The paradox of not being able to cope with paradox

A common theme among the people I have worked with over the years is that they feel themselves to be trapped in a paradox: they feel painfully aware of the ecological crises facing us but utterly unable to respond in a way that feels adequate. This often leads to frenetic action driven by fear, grief and anger – which then gets overtaken by stress and burnout. Feeling exhausted and unable to cope fuels the sense of inadequacy and the process becomes a cycle of self-abuse.

As the cycle spirals, their level of efficacy plummets. Dwindling energy and fragmented focus stifle creativity and agency. They seek ways to cope by pushing away the difficult feelings. They blame others – corporates, the government – anyone who doesn’t seem to see the world the way they do. They become overwhelmed by bitterness and cynicism. Or else they hold all this bile inside and blame themselves – and end up feeling bewildered and alone.

This is the story I hear. And it is my own story too.

The paradox then, is that we are all complicit in creating the crises we seek to avoid. All of us. Even if many of us feel that this is because we are trapped in an ecologically impossible culture.

John Keats described his notion of Negative Capability as,‘when man [sic] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (On Negative Capability: Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817). I think there is something fundamentally important about this: something that could free us from the paradox of complicity.

I think that Keat’s offers a subtle but powerful message with real practical implications for the environmental movement. On the one-hand we’re compelled through the knowledge of our own complicity to act. And that action, in our culture at least, tends to be dominated by an intellectual, factual, logical, rational, technical response. We recycle our stuff, install solar panels, drive a hybrid car, use public transport, ride our bikes, buy organic food, refuse to fly in a jet. We do not respond by creating beauty, listening deeply, writing poetry or playing music. Not as a general rule anyway. And if we did, such acts would be considered inadequate distractions – fiddling while Rome burned. They would be seen as inferior to acts informed by ‘fact or reason’.

Negative Capability offers what Meg Wheately might describe as being ‘beyond hope and fear’. It offers “lichtung” – the light filled clearing in the forest that Martin Heidegger used to describe the nature of Being. This space is still but it is not passive, it is stable but also dynamic, it is calm but it is also fizzing with potential. It is a state of holding still in extreme situations – and more importantly, of therefore having the energy, resolve, clarity, creativity and courage to act when the opportunity arises.

If we apply this to the range of responses available to us in the environmental movement we see something new emerging. Not frenetic activism fuelled by fear and blame, or passive denial. It’s something else: it’s each of us opening to a kind of active acceptance. Prepared to act completely and skilfully when what we have to offer the world, meets equally with what the world needs and with what we each love to do most.

The paradox of not being able to cope with paradox


  1. Alan Fraser31st January 2020

    Is this not a feeling akin to what is known as original sin. Whether its origin is cultural or biological the consequent feelings of guilt leave us open to manipulation. While we all, as self respecting autonomous agents, need to take responsibility, It must be recognized that this responsibility, in its largest part, involves holding the powerful to account for their actions. I am not talking about retribution here but power and those who wield it have to be addressed. We must fashion sustainable democratic structures that empower people so that their self – efficacy is realized as part of a re-humanized polity.

    1. David Key3rd February 2020

      Hi Alan!

      What a fascinating comment! Have been mulling it over all weekend.

      I think it is like original sin in-so-far as there is guilt, projection and compulsion toward frenetic action. But I get stuck on the religious connotation!

      I think we do each need to take responsibility, while also understanding that the impacts of our psycho-social and economic context tend to be underestimated as factors influencing our ability to take meaningful action. I totally agree that those of us who are able must speak truth to power and fight for accountability. But I also think that in many cases it is us (who do not think of ourselves as ‘the powerful’), who actually hold the power. So I agree about the self-efficacy! But how to realise it?

      I’m not sure about democracy anymore. Given the power of the mass media and dominant social paradigms in education and economics, I don’t think it exists. I wonder if it ever did? Really? I have no idea how we might create a more democratic world now, or what the alternatives are?

      For me the idea of a re-humanized polity is a bit ambiguous. It requires some big assumptions about humanity and human nature. I think I would just go right ahead and say we specifically need a polity of kindness.

  2. Andy Kenworthy2nd December 2019

    Great stuff. Lately I have been thinking how our current predicaments ‘merely’ inconveniently remind us of the predicament that is life and inevitable death. We have a ‘culture’ (I am reluctant to even call it that) that mostly avoids these issues, and we are quite resentful of nature’s reminder.

    1. David Key2nd December 2019

      Thanks Andy.

      Yes indeed. There’s a great deal we might learn by turning to face that inevitability.

  3. Mark28th November 2019

    Love this: “Prepare to act completely and skilfully when what we have to offer the world, meets equally with what the world needs and with what we love to do most”
    I might be forced to quote it somewhere soon! Thanks Dave for your ever eloquent pearls of wisdom. M 🙂

    1. David Key29th November 2019

      Hi Mark!

      Thanks for your comment. That sentence is actually based on a quote by Frederick Buechner,

      ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

      I have used it over the years to invite course participants to think about how they can lead change from a place of love and passion, rather than from duty or fear. I paraphrase it to make it more accessible (for example for people who don’t need the “God” part), and more meaningful in the context of sustainability leadership.

      It’s a lovely idea – that triangle between our own natural talent, what we love to do and the ‘world’s deep hunger’.


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