What are the consequences of emotional climate change?

October 4, 2021

I wonder if emotion is disappearing from the world.

Perfectly cool and crisp

Fall came four days ago. The weather in New York is perfectly cool and crisp—so much so that my poet neighbor stopped me in our lobby to remark in a stunned manner, almost with tears in his eyes, “The air—the air!” He couldn’t finish his sentence, and I was running late for work, so I left him stammering in the lobby. But outside the clear blue vault of sky said what he couldn’t. The cool oxygen lifted me like a balloon. A bike messenger howled with excitement as he turned right off Bleeker onto Sixth and headed the wrong way into one-way traffic, ebulliently defiant of rules and constraints. Life south of 14th St. crackled with the energy it hasn’t known for months, and it felt like New York had broken through its doldrums into a kind of exalted maelstrom of glee. 

The world is moving  more than it was a year ago

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the country and the world because I don’t travel much. At times I travel to Japan and North Carolina for Buddhism, but I’m otherwise based in New York. Much of what I know about what’s happening on the planet I learn from people who travel and tell me about it during Rolfing sessions. What I’ve gathered is that it’s difficult to rent an apartment in New York right now — people are offering cash, more than the asking price and bidding each other out. Also, that Europe is open for business. Japan is not doing well enough with COVID to allow visits, and the world’s supply chains are broken. So-called “tech” hums along, deals are going down, and movies are being made in Morocco, Thailand, London, and New York. So, the world is moving more than it was a year ago, albeit differently. 

Deeper social turmoil

Despite the uptick in spirit, I’m made a little uneasy by a sense of deeper social turmoil: the United States pivot from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific, the quiet, inevitable-feeling lean away from democracy to a kind of authoritarianism born of weariness, greed, and ignorance, and the increase in fires and floods, not to mention the momentous development of the Metaverse, blockchain technology, NFT mania, and all the disagreement and confusion about vaccinations, individual rights, and public health. Birth is messy. 

Looking over a town as it burns

I often feel like a farmer in a mountain field looking over a town as it burns. I can see the mean, smoldering glow of fire against the night, the conflagratory sparks spinning into heaven, extinguishing themselves. And there I sit with a nori-wrapped rice-ball that I offer to my companion who looks onto the fire with me. We hear cries. We take wonder in the ingenuity and energy of the brilliant developers and literati already profiting from the flames. We lament the cries of burnt children. We are frightened by the roaring, hot night wind. We are stunned by the courage of the fire’s heroes. We’re mute with sorrow for the victims. The pine trees look on with us. And we chant on the cool mountainside for the living and the dead. The stones do their stone thing, being stones.  The rivers keep running and bringing water to the burning town. Doing what they can. The rain comes and brings the scene to an end. Indeed, what is will end—beyond our power. All that we are and know and live has come to be by virtue of something beyond our capacity to know. 

Between gain and loss

Amid New York—and as a member of my neighborhood of the world—thrown as I am between gain and loss, having and not having, life and death, hello and good-bye, I find companionship in the loneliness that helps me touch the autumn wind that lifts me like a cloud. Because solitude’s spiritual companionship is always with me, as it is with the heroes and victims throughout time: with the revolutionaries in Algiers, the famished emigrants in Libya, the mothers, children, bright students, and self-enterprisers in Nairobi and Hanoi.
 
The human world is moved by emotion. But our leaders seem to have forgotten the emotional basis of life. They express their thoughts like monkeys and birds. What would it be like if instead politicians like, say, Mitch McConnell could speak as a royal attendant once did in medieval Japan, when she wrote: “Stars — The Pleiades. Altair. The evening star. Shooting stars have a certain interest. They’d be even finer if it weren’t for their tail.” 

What happens when the world has no need for emotion?

“If the world is moved by emotion,” I ask my friend on the hill “what happens when the world no longer has need of emotion?” She smiles, stands, and picks a flower for me. The rain passes, clouds open, we smell the fresh grass, and stars fill the deep black sky. 
 
There are times in history when culture utterly changes and what has driven one age is dead in another. Is it possible that the assault we see on our planet—the floods and conflagrations—are not indicators of avarice but, instead, signs of a loss of human emotional life—of our human capacity to feel? To heal? 
 
Is it possible to hear the thwarted arguments and cynicism of political leaders, and the fierce blowback of their citizens, and the rebellion of peoples’ bodies showing up as chronic discomfort or disease, as the body and world of emotion crying out for recognition and preservation? Where would we hear such a theory? Who would speak of such a thing? Is such a thought possible now? 
 
Perhaps such thoughts are best held to ourselves on a mountain amidst the flowers with peach trees, berry bushes, a friendly companion, and the living hills. 🌺