Mustering and Harnessing Hope

Written by Karen Szydlik

Australia burned this summer and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by this burning in some way, directly or indirectly through fighting fires, fleeing fires, breathing the smoke of fires, fearing fires or planning for a future with fires.

In the shadow of such fear and trauma it is sometimes difficult to find meaning in what we do in our daily lives (the thesis whisperer 2020). How do I find significance in what I do every day in light of the enormity of the tragedy that the fires created? What purpose is there in my roles as a teacher, educator, lecturer, colleague, parent, student?


Near Gypsy Point, Victoria     photo by Peter Stalder

My social media has been full of pleas for support, plans for fund raisers, call outs for people to contribute, wrap, pack, transport, aid, build, sew, hold, gather…

One day I sat riveted to every news report on TV that I could find, eventually settling in with ABC news for a round -the-clock report. It was as though somehow my watching would protect those I love and keep them safe. If I stopped watching, the only thing I could do at the time- something might happen to them, I needed to keep up my vigil- it was magical thinking.

And then the noisy narrative began- political, angry, resentful, defensive, divisive. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

Now the double sword of the immediate fear of fires coupled with the realisation and shock of a planet changed forever. Conversations amongst family and friends were about unknown futures. Friends grieving the loss of childhood experiences for their children. Conversations about not bringing children into the world at all. People were sounding helpless, hopeless and defeated. The conversations were reminiscent of those I have heard in time of war. In a few short weeks we had fire, smoke, hazardous air quality, heat, hail…everything felt uncertain.

And my thoughts were awash, paradoxically, with a diversity of voices. Shared knowledge from Indigenous people who tell us the first lore is to look after the land (Sax, Reid-Loynes, Harris), my how we were failing at this task. And Loris Malaguzzi the pedagogue from the schools of Reggio Emilia, promoting ecological sensibility* and building children’s connection to the natural world, and Anne Pelo’s The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young People, these were sources which could have informed us. All of these thoughts were swirling in my mind like an eddy generated from the rain we didn’t have, the rain we sorely missed, wished we’d had, longed for, to prevent the drought and subsequent fires and the poor air quality and then the brown rain.

I was drowning in information and knowledge which stood in stark contrast to the paralysis I felt, the singular inaction, as I bore witness to the devastation, hour after hour, day after day.

I was confused by my response. My life and property were not in danger, but I was having a visceral reaction to the tragedy I was witnessing and I felt guilty. I stumbled across an article “Are you experiencing eco-grief” by Louise Jeckells. In it she says, “Climate change anxiety and eco-grief is starting to take a toll on people’s mental health.”

But it was more than the fires and the climate that was causing me grief. Neil Gaiman said “that Australia is like the canary in the coalmine” (Gaiman in Miller, 2020), this was a foreboding. I watched our leaders. Some rose from the ashes as heroes like the heads of the RFS and CFA. Honest, straightforward, direct communication. Others back peddled, danced with language, and transparently sought the ‘photo op’. Who was going to ‘fix’ this? And then the realisation that the fires were about the whole world – everyone of us needs to see to our patch. Our mess was affecting our New Zealand neighbours, dropping ash on the Antarctic- such a visual representation of our co-dependency, co responsibility. We are all connected, we are all dependant on people, countries and governments…this was feeling too ‘large’ for me…I was spiralling…the eddy of my own imagining was sucking me down…

The Thesis whisperer summed it up like this

It is easy to start feeling hopeless when you look at what passes for ‘leadership’. I actually think our political leaders want us to feel this way. People who feel helpless find it hard to do anything, which is exactly what some powerful people want.  Holding on to hope and encouraging other people to be hopeful too is now a political act. We must believe every ‘little’ thing we do for the positive matters. We must do the work (2020).

So now I understand it- hopeless, helpless, stuck. What can I do in the face of this but harness hope?

What are our roles as teachers in the face of such loss and fear? Can what we do, be meaningful?

The thesis whisperer (2020) was speaking to doctoral students when she said it is more important than ever to find meaning in what we do. I read this on the morning Mentormore was to deliver a workshop to educators in Newcastle. The smell of smoke still hung in the air. I had to dig deep that morning to attach meaning to the everyday in the shadow of the unprecedented and the extraordinary, but the thesis whisperer’s words were a support. “I want to say to you right now: what you do matters”. These words were imbued with hope and it was what I needed to get me out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, and join with my colleagues to do what we do best, support educators in their daily work, when all I could think to do that would have any meaning was put out fires. Jeckells says “It’s challenging to separate work and personal feelings surrounding environment. Some of the sentiments our people are expressing are, ‘it’s like there’s no escape and whatever I do isn’t helping’ (7/2/2020). And so, I see that my experiences are not mine alone. There are many of us feeling like what we are doing is not helping. But hope, like that offered by the thesis whisperer is important. It is sometimes all we have. Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the dark (2016) says

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

Jeckells and The thesis whisper and Solnit’s voices combine to energise me out of despondency and back into citizenship. Various government organisations rally and reach out to support children and families who have been affected by fires. The shock turns to action. They supply teachers with links to useful articles, resources and strategies to guide them as they find themselves with the responsibility of supporting families and children even as they themselves are members of the same communities and likely need support.

And eventually others gather themselves too, and poems appear and songs and paintings, as the artists in our midsts pull themselves up out of their shock and find their voices in support of our hearts. “A good artist is going to take negative things and do good things with them” says Neil Gaiman. And soon images of the literal regrowth appear in my social media feed, like this one from ranger Peter Bire.