Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2013
Saturday, August 3, I walked two miles with 2500 other people through a struggling town and then beside an ugly, smelly oil refinery and up to its gate–not my usual hike. It was part of 350.org‘s Summer Heat action, all around the U.S., to inform our government, through public demonstrations, that we want to phase out fossil fuels faster, as they are the major contributor to climate change.
The demonstration was in Richmond, California, not far from my home, where a year ago a fire at the Chevron refinery sent 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory problems. (That’s quite a few people.) But the local rally was taken up by the global movement, as were other local battles happening this summer–for example, an effort by citizens of Moab, Utah, to keep tar sands mining out of one of nature’s most amazing places, and the struggle in Michigan to prevent a pipeline company already notorious for its oil spills into rivers from building a bigger-than-ever pipeline under part of the great lakes to get the much more toxic Alberta tar sands to refineries in the U.S.
However you feel about climate change, I’m writing about this walk because it is part of my personal “next step,” which I have been mulling over after a dream about my next step, which had to do with nature but also definitely brought up HSPs. I don’t ignore dreams like this, so I wrote about this idea of a next step here and here in past newsletters. My point is, whatever your interest or cause, what is your next step with it? In particular, what can you especially contribute as an HSP?
What It Was Like for an HSP
I would not normally go to anything as intense as this demonstration promised to be, and never alone, but it just seemed like I had to DO something more. So my husband and I, along with my friend Linea and her husband, Rich, came to this thing together.
I met Linea riding horses. Like me, she’s a therapist, an HSP of course, and a nature girl. But more extraverted. She likes to go to Indian powwows and 13 Grandmother events. She organized a woman’s group I belong to and invites us all into her tipi. But she says I’m the one who got her to come on this march. I guess I knew I needed company. It helps HSPs to go to highly stimulating social events with at least one other person, but I prefer no more than four if we intend to try to stay together. HSPs often take on the job of keeping everyone in sight. Too hard when there are six or eight. Our foursome was just the right number.
We prepared like HSPs. She brought lunch. I brought water, chocolate, and nuts for sustenance on the move. She brought an earth flag that one of us always carried. If one of us got lost we could go to it to find each other. I brought pillows to sit on. We had two cars in case someone needed to leave before the others. Hats and sunscreen of course. I forgot my earplugs, but we made them out of tissues when the PA got loud.
We arrived at 10 a.m. at the Richmond Bay Area Rapid Transit Station, the start of the march. My emotions were already revved up. I had been afraid not many would come, and was deeply disappointed by what I saw at first, until I had a look around the corner of the parking structure, where there were people lined up for as far as we could see. That brought the first tears to my eyes.
It Heats Up
Volunteers were handing out sunflowers (I brought some too), because sunflowers reputedly take toxins out of the ground, and Richmond has a lot of toxins. After the fire last August, the community gardens, run by volunteers to teach kids about growing and eating healthy food, had to be cleared of all their crops, at the peak of summer, because of concern about the fresh toxins from the smoke cloud.
Sunflowers also symbolize sun power. On good days Germany is gaining half of its electricity from solar energy, because their government wholeheartedly encouraged it with many incentives. The U.S. government could do that too. The President could do it without Congress.
The local Native Americans, who lived on the land the Chevron refinery now occupies, were at the front, drumming and using smoking sage to purify the passing marchers. Idle No More folks were also there. That’s a new movement by indigenous peoples in Canada to deal with the environmental horrors on their land. Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org and came when he heard how many people had “RSVPed” for this demonstration, was moving up and down the line of march. Everyone planning to be arrested for civil disobedience wore white arm bands, including Bill.
The banners and signs were, well, highly stimulating. There were chants and singing. I had trouble making noise come out of my mouth because of fighting back the tears. I–we HSPs–we cry so darn easily. I don’t like to cry in public, even though it is what I call “emotional leadership.” It is still difficult for me, especially when most people were just having fun.
The Richmond police were polite and protective. But they were still police. In the sixties, I had been in a few demonstrations against the Viet Nam war that were really dangerous and traumatic for me. The police and most of the public hated us. In those years before I had ever thought about high sensitivity, it seems like I lived in a swirl of chaotic emotions. I was now seeing one reason why: In those days I was constantly taking myself into emotionally and physically overstimulating situations because everyone else could do it.
Linea wanted to get to the front so that she could be near the Native Americans, so we moved up through the line, seeing most of it. There were all ages, a few funny costumes, and a lot of camaraderie and enthusiasm. One guy was down on his knees, getting shots just of all the feet marching by. (I looked for that video on YouTube but couldn’t tell which one it was. Here are some samples.)
The march first walked through some of the poorest parts of Richmond, past housing projects with the families out on the lawns. I was surprised that the mostly African-American community was not more present in the march, and we waved for them to join us, but they just stared. I had many thoughts about what might be on their minds. Then we were beside the refinery, mostly train tracks. The morning began foggy, but the sun came out as we reached our goal. The two miles had seemed short.
A truck was there for the sound system and speakers, so we sat down on a curb near there before others thought to–HSPs think ahead. One of the local tribe leaders blessed the huge crowd, her nephews chanting along, one in Indian attire and one with a baseball cap and sweatshirt, head down, very shy. But he held his own. Local leaders spoke next. Richmond’s very personable woman mayor announced that the city is suing Chevron for its many still unaddressed “willful violations” of safety procedures, as described by California regulatory commissions. It is an old and very active refinery, taking in oil from great distances to feed the California hunger for gasoline.
Linea had brought scissors and suggested to one of the speakers that anyone with a Chevron credit card could cut up their card on the spot, which was announced. Several came forward. Her husband was first. She IS an organizer!
Eventually Bill McKibben spoke, his arm around his wife, who is pretty clearly an HSP. He wrote the first book for the public on climate change, The End of Nature, in 1989, and has been speaking about it ever since. But finally something clicked about two years ago, with the founding of 350.org. That number is the one given by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the level of carbon the earth can tolerate and still be habitable. We are at 400. Bill and others decided it was time to take to the streets, focus people on the fossil fuel industry, and focus still more on Keystone Pipeline as well as local actions taking place this summer. A movement for divestment from fossil fuel companies by institutions has also begun, with colleges, towns, and churches cleaning their portfolios of these companies, just as many countries did for South Africa during apartheid and Big Tobacco when they blocked efforts to inform the public that smoking was bad for health. It’s just that something has to be done, faster.
I love to hear Bill speak, as he did recently in Australia. (Here’s another link, to when he spoke to 40,000 people who came to D.C. in Feb. to protest.) He makes me feel we can do something. His last sentence stayed with me. “I’ve been arrested. It’s not fun. But it’s not the end of the world either. What we’re facing with climate change is the end of the world.”
I was emotionally pulled to be arrested with the other brave folks, but the front lines are no place for this HSP. I knew I would be an emotional wreck if I joined them. (Also, both my license and insurance for being a therapist require me to report in great detail on any convictions, and that seemed like more burden than required.) Bill himself suggested that rather than young people being arrested, who might not be able to get jobs with an arrest record, retired people or those with nothing to lose, like himself, should step up. Which he did, as did a 90-year-old woman.
After his speech, quite a few more people went to the area for preparing to be arrested, filling out information about themselves so that they could be helped from the outside. We all pressed closer to the fence to watch what would happen. The marchers slowly, step by step, came up to near the gate; the police backed up to the gate itself. Then a police officer with a bullhorn announced this was an illegal gathering and the crowd had to disperse. Anyone staying could be arrested. But the police officer nearest us–Mark Gagan, a very friendly man who shook hands with some of us–put down a red cone and said we had nothing to worry about if we didn’t pass that, so we kept watching.
After a while the police began to arrest people. Native Americans, local leaders and Bill McKibben were the first. It kept up. Very slowly people came to the front, one by one they were handcuffed, put into vans, and when the vans were full they were driven away. I was deeply affected by this. Safe as I knew they really were, the feeling of facing men with guns and helmets, yourself defenseless, putting your life on the line for others–it was an archetypal moment summoning up deep instincts of fear and courage.
A Sensitive Response
As it turned out, the Richmond police took people to a local fire station to be “processed”–that is, just finger printed–and were freed. No fine, no prison. As Mark Gagan said later to a reporter, “We anticipated today’s civil disobedience, and the organizers and public safety have worked together to plan.” Very civilized, that. I think the police knew we were doing this for them as much as for anyone. Of course they heard all the speeches, which helped I am sure. I was proud of Richmond and California in general.
The four of us went home, after a picnic in a local park. As we passed over the Chevron gates on the freeway, we could look down and see the arrests still happening, with a small crowd there still supporting them. In all, 210 were arrested. I heard later that the police ran out of handcuffs!
Driving home, I found myself very sad and upset. Although I could not put into words why that was, I knew these strong feelings were inevitable given the tears throughout the day. I just had to ride them out. It helps that after years of meditating, I can more often just witness–the demonstration and now the feelings from it.
What You Can Do to Feel Better
HSPs are disturbed by the wrongs we see and thus are aligned with many causes. Whatever your concern, we feel better if we do something. As I said, most of us don’t do well on the front lines, even though that’s where we feel we ought to be rather than being what we see as cowardly and leaving the hard stuff to others. Others actually enjoy the risky stuff. Let them do it. No, we have other roles to play. Of course you can join in by doing even the smallest thing, like signing a petition when they email you to do so. If you have any money to spare, you can donate. And demonstrations can be fun (this one really was) as well as helpful. U.S. Congress members figure one written message or phone call equals 1000 voters who feel the same way. I imagine a person at a demonstration must be good for about 10,000 voters, and supposedly a person arrested at a demonstration equals 1 million voters. (If so, 210 million voters spoke out at this demonstration.)
However, I believe HSPs can play perhaps the most crucial role of all: When we speak up to the people who know us, they listen, just because we do it with strong if subdued emotion, and they know we don’t do it casually. Research on how people form their political opinions finds that most turn to one or two informed people to tell them how to vote and to think, making those casual, informed advisors the real leaders. We can be those leaders.
I am surprised by the number of non-HSPs in particular who do not seem to have thought much about climate change, what I believe to be the most important issue humans have ever faced. They know about it, but it ends there and they go on about their business, while I am deeply aware of it almost every day. I realize that I have a scientific background so I read more science, but even my most scientific friends seem to leave the subject alone unless I bring it up. When I do, I can see they are embarrassed that they are not as concerned, much less doing anything about it. And I know they will start to act.
We like deep conversations, and this is a deep one. “How are you,” someone asks. You might say, pretty good, although you add that you carry around this continual sadness in your heart, and then you mention the cause or injustice that you really do think about often, saying that makes it hard to feel total joy, or whatever is true for you. That’s all you have to do. Tell them in one sentence. You do not need to say more unless asked.
So dear HSPs, whatever your cause, it is not hopeless and you are not helpless. Indeed, if we humans learn how to act together as a species because of the crises we now face, many good things may happen. We HSPs need to take our place in this, which is right at the center of human awareness.