"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Despair’

Struggling To Be “Fully Alive”: Reports On Coping With Anguish For A World In Collapse

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Oldspeak: “We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions — for good and evil — our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion…This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics. ” -Robert Jensen

“The message i take away from this post is simply this: we are never alone. When we feel like we’re the crazy ones for feeling profound and deep grief, sadness, anger, frustration, that no one else seems to be experiencing, it’s not true. There are others bearing witness, struggling with their anguish.  To be as Joanna Macy says “fully present to what is happening in the world“. Be mindful, be vigilant in your practice of radical acceptance. Recognize that “All differences in this world are of a degree not a kind, because Oneness is the secret of everything.” Being in the present moment is all we can do. Professor Jensen’s original essay is definitely worth a read. “ -OSJ

By Robert Jensen @ Common Dreams:

“I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said many times over the centuries.”

That may have been the most insightful response to my essay asking people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world in collapse.

That simple statement is a reminder that (1) the social and ecological crises we face have been building for a long time and (2) the best of our traditions have, for a long time, offered wisdom useful in facing those crises. The unjust social systems and unsustainable ecological practices of contemporary society started with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans began dominating each other and the planet in evermore destructive fashion, and intensified dramatically over the 250 years of the industrial revolution. (For a historical perspective, see “The delusional revolution”.)

And for nearly that long, some people have resisted the power of elites and tried to protect the land. (For a contemporary example, see “Where agriculture meets empire.”)

So, we struggle in the moment with complex problems that defy simple solutions — problems that may be beyond our capacity to solve in any meaningful way. But describing the basics needed for a better world is not difficult if we draw on that wisdom. Here’s my condensed version:

We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions — for good and evil — our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion.

This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics, and it was at the heart of nearly all the 300 responses to my essay. This notion of respect wasn’t defined as “being nice” or “not being judgmental.” Respect takes work — to understand the other, make judgments, and engage constructively when there are disagreements or conflicting needs.

Along with those calls for love, there was a lot of anger in the responses, much of it directed at elites — the politicians, business executives, and media propagandists who so often not only promote arrogant and greedy behavior over humility and solidarity, but also rationalize and prop up the political/economic/social systems in which the destructive behavior is fostered.

And many wrote that the while the anger we may feel toward elites is justified, we have to start with self-critique and examine our own place in these systems. For example, the anger toward BP officials over the “hole in the world” at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico co-exists with the recognition that we all live somewhere in the system that demands that oil:

“I speak of the oil spill going on and I acknowledge how implicated I am in it. My lifestyle — despite efforts to eat wild foods, look at waste streams as resources, and live frugally — depends heavily on oil. It’s like there are these [oil] stains on my hands, all over my hands, my body and the ground around me.”

In such a world, it is easy for those of us who live in affluent societies to be drained by an awareness of all this:

“My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in world suffering. I think that’s part of my emotional reaction to crisis. I don’t think I am fully alive. I’m not depressed, just weirdly diminished.”

Why would someone feel diminished today? For almost all of the people who responded, the heart of their struggle was in the realization that the human species, locked into industrial societies dependent on high-energy/high-technology systems to produce food and fuel, is on a path leading to the edge of a cliff. No one offered predictions for an end time, but:

“[W]hat I see as the reality of our situation — ecologically, politically, economically, and culturally — is that we are in the last days of our species, and I just don’t know what to do with that. The emotions are much too powerful, the grief, the sense of doom — how does one deal with the real possibility of the extinction of not just millions of species, but of one’s own species?”

Feeling isolated but resolved to act

Where does that reality leave us emotionally? My essay inquired specifically about the feelings that accompany the intellectual understanding that we live in a world in collapse. That question led not only to descriptions of those emotions, but strategies for dealing with them. No single comment could sum up so many different people’s responses, but this one comes close:

“So I feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel amused at the absurdity of it all. I feel depressed. I feel enraged. I feel guilty and I feel trapped. Basically the only reason why I’m still alive is because there are enough amazing people and things in my life to keep me going, to keep me fighting for what matters. I’m not even sure how to fight yet, but I know that I want to.”

One common response was gratitude for having a place to communicate these thoughts without worrying about being ridiculed. Many wrote about how isolated they felt, even from friends and family who don’t want to talk about these matters and either deny there are reasons to be concerned or ignore the evidence:

“I’m a drug addict with over 20 years clean, and I know all about using up my future and farting out lame excuses. I promised myself an honest life to stay clean, and the double-edged sword is that I started seeing just how much our culture swims in denial.”

Pressing these importance questions about systemic failure and collapse leads to resistance from others, who then assert that the real problem is anyone who wants to talk about collapse:

“I have been writing for a year and a half on a lot of things as it pertains to humanity’s lack of awareness and the potential to reconnect before we destroy the earth and each other.  People get angry at me for it and call me ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ and ‘sinful’ telling me to instead move to the ‘light,’ ‘positive’ and ‘love.’  Whatever.”

Some see a general “desensitization to the destruction of our planet [that] is nothing short of heart breaking” and worry about what the loss of the capacity for empathy means:

“It is considered feminine and naive to care about trees or animals. … In addition, it is also considered weak and feminine to empathize or display a proper emotion. We are becoming a nihilistic culture which is creating citizens who are numb to their emotions. This is doing us all a disservice. We are missing out on our bodily wisdom and becoming less and less in tune with our earth.”

Though people have different views on the role of high-technology responses to ecological collapse, everyone who wrote recognized that more gadgets aren’t going to save us:

“I have thought for a long time that the human species, notwithstanding its endless self-flattery, really is not very intelligent. One of the signs of its stupidity is, in fact, the very way that it equates intelligence with technological prowess.”

One of the most compelling comments on advanced technology came from a doctoral student in engineering at a prestigious university:

“I have come to this firm conclusion that any more technological development is purely unnecessary and technological progress is hyper-glorified by the developed countries just as a tool to continue their agenda of robbing the resources of our planet from the third world (and perhaps soon from neighboring astronomical bodies, too). And what is glorified as the rational, intellectual research that folks like me are doing over here is just a means towards facilitating this robbing activity; this implicit imperialism; this invisible killing of our planet earth.”

People also recognize the inadequacy of technological solutions to the end of cheap, plentiful energy. While endorsing more research on alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas, those who wrote to me were wary of claims that alternatives can magically replace the concentrated energy of fossil fuels and allow us to motor on in our affluence:

“[T]he only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI (energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the *energetically* costly conversion process of re-engineering energy production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport. That didn’t happen. And having lived through the period, it would have been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world. But just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to happen now.  This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems.”

In addition to these critiques of life in the affluent world, many wrote of the grotesque disparities in wealth in the world today. As we struggle with fears of the future, billions of people cope with severe limitations in the present:

“[W]e in the U.S. are essentially living behind a military barricade. I heard a quote recently that ‘collapse means having the same lifestyle as the people who grow your coffee.’ I really, really liked that.”

And in many of the critiques of the affluent First World, there was an understanding that the heart of the problem is the United States:

“Americans today are living with a profound and apparently irreconcilable disparity between what we say we are, and what we actually are. Between the promise of democracy and the reality of a crumbling empire. The result of this schism, I believe, is the national equivalent of a disassociated personality. And it’s not just our shared history of betrayal and abuse that has caused it. It’s the myth of freedom as well. In the mythology of freedom, democracy was supposed to empower us all to make a change for the better.”

Although some wrote with certainty about their conclusions, more people expressed confusion and weariness over the effort needed to understand such a complex world:

“I spend a lot of time in my own head going back and forth over theories, philosophies, etc. Pretty much going through a process once a month of discarding everything I thought I knew and re-learning it. While this may be a good thing in the future, it does not feel good now. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am alone and lost and that I can’t find any truth in anything because I have so many different voices telling me what is right and wrong. Yet, I can never stop going back and looking at what’s happening to this real, physical, lovely and loving planet and feel outrage, sorrow, and confusion and why this culture is so insane.”

Even with all this talk of their own struggles, the people who wrote were not asking others to feel sorry for them. Instead, the focus was outward, on how this affects others. That was clear in the comments not only of parents and grandparents, but also of people who chose not to have children — what is the fate of future generations?

“Being the parent of a young child right now is a mixed blessing: He’s my reason for waking up every morning and doing whatever it takes to keep up some semblance of normalcy, but it also frightens and worries me deeply when I think about his future.”

In the face of challenges that feel overwhelming — in the face of problems that may have no solutions — what should we do? Very few of the people who wrote suggested we should give up; most are committed to action:

“I guess the best thing we can do … point out problems, suggest solutions, work for radical system changes and not just reforms that too often are more cosmetic than substantial, and above all: keep the faith … and we need to project to others that we have the faith, or get the hell out of the work and retire or just wait for Armageddon.”

Many responses focused on the need not only to act collectively but also to reduce our consumption individually:

“I read a statement in the book Hard Times by Studs Terkel that I really liked: ‘Security is knowing what I can do without.’ Every day, I find something new that I can do without. My fiancé and I now grow much of the food we eat, we purchase necessities only, we shop at the Goodwill.”

and learn skills that have atrophied all too quickly in an affluent, high-energy culture:

“I’m not an old hippie that wants to return to sex, drugs and rock and roll on the commune. … I believe in hierarchy, rules and skills, but we must start something new, difficult and dangerous. We must also learn to not trust power and create small, subsistence communities. Instead of trying to mend the empire we should be teaching ourselves skills of our rural grandparents.”

Tipping points and panic

But still the question haunts us: What if the unsustainable systems in which we live are beyond the point of no return? There certainly are rational reasons to assume that we are past a tipping point.

For example, the March 2005 report of the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, based on the work of 1,300 researchers from 95 countries who spent four years examining 24 ecosystems worldwide, offered this “stark warning”:

“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. … Nearly two thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline worldwide. In effect, the benefits reaped from our engineering of the planet have been achieved by running down natural capital assets.” http://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.429.aspx.pdf

This kind of knowledge can be so overwhelming that people feel it’s not safe to open up emotionally:

“I would like to mourn but have not been able to let my guard down.  I could understand 9/11, but now I am witnessing the destruction of the planet and I don’t understand the magnitude of what that means. I feel on edge. I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

How to live in that world and remain fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally? This comment sums up the task and a path:

“Recently several of our visionary thinkers have moved from the illusion that ‘we have 10 years to turn this around.’ They now say clearly that ‘we cannot stop this momentum.’ It takes courage and faith to speak so plainly. What can we do in the face of this truth? We can sit face to face and find the ways, often beyond words, to explore the reality that we are all refugees, swimming into a future that looks so different from the present. We can find pockets of community where we can whisper our deepest fears about the world. We can remain committed to describing the present with exceptional truth. We can cultivate a practice that enables us to witness suffering with hearts and minds open and with our faces turned toward one another.”

It would be easy to close on that note, blunt but positive. But for many, that kind of approach is difficult. I sent my essay to a political activist who is one of the most well-informed people I know in matters concerning politics and ecology. His response:

“I guess my emotional reaction is actually to suppress the emotional reaction. … [P]anic, which would probably be the emotional reaction, is something to be deferred until the situation is relatively safe. So I try to think about what is to be done and can be done, and promise myself that if we do get past these crises, I will enjoy the moment to panic about how dangerous a situation we were in.”

My response:

“I understand what you say, but it seems to me that an appreciation of the nature of the crises is necessary for sensible strategy, and I don’t know how to engage that intellectually without having emotional reactions. … My fear is that if we don’t discuss it, those of us struggling with these emotions will fade away from collective action. So, instead of this kind of discussion necessarily leading to political paralysis, I think it can prevent paralysis in some people.”

My friend didn’t contest my analysis: “I don’t advocate for my emotional response, but it is what it is.”

Though he didn’t argue with me, I didn’t feel as if I had won an argument. Emotions are what they are, and we don’t “win” by telling people what they should feel. It’s enough of a struggle to understand what I feel and why I feel it; I don’t think I’m qualified to dictate to others what they should feel. In dealing with multiple crises on all fronts — economic, political, cultural, and ecological failures that pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it — it’s folly for any one of us to imagine we figured out the right approach, or that there is a single right approach, or that there is any right approach at all.

The only thing I’m sure of is that, to quote singer/songwriter John Gorka, “the old future’s gone.” The future of endless bounty for all, which some once imagined would be the product of the application of human reason to problems of the world, is not the future we face. How can we open a conversation about what’s coming when so much is unknown and so many resist? Rather than pontificate, I will end with the reflections of an elder:

“I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I’ve lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn’t grow in quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won’t understand why. They don’t see the trouble in the land as I and my friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as they have been. Who will tell them? They can’t hear me. They, and many others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can’t imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world, and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the ‘collective’ is still in denial. Thank you for listening.”

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity;  The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.  An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is available here.

He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online here.

On Staying Sane In A Suicidal Culture

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2014 at 8:07 pm

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Oldspeak:The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world… I look at the path we’re on, to the future, as having a ditch on either side, We have to hold onto each other, not to fall into the ditch on the right or left, which are, on one side panic and hysteria, and on the other side is paralysis and shutting down. You see this in the US in spades. There is more and more social hysteria, greatly aided by the corporate media and finger pointing, scapegoating, the panic. The mass shootings on the one hand, and on the other hand a death-like grip on closing down, keeping your eyes focused on a narrowed down life, to the pressures of the moment and what you need to do to put food on the table… those who are still on the path and not in one of the ditches are seeing with clarity that it is curtains for our way of life because the prices being paid, or extorted, from the planet are too high… The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.” -Joanna Macy

It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”- Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Invaluable and sanity saving wisdom in this piece. I stay sane by meditating, chanting, practicing Yoga, eating lots of plants, earthing, communing with the natural world, practicing  mindfulness. Being fully aware of and radically accepting the Great Turning, Great Unraveling, and Great Dying we are all bearing witness to whether we choose to see it or not. Allowing and accepting myself for feeling the profound grief and despair for what is happening to our Great Mother and being with and nurturing those feelings not medicating or distracting them away. Being present, aware, kind, open-minded, smiling, laughing, practicing unattachment, understanding, compassionate, forgiving, unconditionally loving, freely giving, grateful, life-affirming open-hearted, and telling the truth (the most difficult of all). How do you stay sane while awash in this endless ocean of insanity that is the industrial growth society?” -OSJ

 

By Dahr Jamail @ Truthout:

It was February 2005, and after several months of front-line reporting from Iraq, I’d returned to the US a human time bomb of rage, my temper ticking shorter each day.

Walking through morgues in Baghdad left scenes in my mind I remember even now. I can still smell the decaying bodies as I type this, nearly a decade later. Watching young Iraqi children bleed to death on operating tables after they had been shot by US military snipers has left an equally deep and lasting imprint.

My rage towards those responsible in the Bush administration bled outwards to engulf all of those participating in the military and anyone who supported the ongoing atrocity that was the US occupation of Iraq. My solution was to fantasize about hanging all of the aforementioned from the nearest group of light poles.

Consumed by post-traumatic stress disorder, I was unable to go any deeper emotionally than my rage and numbness. I stood precariously atop my self-righteous anger about what I was writing, for it was the cork in the bottle of my bottomless grief from what I’d witnessed. To release that meant risking engulfment in black despair that would surely erupt if I were to step aside, so I thought.

My dear friend Anita Barrows, a poet and writer, translated Rilke poetry with a woman named Joanna Macy whom I’d met once before, briefly. Anita, who is also a psychologist, had taken one look at me and shortly thereafter let me know Joanna wanted to have tea with me.

Shortly thereafter, I made my way over to Joanna’s home in Berkeley, driving through the chilled, foggy morning, unaware of how much help I needed at the time. I remember seeing only fog, not the trees.

I knew Joanna was an eco-philosopher and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. I knew she and her husband Fran had been anti-nuclear activists for longer than I’d been alive, and that she ran workshops for artists, writers and activists called the Work That Reconnects, of which Anita had spoken very highly.

Beyond that, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.

Joanna invited me in, and we then went upstairs at her kitchen table while she prepared our tea.

After quietly pouring our mugs full, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, slowly, “You’ve seen so much.” My own grief beginning to be witnessed, tears welled in my eyes immediately, as they did in hers.

Thus began my learning about what those of us on the front lines of the atrocities being carried out against the planet, and those living amidst what she calls “the industrial growth society” must do, if we are to sustain ourselves, both within and without, as the future rushes towards us with ever increasing speed.

The Mortality of the Moment

“This is really happening. There’s nothing to stop it now.” These are the words of Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research for a recent report that showed the ongoing massive collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet that will raise global sea levels by at least 10 feet.

News like this finds us daily now, as the fire hose of information about the destruction the industrial growth society has brought to the planet gushes. It is an overwhelming amount of information. Being a mountaineer, every time I learn of the collapse of yet another massive glacial system, or the baring of a magnificent peak that was once gleaming in ice and snow, it feels like a punch in my stomach. Like I’ve lost a close relative, or a good friend. Again.

Macy, during the interview I did with her for this article, warned of the consequences of not allowing ourselves to access the feelings elicited by our witnessing.

“Refusing to feel pain, and becoming incapable of feeling the pain, which is actually the root meaning of apathy, refusal to suffer, that makes us stupid, and half alive,” she said. “It causes us to become blind to see what is really out there. We have a sense of something being wrong, so we find another target and project our anxiety onto the nearest thing handy, whether it is Muslims, or gays, or Jews, or transsexuals, or on Edward Snowden, who is now being accused of being a Russian spy and behind the Ukraine conflict. See how stupid we can be?” She laughed.

After a pause, she added, “The closer we get to midnight, the more we lose intellectual capacity. So not feeling the pain is extremely costly.”

As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, Macy has created what has been referred to as a “ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change,” as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application, to which this writer can attest personally.

Six months after having tea with Macy, I found myself with her and a few dozen others in the redwoods of coastal California, where for 10 days we dove deeply into the violence that was happening to the planet, what it meant to humans and all other species, and how dire our situation really was. (Today, several years later, it is of course far, far worse.)

I allowed myself to plunge into my grief around all I’d witnessed in Iraq – watching school children being shot at by US soldiers, refugee tents filled with widows weeping for their disappeared husbands, myself being shot at by US troops, car bombs detonating near me and then witnessing the carnage on the streets in the aftermath. I began to weep and was unable to stop for two days.

During one of Macy’s discussions, she said, “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”

For me, the price of admission into that present was allowing my heart to break. But then I saw how despair transforms, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into clarity of vision, then into constructive, collaborative action.

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” has been ongoing for decades, and has involved thousands of artists, writers and activists from around the world. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)

“It brings a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on earth,” Macy said of this experience.

Her lifelong body of work encompasses the psychological and spiritual issues of living in the nuclear age and is grounded in a deepening of ecological awareness which has become all the more poignant as the inherently malefic industrial growth society of today’s corporate capitalism continues on its trajectory of annihilation.

“I look at the path we’re on, to the future, as having a ditch on either side,” she continued. “We have to hold onto each other, not to fall into the ditch on the right or left, which are, on one side panic and hysteria, and on the other side is paralysis and shutting down. You see this in the US in spades. There is more and more social hysteria, greatly aided by the corporate media and finger pointing, scapegoating, the panic. The mass shootings on the one hand, and on the other hand a death-like grip on closing down, keeping your eyes focused on a narrowed down life, to the pressures of the moment and what you need to do to put food on the table.”

Macy believes that those who “are still on the path and not in one of the ditches” are seeing with clarity that it is “curtains for our way of life” because the prices being paid, or extorted, from the planet are too high.

She sees all the people, particularly younger people, who are emerging to form a growing resistance movement against the tar sands and fracking as evidence of a “conscious acceptance of the mortality of the moment, that we have a narrowing window of time, and maybe we’re already into runaway climate change, but still we are doing what we can.”

From Personal Pathology to Non-Separateness

Macy’s own dark night of the soul occurred while she was involved in a lawsuit against a Virginia power company she was trying to stop from racking their nuclear fuel rods too close together. The company’s actions were illegal, in addition to the fact that such actions could very well have caused their nuclear power plant to go into criticality.

“My job was to gather data on health statistics,” she explained. “And even when there is no [nuclear] accident, the information I got was horrific in the extreme about how incidents of miscarriage and sterility and stillbirth and deformities rise the closer you get geographically to the nuclear installations.”

She was thrilled to have found the scientific proof, and truly believed, as do so many journalists who come across a big story, that when people knew the information they would wake up and, as Macy put it, “stop this dangerous folly.”

Hence, she saw firsthand that it appeared as though most people simply did not want to know the stark reality, even if it meant their willful ignorance was putting their and their families lives in grave danger.

“That was a turning point in my life, and that was the beginning of the Work That Reconnects,” she said.

She began experimenting in ways that people could deal with the truth of what was happening in the world, and found, instead, “It wasn’t that we didn’t care or didn’t know, but that we were afraid of getting forever stuck in despair, and immobilized.”

She told of the formation process of the work that now spans the world:

“What people ached to do was to tell the truth of their own experience. Tell what they know and feel and see what is happening to our world. And then they found the feelings they feared, the feelings didn’t last, and the feelings turned into relief and a sense of empowering solidarity with others, and they broke out of their self-imposed isolation into energizing collaboration.”

This message was and is, in fact, subversive to the message that pervades the dominant society because the message most people in the Western world are raised with is that the grief, outrage and profound sadness we feel for the world are reducible to a message that there is something wrong with us. Our genuine feelings and natural human responses are thus pathologized.

“Given the hyper-individualism of our culture, this phenomenon has resulted [in] building a nation of obedient people, isolated people,” Macy said. “And they turn their grief for the world against themselves, to try to fix themselves, to build an identity out of a consumer self.”

In one of her books, Macy addresses, precisely, how the corporate consumer culture we live in works to propagate the message that everything is fine: “Even if we have inklings of apocalypse, the American trance functions to discourage our feelings of despair and, if they persist, to reduce them to personal pathologies. Though we may respect our own cognitive reading of the signs, the spell we are under often leads us to imagine that it is we, not the society, who are going insane.”

Macy believes that “despair work” involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see, know and feel is happening to our world, which are things that should be as simple as telling someone the time of day, “if it were not for all that isolates us from each other and befuddles us with self-doubt.”

“When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power-holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truth-telling is like oxygen,” she has written.

In fact, she believes it is not in the self-perceived interest of multinational corporations, or the government and the media that serve them, “for us to stop and become aware of our profound anguish with the way things are.”

Macy went on to explain what her work really addresses, which is, in essence, the core of the human condition.

“We all ache to come home to a larger identity and belonging, and deep ecology as a movement has been very helpful in that regard, as has eco-psychology. But the practices in the Work That Reconnects fully validate what our true longing is. And it’s not to be numb and separate, but it’s to be together, even in pain. But then the pain gets transformed into passion for life and a bubbling up of compassion. Freeing yourself from that prison cell of the separate ego and the lonely cowboy ego.”

Macy believes in each of us is “a longing for coming home to the sacredness of our belonging to the living body of earth and the joy of serving that at every step.” (Photo: Dahr Jamail)

Macy does not believe that becoming engaged in work for the betterment of the planet involves arduous sacrifice, but rather to do what at our deepest level we crave most of all.

“It is a longing for coming home to the sacredness of our belonging to the living body of earth and the joy of serving that at every step,” she said. “I make it sound easy but we can’t do it alone. Just hearing the news of what is happening each day on the planet, I can’t handle all of it alone. I’m not supposed to. Even looking at it requires we reach out to each other and take each other’s arm and I can tell you how I feel, and you will listen. The very steps we need to take bring us the relief and reward of the whole point of it, which is our collective nature, our non-separateness, because this is the only thing that can save us.”

The Loss of Certainty

Macy has been active in several large social movements throughout her lifetime, but it was her involvement in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s that acquainted her with the degree of danger, as she described it, “that truly seemed suicidal for our culture, and ecocidal for our planet.”

Watching the generation of radioactive materials at great speed and volume, and the growing production of nuclear energy and weapons “turned my mind inside out,” she explained, because she saw “that we were threatening the very basis of complex life forms” by “generating materials that will literally last forever, without realizing that disease and genetic mutation will inevitably follow.”

From that time on, she has felt we are all living on borrowed time, and that the present is now simultaneously “a scary moment and an absolutely necessary moment for us to wake up to certain realities.”

By certain realities she does not mean only the colossal, mindless damage humans are causing, “but to certain realities that are the same as the spiritual truths of the great religions and the indigenous traditions . . . that our earth is alive. It is a sacred being of which we are a living part. That we belong to the earth, and to each other, and once we get that, everybody is capable of knowing that because it is our true nature, then we can walk away from our stupidity.”

Nevertheless, she continues to believe it is going to take something earthshaking to liberate us in the Western world from our consumer culture and our “obedience to government industry and media, and especially to the power of money, which has tightened the corporate grip on the government, military and media.”

Macy believes that the ongoing crisis of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), which is intensifying daily, now provides the possibility to snap out of our cultural amnesia, and what she describes as “the delusion that we’re somehow separate from our planet that we can pollute and mine and destroy and contaminate. When we make that mental leap, which isn’t very big, there is a whole shudder of glorious coming to of the psyche and the relationships upon which our culture is built.”

Macy holds great concern and sadness about what her grandchildren, who are in their early teens, will face in the coming years as ACD progresses.

“Of course the sadness that I haven’t been able stop it, is beyond words,” she explained, beginning to weep. “It’s a sadness that has to go unspoken in a way, because right at the moment I’m working on a chapter in a book about working with youth and children, and how to talk to young people about this. But it’s the biggest challenge. And they are kept too busy, so glued to their electronic appliances, the whole culture is . . . you can’t live in this culture without being semi-hypnotized.”

Our situation so often feels hopeless. So much has spun out of control, and pathology surrounds us. At least one in five Americans are taking psychiatric medications, and the number of children taking adult psychiatric drugs is soaring.

From the perspective of Macy’s teachings, it seems hard to argue that this isn’t, at least in part, active denial of what is happening to the world and how challenging it is for both adults and children to deal with it emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

These disturbing trends, which are increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

The Razor’s Edge

Macy, who is also an author of 12 books, is well known for having coined “The Great Unraveling,” which references the collapsing of systems (both natural and human-made) under the weight of the failing industrial growth society that is literally consuming the planet. She is even better known for “The Great Turning,” which she believes is what is happening simultaneous to the Great Unraveling.

“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time,” Macy said. “The shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. The ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth. This self-destructing political economy sets its goals and measures its performance in terms of ever-increasing corporate profits. In other words by how fast materials can be extracted from earth and turned into consumer products, weapons and waste.”

“All you can know is you’re allegiance to life and your intention to serve it in this moment that we are given.” (Photo: Global Oneness Project)

She believes that a revolution is already well underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying the world.

“We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water and meet rational energy needs,” she explained. “Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society.”

As in Buddhism, which urges practitioners to follow the “middle path” which Macy alluded to earlier, her Work That Reconnects calls on people to live with full awareness of both the Great Unraveling and Great Turning.

“Not closing our eyes but seeing clearly as we can the unraveling of the ecological and biological and cultural systems of our planet and of our minds,” she said. “The growing prospect of losing all complex life forms, and at the same time seeing the Great Turning to a life-sustaining society and taking part in it.”

Never before in history has humankind found itself amidst such a convergence of crises: runaway ACD, the global economy in chronic crisis, deepening militarism and surveillance, and a growing lack of food and water as the global population continues to explode.

While a great percentage of the population remains unaware that upward of 200 species are being made extinct each day, even greater numbers of people are ignorant to the very real possibility that humans may well be included in that number some day, whether it be from global thermonuclear war or runaway ACD.

Hence, Macy believes nothing short of a radical shift in consciousness is mandatory.

“What I’m witnessing is that this uncertainty is a great liberating gift to the psyche and the spirit,” she said. “It’s walking the razor’s edge of the sacred moment where you don’t know, you can’t count on, and comfort yourself with any sure hope. All you can know is your allegiance to life and your intention to serve it in this moment that we are given. In that sense, this radical uncertainty liberates your creativity and courage.”

Given that the planet has never been in such a state of chronic crisis, nor that humans have so starkly faced our own extinction, each of us must today find a way to cope, continue to function, and are called to evolve our ways of thinking and being.

Carl Jung warned that if humans didn’t evolve into a new planetary consciousness, we would, as a species, go extinct.

My experience showed me that if I had not evolved beyond my own war trauma, I, too, could well have become a statistic of some negative type. If for me it was indeed evolve or die, how can it not be thus as a species when we fathom the true gravity of crisis we call modern life?

About Joanna Macy

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her books Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (New Society Publishers, 1983); Dharma and Development (Kumarian Press, 198); Thinking Like a Mountain (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess; New Society Publishers, 1988; New Society/ New Catalyst, 2007); Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (SUNY Press, 1991); Rilke’s Book of Hours (1996, 2005) and In Praise of Mortality (2004) (with Anita Barrows, Riverhead); Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (with Molly Young Brown, New Society Publishers, 1998); Joanna’s memoir entitled Widening Circles (New Society, 2000); World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press, 2007), A Year With Rilke, (with Anita Barrows, Harper One, 2009); and Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World (with Norbert Gahbler, Parallax Press, 2010).

Many thousands of people around the world have participated in Joanna’s workshops and trainings. Her group methods, known as the Work That Reconnects, have been adopted and adapted yet more widely in classrooms, churches and grassroots organizing. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on earth. Joanna travels widely giving lectures, workshops, and trainings in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. She lives in Berkeley, California, near her children and grandchildren.