“Dangerous,” “frightening,” “out of control” — as we go around the room, people are calling out the word or phrase that comes to mind as they complete this sentence: “When I consider the condition of our world, I think things are getting...” The responses we hear echo survey findings that show high levels of alarm about the future we’re heading into.
Such widespread anxiety is well-founded. As our world heats up, deserts expand and extreme weather events become more common. Human population and consumption are increasing at the same time as essential resources, such as freshwater, fish stocks, topsoil, and oil reserves, are in decline. While reversals in the economy have left many feeling desperate about how they’re going to manage, trillions of dollars are spent on the making of war. (The Three Trillion Dollar War) Given these adversities, it is no surprise if we experience a profound loss of confidence in the future. We no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on — food, fuel, and drinkable water — will be available. We no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.
We are starting out by naming this uncertainty as a pivotal psychological reality of our time. Yet because it is usually considered too depressing to talk about, it tends to remain an unspoken presence at the backs of our minds. This blocked communication generates a peril even more deadly, for the greatest danger of our times is the deadening of our response.
We often hear comments such as “Don’t go there, it is too depressing” and “Don’t dwell on the negative.” The problem with this approach is that it closes down our conversations and our thinking. How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about?
Yet when we do face the mess, it can feel overwhelming. We may wonder whether we can do anything about it anyway.
So this is where we begin — by acknowledging that our times confront us with realities that are painful to face, difficult to take in, and confusing to live with. Our approach is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness. The purpose of this journey is to find, offer, and receive the gift of Active Hope.
Whatever situation we face, we can choose our response. When facing overwhelming challenges, we might feel that our actions don’t count for much. Yet the kind of responses we make, and the degree to which we believe they count, are shaped by the way we think and feel about hope. Here’s an example.
Jane cared deeply about the world and was horrified by what she saw happening. She regarded human beings as a lost cause, as stuck in our destructive ways. “What’s the point of doing anything if it won’t change what we’re heading for?” she asked.
The word hope has two different meanings. The first involves hopefulness, where our preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen. If we require this kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our response gets blocked in areas where we don’t rate our chances too high. This is what happened for Jane — she felt so hopeless she didn’t see the point of even trying to do anything.
The second meaning is about desire. When Jane was asked what she’d like to have happen in our world, she described the future she hoped for, the kind of world she longed for. It is this kind of hope that starts our journey — knowing what we hope for and what we’d like, or love, to take place. It is what we do with this hope that really makes the difference. Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.
Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.
Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.
Our focus is on how we strengthen and support our intention to act, so that we can best play our part, whatever that may be, in the healing of our world. Since we each look out onto a different corner of the planet and bring with us our own particular portfolio of interests, skills, and experience, we are touched by different concerns and called to respond in different ways. The contribution each of us makes to the healing of our world is our gift of Active Hope.
When we become aware of an emergency and rise to the occasion, something powerful gets switched on inside us. We activate our sense of purpose and discover strengths we didn’t even know we had. Being able to make a difference is powerfully enlivening; it makes our lives feel more worthwhile. So when we practice Active Hope, we not only give but we receive in so many ways as well. The approach is not about being dutiful or worthy so much as it is about stepping into a state of aliveness that makes our lives profoundly satisfying.
Copyright ©2012 by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.
Reprinted with permission from New World Library.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy
by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.
The challenges we face can be difficult even to think about. Climate change, the depletion of oil, economic upheaval, and mass extinction together create a planetary emergency of overwhelming proportions. Active Hope shows us how to strengthen our capacity to face this crisis so that we can respond with unexpected resilience and creative power. This process equips us with tools to face the mess we’re in and play our role in the collective transition, or Great Turning, to a life-sustaining society.
Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and the environment, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. The author of a dozen books, Joanna travels widely, giving lectures, workshops, and trainings in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Visit her website at www.joannamacy.net.
Chris Johnstone is a medical doctor, author, and coach who worked for nearly twenty years as an addictions specialist in the UK National Health Service. He trains health professionals in behavioral medicine and runs courses exploring the psychological dimensions of planetary crisis. He is author of Find Your Power: A Toolkit for Resilience and Positive Change and co-presenter of The Happiness Training Plan CD. Chris has been working with Joanna Macy and running facilitator trainings in the UK for more than two decades. Visit his website at www.chrisjohnstone.info