By Luke Henkel
Several weeks ago, I found myself saying these two words as I sat talking to a colleague about the fires that have charred vast swathes of Australia over the last six months. I was trying to describe my own reaction to the apocryphal pictures: dark figures in masks, straggling lost and confused through crisped surroundings, with absolutely nothing recognizable save four colors: gray, orange, brown, and black. If I didn’t have the accompanying headline or the article, I’d assume it was a screenshot from the Walking Dead. But this was reality, and it was much, much worse than any picture. This was happening now even for some of my friends who I knew in cities like Melbourne and Adelaide, and I tried to capture how I felt about it.
“I just…I…I can’t.”
Shortly afterwards, I found myself reflecting on this phrase, and what it meant.
How often do we hear those words? How often do we think them?
Go on…that’s not rhetorical. Maybe you encounter those words rarely, if at all. Perhaps it’s only infrequently. Or, is it more often?
Now, in what context do you find yourself saying I can’t, or hearing it repeated? In response to fitness goals? Resolutions like eating healthier or drinking less? Maybe it’s in connection to a family member?
Go ahead. Take time and count.
How about in response to big world problems? Growing disparities in wealth? Violence that seems to sprout completely unchecked and grow with even more abandon? Politicians who seem completely and inexplicably disconnected from any sort of consequences to their actions?
If you’re human, it might be several times a week by now.
How about in response to climate change? To increasing news articles and footage of events like the wildfires in Australia, on a continent that has warmed an average of 1.5 degrees since 1950 and sees fire seasons rapidly increasing in severity and length?
I can’t. I can’t.
I just can’t.
If you have a heart, you might be encountering this phrase daily. Or every time you open the news.
That’s an easy enough refrain. It’s an automatic one, certainly. Natural, in the face of so much calamity. What else could we say?
But that’s just the thing.
I found myself saying this to my colleague as we sat discussing the fires earlier last month, at a complete loss as to how to finish that sentence. I can’t…what? Believe it? Process it? Do anything about it?
I can’t find hope or goodness in any of this?
Guess what. I can’t ceased to be viable long ago.
If I say I can’t believe it? It’s happening. It’s not a matter of belief. I once had a NASA scientist sit across from me at lunch and tell me something I’ll never forget: you don’t believe in facts or not believe in them. This applies whether you’re a scientist or not. Belief is for that which we can’t see or feel or touch or die by. I can’t believe no longer applies.
So I say…I can’t process it? Guess what—I’m one of the lucky ones. My home and my town are intact, and I’m speaking from waterlogged Seattle in the midst of one of the wettest periods on record. I’m not fleeing from fires that flame larger and hotter than ever. If I can’t process a simple photo, then woe to me indeed. If there’s anything I need to process right now, it’s how I can shift my priorities to live in both greater solidarity with climate refugees and in greater environmental consciousness.
So what’s left—I throw my hands up and say I can’t do anything about it?
This is perhaps one of the easiest statements to make, because it seems so true. There seems to be nothing any of us can do to stop climate chaos. It’s not just anxiety-inducing to think about; it’s almost breathtaking. Words in the end don’t quite capture such a massive and haunting reality. But though I myself, alone, can’t stop much of anything, I am not alone. And that—that is the essential takeaway. It is the ultimate truth.
Feeling alone and isolated is a surefire way to paralysis. It sure is a demotivating factor when it comes to successfully confronting the biggest existential threat any of us have ever faced. But it’s one that we have already vaulted over as Catholics. We are not alone.
We know, by the very fact that we receive communion, that we are in this together. We are Catholics, which means universal. Our very identity is one of inclusion. Simply by being, we involve everyone, from the last and the least to the moneyed elite, and everyone in between. We are not only not alone, our faith connects us to everyone. When we live out our faith with its fullest boldness and truest grit, we know that our choices have greater consequences. One yes to God’s grace can change our life around, so how can our actions not matter?
We are never just one choice anyway but a series of choices. Each one of us is a series of decisions that reverberate throughout our lives to make us who we are. How can that not be connected to others’ well-being? (And, conversely, how can our poor choices not be connected to others’ detriment?)
Communion means we are intimately connected, by our prayer and our coming together, to every other single individual out there. And to our surroundings.
Pope Francis repeats an age-old truth many times in his encyclical Laudato Si’, but it can’t be overstated: we are all interconnected. We are connected to each other, we are connected to the earth and all her creatures, and we are connected to eternity. Our faith tells us that our actions now are connected to a timelessness that is far outside anything we can conceive, everlasting kairos and not linear chronos. What we do now has ramifications that reverberate into the cosmos.
How about that for our actions mattering?
This is something that’s so very easy to forget when we’re faced with pictures like the ones that have been shuttering past us in our daily—often hourly—newsfeed. But, my dear friends, we can’t forget that we do, indeed, have the ability to turn things around. We must turn things around.
We can’t afford not to.
Luke Henkel serves as the social outreach and advocacy assistant at St James Cathedral in Seattle. Luke is most active educating others on climate change, integral ecology, ecobricks, and Catholic social and environmental teachings. He is currently working on his MA in theology and ecology, through the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University.