I would like to introduce you to a new word, Solastalgia. It was used first by Professor Glen Albrecht in Western Australia and describes a general level of stress caused by environmental change. It is made up of two words: Solace and Nostalgia. Solace implies peace and algia describes a deep pain. The word therefore describes the pain of being away from something solid and familiar but also the stress that comes from being homesick whilst still at home because home as it is now will change due to climate problems.
It is a subtle form of stress that Brecht believes is increasing in the human population as their sense of security weakens in the place where they are living.
Young people growing up in our culture are constantly hearing that their way of life is not sustainable. They learn that climate is changing, sea levels will rise, air quality will deteriorate, incomes will fall. They realise that the lifestyle of their parents is unlikely to be sustained into their adulthood: holidays, transport, food choices and shopping will all need to change. This mismatch between a young person's early experience and a diminished future leaves them vulnerable to a range of emotions from sadness to confusion and perhaps to anger at the previous generations that have brought them to this point. Young people need a strong foundation to build maturity and the ground underneath our present culture is now in unpredictable movement. Even looking at a projected flood map of London brings us up short. This same pattern applies to all our estuary-based cities in the UK. Could it be that behind all the reports of adolescent anxiety, often attributed to pace of life, Is it Solastalgia that is the real elephant in the room as a hidden cause of adolescent stress?
The effect of climate information and the accompanying pattern of feelings is difficult to manage for adults let alone young people. Young people have grown up with a set of relationships to family, to money, to spending, to relaxing and to celebrating that may not last much longer. The values that they have inherited, the signs of achievement currently expressed in housing, spending and ownership, have created worldwide problems that can no longer be ignored. There is a creeping foreboding in many young lives that cannot be contained by denial. Change is coming. Their awareness of this change is more heightened than many of their parents so some tension in this area can creep into every family. Do I bother to recycle? Should we get the bus and not take the car? Do we need to each so much meat? These suggestions can come from parents or from young people so that environmental change becomes a family as well as a global debate.
Solastalgia, being at home but enduring the pain that home may not last in its present form, is an energy-sapping condition that can erode hope and diminish endurance unless it is managed. Young people are being asked to relinquish a traditional pattern and enter a time of uncertainty and loss. Solastalgia includes, therefore, a sense of grief for a stability that is no longer there. Compared with adults, adolescents are more likely to be adrift with few fixed points to make sense of their living. The new reality they face demands resilience, community, and creativity in all humanity. It requires global thinking, self-sacrifice, interdependence, and a new morality to judge their actions and choices. In short, it requires a renewal of spirit, a digging deeper for motivations and for relationships that can anchor and energise a new future.
Most spiritual traditions do offer a pattern of morality and motivation that strengthen resilience and relationships. Unfortunately, many of these traditions have not managed to recognise the change that is needed to make their spiritual treasure available to a new age. After all, the climate crisis is, at a deep level, also a spiritual crisis. The climate crisis has happened through a secularised blindness to the interconnectedness of life, to the respect that is due to the material world and to the limited resources we all have to share. Without a renewed spirituality, future generations will not find the motivation and resilience to rebuild their relationship with creation.
We are fortunate in our Salesian spirituality to have a ready-made pattern of wisdom handed on to us by Don Bosco. His world view, his approach to the confusion of industrial chaos in Turin in the mid-1800s, was to create a home, a school, a playground and a church. There he built a safe and stable place where young people could grow in wisdom and in their potential for life. That same fourfold pattern can also be applied as a spiritual approach to creation and to climate change. Unpacking those words for our climate crisis, for our way of farming, consuming and relaxing, can help us discover a renewed morality and motivation to husband the creation we have inherited.
Let’s look at those Salesian words more closely:
This world is our home. It is the place where we belong. We are all people of the earth and not separate from it. Plants, animals, the ground we walk on are related us and not simply instruments to create food or shelter. We belong together. Creation is our home, not just mine. Because everything is connected, I cannot take for myself more than my share whilst others are in desperate need. The improvements in news, communication and transport mean that now I know how much I have compared with others. No home worthy of the name would survive with such gross inequality. We need to read our Catholic Social Teaching more closely and to realise the deep ethics of respect for all life, or lose this planet as our home as a result of not doing so.
Don Bosco spoke of school as an institution and as an attitude for life. His Salesian order has always valued lifelong learning not only of information but also a discernment of events and the pursuit of a deeper wisdom. Creation is our school room, the place where we learn how marvelous, complex and beautiful life is through exploring and explaining the biology and physics of existence. But creation also teaches us our limits, brings us up short and reminds us of our frailty. The climate crisis also calls humanity into a new journey where simplicity, community and compassion replace consumption, competition and self-centredness. Creation is a school for discernment, not only about how we manage our planet, but also about how we manage our own primitive drives to conquer and control life rather than live in harmony with creation.
In our culture, play has been turned into a product. We need technology, we need holidays, we need league tables and consumption to enjoy life. We have been seduced away from the simplicity of play. True play involves losing oneself in the present moment and allowing the world to turn without you. This happens in sport when players are immersed in the action of the game and totally focused. It happens in hobbies when time seems to stand still. At those times we enter a state called “flow” where we become what we are doing. We tune in to a different experience of reality and we are renewed. There is an openness, peace and relaxed energy in true play because we have re-negotiated our relationship with creation and delighted in simply being alive. Our bodies and minds have been reunited in a deeper spiritual awareness. Play saves our souls.
Don Bosco recognised the need for a quiet space where young people can touch the silent mystery at the heart of their lives and creation. He achieved this by regular pauses and taught young people to use mantra-like prayers through the day to maintain an awareness of that mystery. Because he was working in a Christian culture those thoughts and prayers were usually addressed to Jesus as a constant presence within them. The church was the place where that hidden presence was recognised and celebrated in a way that was active, brief, and cheerful. It was here that young people could put their lives in perspective, strengthen their awareness of a loving presence at the heart of their lives and let go in trust of their anxieties. Young people today need to engage with a church in their own life, personally through regular and simple meditation through the day but also together as a community so that the inner spirit can be sustained by a network of support.
These four, very brief, notes demand much more detail and clarification but here it is enough to name a youth spirituality structure that is tailor-made for the challenges ahead.Solastalgia is unlikely to disappear, whatever words we use to describe it.As schools and as churches we need to bring together our relational consciousness, and our spiritual awareness to build resilience and joy into the challenge that creation is presenting to humanity