Cheers and Tears for Greta

I have never been much of a crier. It cuts both ways: I weep with grief or despair about as often as I weep from joy, which is once in a blue moon. Sometimes I blame the patriarchy for this inability to express my feelings; sometimes I blame my own upbringing; but mostly I just shrug and accept that I don’t tend to feel things as strongly as others.

It feels like a shortcoming, this stoicism—although frankly when I do cry, I usually feel worse than I did when I was pent up. Giving oneself permission to unleash sobs and moans can be cathartic, but then your nose gets gross and your eyes look like you’ve been high. And if you do it in public, it makes everyone feel awkward, you most of all. It’s like smashing a bottle for the sheer rush of hearing it break—you feel exhilarated for a moment but then you realize you’re on the hook for the mess you just made.

I cried last week while reading about Greta Thunberg. Her “Person of the Year” accolade had just been announced, and Time had an accompanying article which didn’t tell me anything new about her, but which put her remarkable year into context. It’s hard to imagine how much has changed for her, and because of her. As a child with Asperger’s, her life was never going to be typical. But if she’d chosen not to “School-Strike for Climate,” she would never have become the most polarizing person in her generation—a Gen Z messiah, a Boomer pariah. She could have had a much more normal life.

Or that’s what I thought until now. Reading that article, it occurred to me that Greta’s words and actions are, in fact, changing the definition of “normal.” Thanks to her truth-bombs, millions of youth have had their eyes opened to the legacy we’ll leave for them: environmental ruination, mass extinction, lethal heat and weather, social collapse. Ecocide.

So really it’s the Death of Normal, and Greta is merely ahead of the curve in acknowledging it. That would make her the 21st century’s Cassandra—you know, the mythical Trojan princess who accurately predicted the fall of Troy, but got gaslit by her people till the walls came down?

Except people do believe Greta. We have a whole generation of Cassandras now—some, like Indigenous water keepers, have been decrying us for ages, while others are only now learning how to say “J’accuse.” Their voices are becoming a chorus. That makes people think of Greta less like a powerless princess, and more like a vanguard crusader. Margaret Atwood compared her to Joan of Arc.

But she is not a warrior, though her steely gaze feels like an attack to those who squirm beneath it, racked with climate guilt, suppressed or otherwise. She does not want to fight (except insofar as any of us would love the chance to slam Trump in his smug orange kisser). Her mandate and motto is, “Unite behind the science,” and if them’s fighting words? Well, that isn’t her fault.

At the core of her vision of the world, Greta believes that we are misguided yet benevolent. Her earliest speeches are optimistic: “The people will rise to the challenge,” she says, and she believes it. When she challenges the oil companies—whom she rightly calls out for creating and perpetuating the crisis—to take bold action, she admits, “I don’t believe for one second that you will rise to that challenge,” but then entreats them to prove her wrong.

Now, at the end of 18 months full of hardcore travel, full of media scrutiny and social media death threats, she must be discouraged to see how little progress has been made up where it counts, amongst the policymakers and billionaires and CEOs. These are mostly people to whom she spoke directly, face to face, in the most plain and urgent terms. They are unmoved. And so, her world is never going to be “normal.”

Cassandra? Joan of Arc? I cried because I knew that, if anything, Greta Thunberg is this century’s Anne Frank. Awkward and thoughtful and bursting with the will to be, to exist and engage with the world, for better or worse. Like Anne, Greta will be a hero to her own generation, and to as many generations as might be lucky enough to follow. Like Anne, she is going to suffer terribly through no fault of her own.

Like Anne, I hope, Greta will believe until the end “that people are really good at heart”:

I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

Last week, I delivered the latest version of XR’s talk to about a dozen people in a coffee shop. After delivering the planet’s terminal diagnosis, and after asking people to stand up and join the rebellion anyway, one person asked me, “How do you cope with knowing all this? Like, why aren’t you basically running down the street screaming all the time?”

I told the truth as best I could. “I already take anti-depressants for Seasonal Affective Disorder, so that helps, I guess. And I exercise when I can. I meditate. But really, it’s these sorts of events—that is, when I’m actively doing something about it with other people—that’s what makes it bearable.”

Mostly true. I do believe that the cure for climate grief is each other. And I do believe that, if enough of us heed Greta’s warnings, or XR’s calls to action, then we can change the outcome enough to avoid the worst. But if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, those reassurances are not enough to keep me sane. Sometimes, you just need to cry.

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