How to Overcome Dread

A tether to hold onto when anticipatory dread rears its head.

I was recently leafing through my journal from 2019 and came across a page entitled “How to Overcome Dread”. It was a little guide for myself to get through a period of time when I was feeling utterly annihilated by anticipatory dread about the impending impacts of the climate catastrophe.

I was so acutely aware of the scale of the crisis awaiting us that I could barely take a step in any direction. Every car on the road, every convenience meal on the shelves of the supermarket, every new pair of shoes on sale – the very fabric of our modern, urban lives filled me with dread. The system upon which we’ve built our todays is the very thing that will likely destroy our tomorrows.

Even though my everyday life remained completely recognisable – I hadn’t experienced a freak hurricane, sudden flooding, or lost my house to a wild fire – all I could think about was how, unless things changed radically, life would soon become beyond recognition.

I came up with the following list to provide myself with a tether to hold onto. My hope is that it will help you too, no matter what future terror your dread may have set its sights on.

If the whole world’s harp should burn up

I came upon a poem by 13th-century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (better known in Insta-quotes simply as Rumi):

Where everything is music

Do not worry about saving these songs.
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it does not matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp should burn up,
there will still be hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift
and the edge of driftwood along the beach, wanting.
They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we cannot see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

There was one line in particular that struck me:

and even if the whole world’s harp should burn up,
there will still be hidden instruments playing.

I believe there’s a lot of solace in this line – and in the poem as a whole – for anyone suffering from anticipatory dread. What it says to me is that disaster can strike, museums can flood, concert halls can be razed to the ground, whole libraries can be emptied into the streets and burned by those who no longer want us to think for ourselves, but beneath the dried varnish of an oil painting, beyond the stamp of ink on paper, there is the very thing from which these creations sprung forth; Not art as a sculpture, or a score of music, but art as a piece of flint and a spark. Art as a spirit – a “wanting” that can never be destroyed.

No matter what the future holds, no matter what gets lost, creativity will remain, even if it is simply the poem of a seed taking root and rising up from the ashes.

Ten years’ worth of todays

According to the UN’s rough estimate, we only have a decade to stop irreversible damage from climate change.

Ten years…

That’s ten years before there’s no going back. Ten years before burying our heads in “business as usual” simply won’t be possible anymore, because the predictability upon which it depends will have eroded.

At the time of writing my journal entry, this number felt like a death sentence.

I began to wonder what use it is to strive towards anything if my goals will only become redundant in a world reduced to a scramble for survival. There will be no publishers to pitch a novel to if there is no water to drink. What will owning a house matter if I’m forced to flee it?

While these thoughts might sound extreme, I’d seen food disappear from Zimbabwe’s supermarket shelves, and its petrol pumps run dry in the early 2000s. Its political and economic collapse led my family to join Zimbabwe’s mass exodus, and we remain a part of its diaspora. While I have come nowhere near to experiencing the devastation of World War II, I have seen enough to know that there is a profound truth worth listening to in the words of Polish Holocaust survivor and Home Army veteran, Stanisław Aronson:

“Do not ever imagine that your world cannot collapse, as ours did. This may seem the most obvious lesson to be passed down, but only because it is the most important. One moment I was enjoying an idyllic adolescence in my home city of Lodz, and the next we were on the run.”

The feeling that I’d been issued a death sentence by the UN’s prediction left me in a constant state of anticipation of the downfall of civilisation. It was unbearable. One afternoon, while riding the bus home from work, in an effort to stop leaning forward into impending doom and draw myself back into my body – back into today – I settled on this thought:

“No one really knows how many years they have on the clock. My precarious seaside neighbourhood could go underwater in the next decade or two, or I could get hit by the bus that I take to work tomorrow.”

There never was a promise of time.

All we have is today.

For argument’s sake, let’s say civilisation does collapse in ten years’ time in the form of famine, war, and death resulting from climate chaos. That would give me ten years’ worth of todays. While in some ways that’s a very short time, in other ways it’s an awfully long time – especially if I spend every single one of those todays fully present to it.

This breath is enough for now

In May 2021, atmospheric CO2 hit 419.13 parts per million. Humans didn’t exist the last time there was this much CO2 in the air. In his article, The Unihabitable Earth, which outlines possible climate change scenarios that would lead to our planet becoming uninhabitable, David Wallace-Wells wrote:

“Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.”

As someone who relies on breath-work to manage her mental health, the thought that my one coping mechanism is slowly becoming less and less effective, is enough to induce a panic attack.

That’s when I have to remind myself to focus on this breath.

Then the next one.

And the one after that.

As long as I stay connected to the breath I have in this moment, I can get through anything. And yes – one day I will take my last, but that’s OK.

Death is continuity

It was dusk, and I wandered out of the communal hall where I’d been spending most of my Buddhist silent retreat in meditation. I had some free time on my hands before the gong for dinner. I usually went for a walk along one of the trails criss-crossing the surrounding nature reserve, under the watchful presence of tall mountains, but this time I found myself in the horse paddock – lured by the sight of a yellow chested bulbul perched on a rusty gate in the gloaming. The bulging bruises of clouds gathered in a dark and humbling formation above me. Looking up at the imposing heavens, a thought came to me: “If I am to die, then be it at the hands of something as powerful as this.”

It is rare for me to feel that kind of peace when fear so often has me caught in future trauma: battered and drowned in a flood, or asphyxiated by the smoke of a forest fire. I believe I was able to access that moment of peace because I profoundly accepted my own limitations, while also sensing the limitlessness between myself and those ominous clouds. I could feel how the clouds and I are interconnected – how, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, we inter-are.

“There are clouds inside us. There are mountains and rivers, fields and trees. There is sunshine. We are children of light. We are sons and daughters of the sun and stars. The whole cosmos is coming together to support our body in this very moment. Our little human body contains the entire realm of all phenomena.”

With the insight of interbeing, I knew in that moment that it would be alright to die.

“All of us continue as energy long after our physical body has changed form.”

To die at the hand of the elements would simply be my reabsorption into the very forces that brought me here in the first place.


The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh
Metta for Challenging Times – a guided meditation by Sue Cooper
Advaya – a global platform for alternative education and transformative experiences that sits at the intersection of ecology, wellbeing, and spirituality to link inner transformation with outer change.
How then shall we live? – a series of articles by Dahr Jamail & Barbara Cecil

Photo: Michal Mancewicz

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