September 22, 2012
Among both abuse councilors and abuse survivors the phrase, “The devil you know is less frightening than the devil you don’t know” is often used to explain why an abuse victim – especially an adult – stays with her (or his) abuser. Briefly, in most cases both abuser and abused grew up in abusive relationships; both suffer from a lack of power; both become trapped in a relationship in which one seeks power through abusing and one tolerates the abuse to maintain what little security the other provides. It’s what they know and, as hard as it is for someone who did not grow up in such a relationship to understand, it is less frightening than being responsible for building a relationship you’ve never known. It’s a terrible place to be and takes no small amount of courage to change – for both abusers and abused. But, if the relationship is not to spiral out of control into suicide or murder, it must be changed.
Two articles I read this week brought the phrase and the relationship it describes to mind in a way I’d not thought of before. The first, from the Guardian UK, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/sep/17/arctic-collapse-sea-ice?newsfeed=true quotes Professor Peter Wadams, of Cambridge University – a world renowned expert on ice – on the collapse of the summer Arctic sea ice within four years. The second was an article by Barry Saxifrage of the Vancouver Observer, http://www.vancouverobserver.com/blogs/climatesnapshot/arctic-death-spiral-leaves-climate-scientists-shocked-and-worried who does an exceptional job of documenting the consequences – many of which, we are already experiencing – if we cannot give up our love affair with fossil fuels, quickly.
I do not know, of course, what the childhoods of the world’s powerful were like. But there is no doubt in my mind, that both they and we are trapped in an increasing spiral of destructive behavior – not unlike an abusive relationship – in which the devil we know is less frightening than the devil we don’t know.
Those who hold the power – whether it is in commerce, finance or politics – and are terrified of losing it, urge us to believe (in increasingly threatening ways) that we must continue this relationship of lopsided power because the alternative would be unthinkably worse. And we, like good little abuse victims, go along to get along because that alternative of life without fossil fuel is just as terrifying to us as it is to them.
It’s what we have come to know and, as hard as it is for those of us who see the growing threat in such a relationship to understand, it is less frightening than being responsible for building a relationship with the environment most of this generation has never known.
Like the two people in an abusive relationship, we’ve been told of the dangers; we see the toll on ourselves and each other that abuse is taking in both economic and environmental costs. Yet, the devil we know … So, we go on kidding ourselves that if we just cede a little more financial power, grab onto a different political meme, be a little less challenging of their authority, it will save us from having to deal with that devil we don’t know.
It is a terrible place to be. And, like any abusive relationship, takes no small amount of courage to change – for both abusers and abused. But, if the relationship is not to spiral out of control into our willing march toward suicide or the murder of our livable world, it must be changed, now.
As anyone who’s found the courage to walk away from abuse will tell you, the devil you don’t know may be frightening, but in the end, it is the only choice we have if we want to survive.