From Contradictions to Collectives
Awe and the redefining of identity
This week, I talk about airports, contradiction and how awe is a gift that can destabilize and redefine our sense of self.
I’m daydreaming about my first flight of the year coming up later this month.
A few years ago I would travel every couple weeks, living a semi-nomadic life and feeling the irony of my work in the environmental space every time I boarded an airplane.
Since 2020 I’ve become much more of a stranger to airports. I’ve been telling myself that the ‘gap’ between knowing about my climate footprint and doing something about it, is slowly closing.
But that just isn’t true.
The more I grow my knowledge about the climate crisis, the more I often struggle to translate that awareness into meaningful action. I consider myself someone fairly regimented in keeping my footprint low on a daily basis, but the gap between knowledge and action still exists!
Humans are incredible at living in high levels of contradiction.
I came across Rene Lertzman’s work recently. She’s a climate psychologist, environmental strategist, and founder of Project Inside Out.
Something stuck out to me about her work. She talks about how motivation is not the problem. Rather - we need to think about what is getting in the way of taking action. What is complicating it and stopping us from making a change? The reality is that we are all living our lives within complicated systems. Our identities are woven into those systems.
Let’s go back to the airport for a moment. It’s highly improbable and very difficult for a frequent flyer to suddenly decide not to take flights anymore without that impacting the systems they are a part of. The friends they visit. The family they see. The jobs they do. The opportunities they can take part in. The emotional life they are used to. The identity they have. The identities I have.
Lertzman speaks about the uncanny ability most of us have to split off parts of ourselves. We can disavow (‘I know this is happening, I’m choosing to do nothing right now’). According to Lertzman, though we don’t want to be in that state of disavow, we need to be able to name that and talk about it openly to untangle what’s in the way… to figure out which identities are in jeopardy.
Let’s talk about identities for a moment.
There’s the person we all see when we look in the mirror. But there’s also the identity we feel as a collective. The person I feel when I’m at a rally or a march. The person I feel when I’m singing at the top of my lungs with hundreds of others at a concert. The person I feel when I encounter collective effervescence.
Collective effervescence was coined by Émile Durkheim - a french sociologist from the late 1800s most known for his research and publications around a much darker and difficult word: suicide. Durkheim lived at a pretty interesting time in history, being able to tangibly notice the correlation between mental distress created by modern capitalism. He tried to figure out why people were so unhappy in modern society and wrote a lot about how capitalism has made us more individual than ever before. There’s a lot to be argued about Durkenheim’s work, but what I find most interesting is the fact that collective effervescence, the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose, is maybe quite obviously crucial to our well-being.
The feeling of awe that comes from a collective ‘us’.
Collective effervescence is nothing short of awe-some. It literally is one of the ways in which people feel ‘awe’ in their lives. Think about a stadium bursting into applause as a musician comes back for an encore.
When we feel ‘awe’, we feel a sense of collective identity. There’s a transition from ‘me’ to ‘we’ that happens when we feel awe. It’s an emotion that calls in the re-evaluate of who you are as you renegotiate your understanding of the world and your place in it.
Awe lowers the friction of the sense of self. It removes the intensity of the individual identity. It changes the ‘I’ to a ‘We’.
To be clear, the ‘we’ includes human and non humans. Though Émile Durkheim likely didn’t include plants, animals, fungi and bacteria in his theory of Collective Effervescence - I look forward to diving down that rabbit hole with those weaving indigenous wisdom in their climate work.
Back to airplanes and identities.
If we, as individuals, feel a lot less ‘individual’ in our sense of self… if we can tangibly feel part of something larger and connected, how might this change the ways we make choices?
I’m not claiming ‘awe’ or music concerts, football games or religious ceremonies to be the answer.
But I am suggesting that we are mostly all living in an awe deficit, a time of awe-lesseness (especially after a pandemic that stripped us from any and all highways to collective effervescence) - and that makes it easier to forget about the identities we share. The beautifully potent ‘we’ at a time when loneliness is as much the epidemic. Imagine we could become as adept in contradicting ourselves as we are in finding awe together?
With kindness and curiosity,
Ps. This song by electronic music composer Fred again speaks to the collective effervescence that was lost at the height of the pandemic and the hope of being together once again on the dancefloor. Enjoy!
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