Years ago on vacation I met an older anti-war activist. He had labored hard for decades especially against nuclear war, but what struck me most about him was his despair. He had no hope that humanity would be able to avoid nuclear catastrophe that would possibly wipe us all out. Somehow we avoided the feared nuclear holocaust of the Cold War era. But we still face daunting challenges that threaten the viability of the civilization we have constructed, especially through the ecological threat of global warming. How do we have hope when despair seems the rational response to what we have made of life on this planet? Despair doesn’t motivate much creative action; hope does. Joanna Macy has addressed this matter head on in one of the deepest and most energizing ways to free us for the kind of action desperately needed. She is a guiding light for hope in some of our darkest days.
Joanna Macy (b. 1929)
The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship with our world, with ourselves and each other.
Joanna Macy is a self-identified “eco-philosopher,” a Buddhist scholar and teacher who bridges the worldviews of East and West. She has been involved for decades in struggles for justice, peace, and environmentalism. She weaves together the work of scholar and activist.
In 1965 she worked in northern India with refugees from Tibet. Through them she was introduced to Buddhism, eventually embracing the philosophy and practices especially from Theravada traditions. She integrated Buddhist thinking with various forms of living system theory, especially looking at environmental and planetary systems and the impact of human behavior.
Macy’s book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age burst into the peace movement in 1983 in a way that gave personal traction to action that at times seem overwhelmed by the scope of the Cold War. In the book she directly faced the perils to the planet and the disempowering feelings people experience, particularly fear. She called people into supportive group processes she called “Despairwork” to unlock the power for creative response for personal and social change. She also began to weave personal and group healing processes into ecological awareness, what she called Deep Ecology work.
Macy has facilitated workshops around the world to help people do the deep emotional healing work that lays the foundation for more effective and focused peacemaking. Where others are tempted to despair Macy calls us to recognize the new moment of developing human consciousness and live into it. For her, “The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship with our world, with ourselves and each other.”
In the workshops Macy helps participants explore what a life-sustaining society would be like, something that cannot be done individual but must be a shared project with others. Her exercises help people connect to themselves, to other people, and to the environment in which we live. Her philosophy is rooted in a sense of wholeness and interconnection of all beings. Thus the work must be done together. She sees this journey as a spiral of four stages or movements that feed into each other: Opening to gratitude, owning our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.
Macy has been especially powerful in helping people unpack the deep barriers of grief, fear, numbness, and despair that prevent our action for peace and sustainability. But she doesn’t see this as a process that must be undertaken before one can get involved in world-healing action. Instead both must be done together, with both the inner and outer transformational work interacting with each other. Macy writes in World As Lover, World As Self: “It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up — release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature. For some of us, our love of the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened.”
The Great Turning is what Macy envisions and works toward. This is the Earth’s self-healing power taking hold, something in which we can choose to participate. The Great Turning is prodded by the growing intensity of our global crises through we experience a shift in consciousness. Humanity will then turn from the paradigm of economic and industrial growth that has governed us for so long and embrace a more sustainable way of being with each other and with the ecology of the planet.
The key for Macy is ordinary people. That’s why she leads so many grassroots workshops. “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.” Her hope is incendiary, igniting the hope of so many others, moving toward that change of human consciousness.
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This profile on Joanna Macy was written by Daniel Buttry. This website was inspired by three books written by Dan. Check out Daniel’s book series on peacemakers, crossing boundaries of region, spirituality, and culture.