Miguel González Martín. In these moments of so much uncertainty and pain, hope emerges as an emotion, a virtue, a “holy idea” that needs to be cultivated, both personally and collectively. There are many good things written in this blog about it. I only bring it to mind because during these days of confinement I have had occasion to reread a book that La Llave press did well to translate and publish two years ago.
“Active Hope: How to Face the Global Disaster without Going Crazy” is written by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The former is perhaps better known as an activist for social and environmental justice, a philosopher and expert on Buddhism. In these days she turns 91 years old. Along with her is a medical doctor and therapist specializing in the psychology of resilience. Between the two of them, they trace a practical itinerary to strengthen our capacity for giving a response, from deep within each person and group, to the climate emergency of our world. We can say that the book is situated at the crossroads of social and political activism and spirituality. They intersect where social change and personal change shake hands and reinforce each other. It is a spirituality with the strong imprint of Tibetan Buddhism although, in my humble opinion, it is accessible to everyone and has a very familiar ring to those with a Christian spirituality.
Even though, as I have said, the book is written with a view toward the climate emergency, I believe that it also serves us well in this crisis provoked by the coronavirus pandemic. First, because the climate emergency, through its crossing bounds into diverse subsystems like that of industrial agriculture, has revealed itself as the perfect context for its rise and extension. Also, in second place, this situation of “shock” that we are now living, with emergency measures and an unwelcome economic contraction might be, according to some points of view, an anticipation of similar situations which the dynamic of ecological and social collapse will bring on us in this 21st Century, which has been called by Jorge Reichmann “the Century of the Great Test.”
Facing this, we can pretend we are deaf and continue as if nothing had happened (that sense of wanting to return to “normalcy”, which in itself is not normal). We could also opt for defeatist catastrophism which paralyzes us, sinks us into despair and puts us into the mode of individualistic survival. Lastly, there is a third option, and that is the one which is on the front of the book that we are commenting. We can unfold new human and creative responses. We can recreate a society which is centered on life and caring for it. We can control damage and install new structures. We can embrace a transformation of values, both of culture and conscience, beginning with each person and community, without which the changes to social and economic structures are not sustainable. We can place ourselves in transition, sharing in solidarity the costs of the adjustment and the change of model.
Feeding into this third option, the authors propose that we journey along the spiral of work that reconnects, a focus that helps us to reestablish our sense of connection with the network of life and among ourselves, which was developed over decades in hundreds of workshops. The spiral presents four phases: Begin out of gratitude; Honor our pain for the world; See with new eyes; and Begin the journey.
For each one of the phases, in addition to describing their bases, they propose individual and group practices, small exercises, meditations, symbols and ritualization. So, the book serves as a manual which makes it appropriate for group reading and practice, or for organizing workshops. Let’s now look at the different phases of the spiral.
The first step in the spiral of work that reconnects is gratitude. It sounds counterintuitive that when we decide to look reality in the face, to look at the data which reflects back at us such a sobering picture, we should begin with the cultivation of gratitude. It would seem to be somewhat forced, as if we were trying to negate what we see based on interjecting some good feelings. Nevertheless, to encourage that sensation of surprise and valuing life that is thankfulness, fortifies us internally, it grows our resilience and it helps us to look face to face at realities that cause anxiety. This does not consist of negating what is difficult and painful, but of placing it in a wider context, like opening the door of a room.
The first gratitude is for the natural scheme of things that sustains our very life. In this we are inspired by the wisdom of our ancient ancestors who knew the connection and intimate interdependence which exists among people and between them and the natural world.
Thus, we can be thankful for the contribution that other living beings make to sustain our life as a human species, from microorganisms (like the bacteria without which we would not be able to live), continuing through the plants, animals or ecosystems that favored our appearance on the planet. And of course, we can move on to all the persons who have cared for us and care for us even now and who make our existence viable.
Definitely, gratitude promotes a feeling of wellbeing, it builds confidence and generosity and motivates us to acts favorable to our world.
Honoring our pain for the world
The second moment of the spiral is honoring our pain for the world. It happens to us often. We know that if we look at or mention a harsh reality, it is going to hurt us. We prefer not to do it and say to ourselves “It doesn’t affect me”, “Nothing that I could do would make any difference”, etc. Faced with this, what is proposed for us is that instead of fearing our pain, we should learn to extract strength from it.
Pain for the world is normal, healthy and common. Sometimes we sin by wanting to make it into something neurotic, something that we use to flee from personal questions. Nevertheless, pain for the world, which includes feelings like indignation, alarm, affliction, guilt, fear and despair, is a healthy response that helps us to survive.
Expressing these feelings in a group, allowing them to come out, helps to convert pain into energy for change and stops us from being trapped in them. It gives us the strength to go with the flow itself, not against it, of the course of our deepest reactions to what is happening in our world.
An important revelation is that when we experience pain, the world feels it through us. “We have to listen within us to the sounds of the Earth crying,” said Thich Nhat Hanh. If we understand ourselves as completely interconnected with other beings and with the planet, our pain for the world arises out of our “inter-existence” along with all of life.
To see with new eyes
The third stage of the work that reconnects leads to a change of perception. “To see with new eyes” allows for the revelation to us of a wider network of available resources. Faced with a view that is flat and limiting, this new form of seeing opens for us a vision of what is possible. In that way we start to understand that our capacity to influence what surrounds us. in a positive way is greater than what we usually believe.
We project this “new way of looking” toward our sense of self in order to broaden it. Thus, we go from conceiving of ourselves as separate entities to seeing ourselves as interconnected in a wider grouping. Perhaps we have lost the perspective that we form part of the crisscross pattern of life that is the planet. We seem to have forgotten that our personal and social health is not independent of the overall health of that pattern. On the other hand, our way of producing, consuming, moving about, feeding ourselves, relating, etc. says to us that we think that we are disconnected from that network which sustains us. It is the sin of “hubris”, the impulse to ignore and go beyond our own limits, motivated by the thirst for domination.
To live with deep connections does not mean losing our individuality, but rather finding and playing our unique part in the bosom of a broad community. As the authors point out, “the courage to listen to our own conscience and to live our own truth is essential to uniting us.”
Thus emerges the “ecological I”, the one who understands that I am not he or she who tries to defend the planet, but rather I am part of the planet protecting itself. Because our deepest selves feel through us. Our pain for the world or our impulse to act are not only ours, but rather we lodge and give voice to emotions and impulses present in the system (we find a similar idea in the systematic focus of family therapy). We are able to ask ourselves, what is happening through me?
We also look with new eyes at the idea of power. Thus, we transcend the idea of “power over” (a power of domination) to find a “power with” This is a relational power based on synergy, where it isn’t necessary that each individual step have an impact by itself. Because the benefit of an action perhaps might not be visible on the level on which it is taken, but might have an effect through widening circles of waves, found beyond what we can perceive from where we stand or during the time of our passage through this life.
And this connects us with a new form of looking at time. Nowadays we are dominated by the short-term and a continuous acceleration. Short-term benefits usually outweigh long-term costs. This is really exporting problems into the future (to our descendants). Thinking about short spans of time also limits our sense of what can be achieved through ourselves. Nevertheless, we can expand our idea of time backwards and forwards, encompassing our ancestors and future generations for whom we are ancestors. We can feel the ebb and flow of life that comes from our ancestors and situate ourselves as servants of that life, as its transmitters to those who come after us.
The connection with ancestors and with future generations raises our point of view, placing us in a scheme that is broader and more certain. It is more in accord with the ecological rhythms and times. Thus, we learn how to rehabilitate time and to understand those who have gone before us as our allies for future generations.
Beginning the journey
So, we arrive at the last stage of the spiral of work that reconnects. In turn, it is the gateway to enter again into the cycle. Let’s take a look at the image of the spiral. In it we pass by the same places although each time getting a little deeper. We are adding depth and experiencing the steps in a different way.
On this pass we begin a journey. And for that the first thing is to adopt a vision which is inspiring and shared that will give us direction. Toward what do we wish to go? One obstacle that appears often is that our imagination is imprisoned and a short-sighted pragmatism blocks our dreams. What Paolo Freire called “viable unknowns”. Therefore, first we let the unknown flow by us so that we can later put on it wheels of viability. The imagination and visualizations are powerful tools in order to forge a vision. We can make space for imagination by visualizing images of the future that we hope for. Or by looking backwards from a future which is dreamed of. Beginning there, we generate practical steps in which we can become involved.
On this journey we are going to encounter not only external voices, but also internal ones that will try to bring down our vision as being unrealizable. It is good to listen to them and discern what they have that is boycotting and what they have of wise warnings about the difficulties that they point to. Many times they will be what Joseph Campbell calls “guardians of the shadows”, that is, everything that might block our progress on the journey. By being persistent, the guardians tend to give way.
Another fundamental element to get ourselves going is to build support around us. This whole process has a part which is an individual adventure, but the crucial thing is to create a community of support. Among other things, because it is in that space where we are able to renew our enthusiasm and not die out. A group, living and celebrating, acting and caring for itself, allows us to enjoy the journey in spite of all the frustrations which certainly will come our way.
And the part about enjoyment is a very important road. In order not to burn ourselves opt or abandon the journey, it is crucial to follow the inner compass of our deepest joy. That is, to find what it is that motivates us to act based on interior pleasure. It is that which lies at the crossroads where “there is a meeting of our profound joy and the profound need of the world.”
Lastly, it remains for us to cultivate the power of intentionality. In the midst of uncertainty, accepting the “not knowing”, we bring to bear our intention which is based on compassion toward all beings. This is something precious that we should treasure and protect. We can conceive of it as a flame in our hearts and minds that guides us and shines through our actions.
The spiral of work that reconnects has brought us to this point. Here we are aware that each one of us has something significant to offer, something that we have to bring to this situation that we confront as humankind. “When we accept the challenge to play our part better, we discover something precious that enriches our lives at the same time that it contributes to the curing of our world.” What is that something uniquely yours that you can and wish to offer?