On happiness and fulfilment

After four days with Extinction Rebellion at the Summer Uprising in London, we spent the weekend at Seed Festival and stayed with dear friends who are not rebels but sympathetic and interested. We talked a LOT about XR, the science, our personal experience as activists, being arrested and the legal consequences. Afterwards, their comment by email that it was lovely to see us ‘so happy and fulfilled’ struck, surprised and moved me. Of course that’s how I’d like to appear but Leslie, who sees me sink increasingly often into despair, could have presented a different Sue. They’d both be me.

At home we talk daily about climate breakdown and local or national activism. The calendar shows that we are increasingly committed to such action. And that takes a toll. Leslie is seventy with a body that can’t keep up with his brain or spirit, I cry a great deal – often inwardly and in silence – and both of us are frequently exhausted. In fact, before we set off for the festival I couldn’t face it; I only longed to bury all feeling in sleep. As a couple we recognise that we are highly sensitive to each other’s moods, which we have the power to change, and that like buckets in a well one can be up when the other is down – a situation that can be reversed surprisingly fast. There are times when one of us simply can’t deal with the latest horrifying news of climate events or the newest scientific data about the destruction of life on earth. I sometimes feel close to breaking and for me that means a closed and unreachable withdrawal into inner darkness where there are no words and I choose no thoughts. Usually it doesn’t last long and Leslie can love me out of it with tenderness or humour. I’m lucky. I’m not ill, just living with the fear of mass extinction and the compulsion to do everything I can to ring the alarm and demand action for radical change. And I’m one of millions.

So I could call myself broken-hearted and it would be true. I struggle to hold on to hope. I don’t always know how to live ‘normally’ – watching TV, reading a novel, eating, talking about anything else but the catastrophe we face along with all living things. Yet my friend wasn’t wrong. In fact she was deeply, fundamentally right about my happiness and fulfilment, because they come from the same source as the grief and pain. I’m in love with Leslie and although that makes me happy it’s a risk too, opening me up to hurt and anxiety. I’m also in love with my baby grandson, with Greta and the youth strikers she has led into exuberant resistance, with the earth and my fellow-rebels and this extraordinary movement that has given me a voice and a path and the peace that comes with knowing what is right and necessary.

https://www.stopecocide.earth/becomeThe shy, fearful child in me is grateful for what little courage I’ve found. Once a teenager who adored my Conscientious Objector father and wanted to end war with my own hunger strike, I’ve finally reclaimed myself after decades of overwork and overconsumption. I was raised in the light of a truth I sidestepped, never rejecting it but failing to live by it. Now, when I’m sitting on the road peacefully risking arrest as an Earth Protector, I have a sense, deeper and more powerful than mere emotion, that I’m where and who I’m meant to be. At an inspiring Seed Festival talk, Shaun Chamberlin said that living in contradiction to the truth we recognise creates a cognitive dissonance that makes happiness impossible. As a novelist I connected with his call to choose what kind of story we want to tell with our lives, and make that story beautiful even if it is destined to be sad.

I think we often mistake pleasure for happiness. A wonderful review of my new short story collection begins, “Sue Hampton is an astounding writer” and brought me what I could call joy. But maybe I was just pleased in an egocentric way. Proud. Validation is lovely, and yes, the creative act of writing makes me happy. Because I value what great writing brings me as a reader, I want my own work to be a gift to others. So I’m not beating myself up for enjoying praise, but I do doubt whether it brings happiness – any more than a new dress from a charity shop that makes me look the way I like best. Feeling good is a human need but happiness is much more profound, and it doesn’t come only from finding one’s true or best self but from doing what love requires (my favourite Quaker phrase). I’m with XR quite simply because that’s what love demands. What I felt on Waterloo Bridge in April was a peaceful joy that came close to elation because of the love we shared: love of each other, Mother Earth and humanity born and unborn. It was a joy that, in the most serious way, inhabited my arrest and a police cell.

The truth scientists tell us is shocking and hard to bear but the only rational and loving response is clear. For me it’s the only way of finding fulfilment. In action I find inspiration, energy, the warm, open support of others, and solace for the grief we share – both at home, when we are just two rebels holding on to each other, and on the streets in a crowd with one soul. It’s a place of aching vulnerability as well as strength, but I couldn’t breathe anywhere else.

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