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.
“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 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.”
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.