Sharing and sacrifice; compromise and reciprocal responsibility; listening and genuine respect that isn’t afraid of differences but is enriched by multiple personalities, perspectives and opportunities to grow; unity that doesn’t negate diversity. A setting where making mistakes was par for the course and forgiveness and reconciliation strived for, albeit clumsily, but where the bottom line was always unconditional love and valued togetherness.
This sense of values and priority is the “climate change” I am working for first and foremost. Not exclusive of engagement with issues like good stewardship toward the earth, but the many other offenses against human dignity, greed and imbalance as well as the grave attacks against belief in God and the perceptible role faith plays in everyday life.
As I watched Greta’s pained expressions, Pope St. John Paul II’s face came to mind. Here was a man who suffered through loss and fearful crises from a very young age, and yet he always seemed to emit peace, a sense of confidence in knowing he was not alone.
I have never forgotten his face and voice during closing comments at a Mass in Central Park, New York City, in 1995. He iterated the mantra of his entire papacy: “Be not afraid.”
“And so I say to you today, always be brave. Do not be afraid.” In rapid succession he repeated, “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.
“God is with you. Be brave!”