Today this article by one of my heroines, Joanna Macy, environmentalist and systems theory analyst, popped into my inbox and as the old year comes to an end – amid storms, flood warnings and power cuts – and we start thinking about our intentions for the 365 or so days ahead (all being well), it seems a good place to start. The oxygen of truth-telling.
How do we live with the fact that we are destroying our world? Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut. This refusal to feel impoverishes our emotional and sensory life. We create diversions for ourselves as individuals and as nations in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, and the stuff we buy.
Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as this deadening of our response. For psychic numbing impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more crucial uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.
The Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh was asked, “What do we most need to do to save our world?” His answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face our grief and fear and rage without going to pieces? It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is essential to transformation. Anxieties and doubts can be healthy and creative, not only for the person but for the society, because they permit new and original approaches to reality. What disintegrates in periods of rapid transformation is not the self, but its defenses and assumptions. Self-protection restricts vision and movement like a suit of armor, making it harder to adapt.
Going to pieces, however uncomfortable, can open us up to new perceptions, new data, and new responses. In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world. Acknowledging despair, on the other hand, involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see and know and feel is happening to our world.
When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truthtelling is like oxygen. It enlivens and returns us to health and vigor.
Sharing what is in our heartmind brings a welcome shift in identity, as we recognize that the anger, grief, and fear we feel for our world are not reducible to concerns for our individual welfare or even survival. Our concerns are far larger than our own private needs and wants. Pain for the world—the outrage and the sorrow— breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, in letting go of old defenses we find truer community. And in community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.
Let’s drop the notion that we can manage our planet for our own comfort and profit—or even that we can now be its ultimate redeemers. It is a delusion. Let’s accept, in its place, the radical uncertainty of our time, even the uncertainty of survival.
Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.
When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face.
When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.
An edited version of an article first published as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazine and then reproduced in Tricycle.
The photos are from Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads on Christmas Day.