Today is my friend and colleague Joe Brewer’s birthday. In honor of Joe’s special day – and tomorrow’s U.S. election – I’m sharing part of my in-progress book’s chapter 11, “Transcending Loss,” where I write about Joe and the importance of choosing not just your battles, but your battlegrounds.
My book is about the psychology of “meta-narratives,” the stories about the groups we identify with – our countries, our people, even all of humanity. Although optimistic meta-narratives are generally the most inspirational, sometimes decline and loss may be the most accurate representation of reality – and if we accept and grieve this loss, we can find ways to make a difference. Empires do fall; ecosystems can collapse. Our usual emotional responses to collective loss include denial, a sense of helplessness, and sometimes a paralysis born of communal guilt. How can we craft meta-narratives to help us function effectively when systems are failing all around us?
In 2007, Joe Brewer, a young man from rural Missouri, found himself reading George Lakoff’s books on cognitive framing, the conceptual models we use to make sense of the world (which include meta-narratives). With an academic background in atmospheric science, and deeply concerned about climate change, he began working with these frames to learn more about the thought patterns that can facilitate or hinder positive social change.
Three years later, his parents died in the same year. The sense of loss in his life was no longer an abstraction. He discovered, however, that the idea of “hospice” that he’d experienced at the end of his parents’ lives could be a fruitful frame for learning and training others to cope with the dramatic transformation he now believed was inevitable for the Earth. In other words, actively grieving the loss of something cherished, whether a person or a story, can release us to move forward.
For Joe, accepting that the changes the Earth is experiencing are real then freed him to take a second step: shifting his focus to a domain that did allow for effective action – in his case working on a more local level (“bioregions”) rather than a national or planetary one. His strategy feeds our innate psychological needs for meaningful action, competence, and connectedness, and suggests a more general role for meta-narratives in times of undesired change: accepting the change and shifting the context of concern to an area where individuals can make a difference.
Joe is not only working to restore and regenerate the bioregion where he is now living – the mountain village of Barichara, Colombia – he has also written a book, The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth.
Joe chose three vital contexts where he really can make a difference: Barichara and its ecosystem, the broader community of people working together to regenerate the Earth’s damaged environments (including the well-being of the humans in those environments, of course), and the micro-community of his family – his wife Jessica and their inquisitive and lively daughter Elise.
Tomorrow we’ll close the polls on the U.S. presidential election, choosing between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden. We all know that much is riding on the election, and at least a third of Americans will be unhappy with the outcome. But whether the outcome you’re hoping for is four more years or a massive blue wave, we can all take a lesson we can take from Joe’s example. No matter who’s in power in one important context, like the U.S. government, there are always other contexts where every one of us can use our energy and values to make things better. So let’s all choose our battlegrounds wisely – invest our hearts where we can make a difference – and the best of luck to all of us.
For more information about Joe’s work, visit https://culturalevolutioncenter.org/design-institute-for-regenerating-earth/
You’re also invited to join a study group, where you can read his book: https://earth-regenerators.mn.co/
If you’re interested in narrative psychology and its powerful influences on social movements, please follow my blog, using the link above, and I’ll see you again soon!