Despair & Empowerment

<January 2009>

One of the essays I wrote recently is about wounds – & as I finished writing it, I realized I may be overdue to say a few words about despair and empowerment.

“Despair and empowerment” is a phrase & concept (& also a kind of workshop) made known by Joanna Macy & John Seed – two big, big thinkers & activists light-years ahead of me in their understanding of the spiritual & environmental crises we’re so deeply up to our eyeballs in.

They've articulated a key concept that I think is equally applicable in the world of wounds – whether individual or species-wide: that when we contemplate going down into the pain of our (individual or collective) wounds, we fear we’ll become incapacitated by despair.

We can’t see a way out – all is darkness & hopelessness &… despair. It’s too terrifying to go down into that place.

But…when we take the time (in the right sort of company, I would suggest) to face the pain – & really articulate (out loud) what it is we’re in despair about, a sort of miracle takes place.

We discover that holding down – holding in – the grief & pain & fear uses up a lot of (most of?) our energy. And that, paradoxically, when we open up & let the despair & fear out into the light of day – in a safe environment, mind you – in the company of people who are compassionate & trustworthy & willing to listen & share their pain, we feel a surge of positive energy – relief & transformative energy.

I experienced this first-hand at a ‘Despair & Empowerment’ weekend workshop led by Australian rainforest activist John Seed at the Marguerite Centre in Pembroke, Ontario, in April 2007. He & Joanna Macy pioneered these workshops & have led them in locations all over the world (including some places where gut-wrenching pain & despair are all too real & glaring; for example, the Ukraine, post-Chernobyl accident).

It will no doubt strike some as a paradox (particularly those who’ve become such experts at holding in their grief & pain, loss & loneliness) that, rather than being incapacitated by the truth of the horror, we actually liberate ourselves from it by speaking about it out loud.

A lot of us, I think, live our lives like actors trapped in a play – endlessly performing, spouting our lines, & doing our very, very utmost to "keep the lid on."

What we focus on, expands, of course – so if we keep our pain, secrets & despair all cooped up inside ourselves, where they recycle themselves endlessly, we poison our inner environment.

Is there a connection between our inner, individual pain/despair/wounds, & the outer, external world of pain, pollution, war & despair?

Well, duh!

As the smart folks are always reminding us, everything is connected.


If we would all learn to tell the truth about our pain/wounds/despair, we’d experience the liberation of energy that comes with truth-telling (not to mention a heightened sense of community, which sure never hurts, eh??)

And wouldn’t that be a force to be reckoned with?

You betcha….


P.S. In her book World as Lover, World as Self - Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, Joanna Macy quotes her colleague, rainforest activist John Seed: "You discover that others aren't afraid of your pain for the world, and you witness theirs. Then you can dare to hope something for humanity and for what we can do together. When we unblock our despair, everything else follows - the respect and awe, the love."

Recommended Viewing

Despair and Empowerment

Embracing Pain - 4-minute Tim Wilson film featuring Joanna Macy.

From the site: “Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and 
deep ecology. In her workshops she counsels the embracing of pain about the
world as a way of deepening our connection to it.  For more information 
about Joanna Macy's books and workshops, please visit her site

Joanna Macy

Earth Spirit Action – 16-minute film that features John Seed, Vandana Shiva, Ruth Rosenhek, Starhawk and Matthew Fox. Inspiring, informative. Explains how inner changes – spiritual changes – must accompany outer ones. “Global activists, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk, Matthew Fox, Ruth Rosenhek and John Seed speak on Deep Ecology, Living Democracy and Revolution in Consciousness in a fast moving discussion of the type of change that needs to take place for a Sustainable Future. An inspirational and stimulating film including beautiful nature footage and a colourful array of global action shots.”

John Seed