Growing up, I excelled in school. I was blessed to be good at pretty much every subject I took, from geometry to geography to english to chemistry. I was eager to learn, quick to memorize and treasured the feeling each “100” or “A” gave me.
But here’s the thing. When I consider what has actually helped me most in my life thus far, what I have drawn upon in moments of challenge and what I have celebrated in times of joy, it’s not what I know. When life gets overwhelmingly real, whether in a positive or negative way, my inner life is where I turn. Qualities like courage, hope and knowledge of my emotions – these are the tools that see me through rough times and help me most celebrate life’s greatest joys. When these tools have been difficult to access, I have struggled.
Now in my late thirties, I spend my days in a highly paradoxical fashion. Nearly every hour is spent in one of two ways: either immersed in adventure with my young family or researching and writing about climate change. Sometimes, the nature of this paradox is absolutely overwhelming. But I’ve managed to continue to live from a place of joy and gratitude and not because of the facts I learned in school. The inner qualities I’ve been blessed to build – thanks to my parents, my mistakes, my curiosity about my inner world, and journeys in the realms of meditation and psychotherapy – are what propel me onward now. These qualities thread between my work and my life with my family and weave both into a coherent and positive whole, full of love and meaning.
Reflecting on this fact, I realize that perhaps the most critical work involved in helping young people prepare for a world with climate change is providing them with the space and encouragement needed to cultivate the qualities that will best enable them to face the challenges of climate change while maintaining hope, joy and a sense of purpose. This is the work of nurturing the inner world in order to build the resilience and robustness of spirit that enables one to engage with the outer world as a positive solution seeker.
And it’s not only a matter of preparing young people to remain joyous, hopeful and engaged in mitigation of climate change. While mitigation is certainly still critical, the deal is unfortunately sealed on some pretty significant warming and the resulting impacts. How will human civilization respond? Will it collapse under the pressure of massive migration, food and water scarcity and economic crises? Or will humanity rise to the challenge and extend compassionate and wise hands, not only towards our fellow humans but towards all living beings?
How we respond will depend, in large part, on how we see the world and our place within it, and on what qualities we have nurtured, both in ourselves and in the young people of today. Do we prioritize personal gain and safety foremost, or do we recognize the importance of honoring the systems of which we are a part? Do we consider only how our daily actions impact ourselves or do we consider those actions in the context of our global community and our interbeing with all living things? Do we measure success in terms of personal profit or in terms of how we are contributing to the global community? Do we define ourselves based on what we own or how we connect with others?
As I consider what is needed to prepare young people to be joyful, empowered agents of both mitigation and adaptation to climate change, a list of qualities has formed and grown. Certain qualities rise clearly to the top, but all seem critically important. Together, they form a compass for the work of older generations as we create and hold the space in which today’s youth stretch their wings. To best prepare these young people for their future, that space, whether existing in the home, the school or the community at-large, must prioritize the cultivation of these qualities.