All of us are coping with an extraordinary moment right now. The pain of social isolation is real as we struggle to deal with the lockdown of our communities in response to the coronavirus pandemic. For many, the prospect of losing livelihoods or crucial social and economic supports is an enormous stress. The importance of individual and social resilience could not be clearer.
Fostering resilience is at the heart of the Transition movement, which is a powerful resource for this moment. Most of us involved with Transition recognize that the coronavirus pandemic is happening in the context of a broader planetary crisis. The interconnected crises arising from our industrial-growth society—from climate change and mass extinction to complex social injustices—are asking us all to do our part to help heal our planet. But where do we find the strength to face the suffering of the world and to stay committed to this work over the long term? The inspiring book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, written by ecophilospher Joanna Macy and physician Chris Johnstone, addresses itself directly to this question.
When I first came across this powerful book several years ago, I was struggling with what some might call climate anxiety. Though I’d been an activist for most of my adult life on a number of issues, I had not been focused directly on the unfolding planetary crisis. As I started to catch up on the research and fully face our situation, I felt quite overwhelmed. Being a new parent of a toddler only sharpened that anxiety as I worried for the future facing my young son.
And so I went looking for resources and inspiration to help me move out of anxiety and into action. Active Hope was the perfect book to stumble across in my search. Much more than a self-help guide for activists, it draws on scientific knowledge and ancient spiritual traditions to articulate a new worldview and set of practices that can help all of us to bring about the transition to a life-sustaining world.
Active Hope draws on the group teaching and empowerment approach called The Work That Reconnects, which was initially developed by Joanna Macy in the 1970s and has for decades been developed and adapted in workshops and trainings by a community of facilitators around the world. Chris Johnstone has worked with Joanna Macy for decades as a trainer, and is known for his own pioneering work in the area of resilience and mental health. He has also been involved in the Transition movement since its inception.
One of the core messages of the book is that hope is not a feeling, but rather, a practice: “something we do, rather than have.”(p.3) The emphasis is on choice and intention; active hope is not dependent on feelings of optimism or the likelihood of success. The book moves the reader through a series of stories, ideas, and practices that can help us to maintain an intention to practice active hope in difficult times.
For Macy and Johnstone, a key to maintaining active hope is to choose to live from the story of what they call The Great Turning. In this story, our world is in the midst of an epic cultural transformation away from a destructive industrial economy and toward a life-sustaining society. Though many individuals and communities may be living from the story of Business as Usual, or conversely the story of the Great Unravelling, the authors suggest that choosing to live from the story of The Great Turning is a powerful, strengthening choice that helps us to find and sustain our role in the great adventure of our time.
The spiral of The Work That Reconnects is the heart of this empowerment process. Within the spiral there are four movements: Coming from Gratitude, Honouring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. These four movements form the structure of the book. In Coming from Gratitude, the authors explore how we become more psychologically resilient by cultivating appreciation for the beauty of the world and the gifts we receive. This is essential if we are to have the strength to face our despair in Honouring Our Pain for the World. There are many ways that we can become blocked from fully accepting and grieving the planetary crisis we are in. We live in a world that usually operates from the Business as Usual story, and there are social taboos that make it very difficult to acknowledge and give voice to our distress. But Macy and Johnstone suggest that anguish is a normal and healthy response to a world in trauma, and that sharing this emotional pain in a supportive environment can be transformative, giving us renewed energy to act.
The majority of the book is an exploration of the final two movements of the spiral. In Seeing With New Eyes, the authors explore how we can come to see ourselves and our work in new ways. In chapters exploring a wider sense of self, a different kind of power, a richer experience of community, and a larger view of time, we find stories, ideas and practices that help us to step outside the Business as Usual storyline. We can learn to see ourselves not as separate individuals in a world of winners and losers, but as interconnected parts of a world made of communities, from our immediate families and social groups to the entire earth community. We can learn to perceive power as relational and collaborative rather than rooted in dominance, and to cultivate a sense of time that goes beyond one’s individual lifespan to embrace the larger storyline of our planet.
In the final section of the book, Going Forward, the focus is on how to nurture active hope over the long haul. There are plenty of rich insights and practices here. After a fascinating discussion of how to foster vision and catch inspiration, and the central role of imagination in this process, the authors explore ways to protect ourselves from disillusionment by reframing setbacks in ways that encourage us to keep going instead of give up. They look at strategies for cultivating support in the form of personal practices, face-to-face support groups, community organizing to promote cultural shifts, and ecospiritual experiences of connection with the natural environment.
This book has had a profound influence on me. When I feel anxiety and despair for the world, I now bring to my mind the spiral of The Work That Reconnects. Different movements in the spiral speak to me at different moments. I try to imagine myself as a part of an amazing global community of people who are all trying to do their part to heal our world. And I return often to reread parts of Active Hope, each time finding new layers of insight and encouragement. The beauty of the spiral approach is that it invites you to return again and again, mirroring the ecological wisdom that life (and resilience) is itself a spiral process.
Resilience has many dimensions. One of the unique aspects of the Transition movement is the way its practitioners have placed personal and relational change at the heart of the effort to build local resilience, alongside social, political, and economic change. The conversation about “Inner Transition” within the movement reminds Transitioners that social change does not just happen “out there” in the world, but is also an internal process within individuals and within groups and communities. Active Hope is a rich and inspiring resource in this conversation, and it is especially well suited to group exploration as it contains many suggestions for group exercises.
Active Hope is an invitation to see ourselves as part of the vast interconnected web of life on earth. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone teach us that learning to honour our pain for the world, and understanding ourselves as actors in the emergent adventure of The Great Turning, can give us unexpected strength and resilience to face the big challenges ahead.
Life has a powerful creative energy and manifests a powerful desire to continue. When we align ourselves with the well-being of the world, we allow that desire and creative energy to act through us.Active Hope, page 94
This transformative guide is a great gift to all who seek to align with the healing of our world.