Joanna Macy: Wise Woman

Joanna Macy says in the Introduction to her book World as Lover, World as Self – Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal that the personal life question that has been central in her life is “how to be fully present to my world – present enough to rejoice and be useful – while we as a species are progressively destroying it.”

Phew. That statement certainly resonates big-time for me…

Joanna Macy, Ph. D., is now 80 years old. She is, according to the book’s jacket, “one of the best-known eco-philosophers and spiritual activists in the country. She is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice and ecology, she weaves her scholarship with four decades of activism.”

She is also an incredibly caring and compassionate woman, a mother and grandmother, and a fantastic writer.

In the 1970s Macy and several colleagues pioneered a phenomenon known as ‘despair and empowerment’ workshops (they’ve also been known as ‘Deep Ecology Work’ and ‘The Work That Reconnects’). Macy maintains “The problem lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it.” (pg. 94 of World as Lover, World as Self).

The chapter of the book called “Despair Work” is very moving and useful. Macy explains that the apathy widely decried by activists is not due to our lack of caring. She says, “The cause of our apathy, however, is not indifference. It stems from a fear of the despair that lurks beneath the tenor of life-as-usual” and goes on to say “The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies. Fear of despair erects an invisible screen, filtering out anxiety-producing data. In a world where organisms require feedback in order to adapt and survive, this is suicidal.” (pages 92-3).

Her book is replete with wisdom and infused with her deep compassion and caring. I could fill pages with her amazing, articulate, wise comments about the state of the world, the need for us to open ourselves up to the true nature of the situation we as a species now find ourselves in, and the ways in which we might properly respond.

A few of the chapter titles, to intrigue you: “Faith, Power & Ecology,” “Three Lessons in Compassion,” “Taking Heart: Spiritual Practices for Activists,” “The Great Turning,” “The Greening of the Self” and “Perseverance for the Long Haul.”

Joanna Macy has led an amazing life, and her experiences are fascinating. Her insights are numerous and profound.

In the chapter “Taking Heart” she says “So we are caught now in a narrow place where we realize that Lao-tzu, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and our own hearts were right all along; and we are as scared and frantic as a cornered rat, and as dangerous. But if we let it, that narrow cul-de-sac can turn into a birth canal, pressing and pushing us through the darkness of pain, until we are delivered into…what? Love seems too weak a word. It is, as Saint Paul said, ‘the glory to be revealed in us.’ It stirs in us now.” And a few lines later, “But now comes the daunting revelation, that we are all called to be saints – not good necessarily, or pious, or devout – but saints in the sense of just caring for each other.” (page 135)

Is it not so??

I surely do recommend that you read the book yourself! (Her memoir Widening Circles is also a wonderful and inspiring read.)


P.S. The chapter “Taking Heart: Spiritual Practices for Activists” has wonderful, practical tips you can put to use immediately – no need to meditate for 10 years or become some sort of spiritual “master” to be able to apply them in your life right away. Ms. Macy certainly knows how to help us become more compassionate, among other things…

P.P.S. One of the qualities Joanna Macy shares with other big, big thinkers Eckhart Tolle, Thomas and Wendell Berry, and Matthew Fox is that her perspective is not narrow, but very wide indeed. While Macy practices Buddhism, and both Berrys & Fox come from a Christian background, they all see the very, very big picture. Their insights and wisdom are for all of us, whatever our state or habits of belief … or our utter lack thereof. These thinkers are for everyone

P.P.P.S. I attended a ‘Despair & Empowerment’ workshop led by Macy colleague John Seed, the Australian rainforest activist. This was a profoundly moving, worthwhile and memorable experience. There is also a film by that name.