Active Hope

Hope is hard to come by. I imagine that’s a feeling I share with many others who care about climate, wildlife, extinction, and so on. That sense of despair always lurks in the background and it easily slips into the foreground if I don’t work hard enough to keep it at bay. Part of my problem is that I don’t really have faith in mantras like, “We still have time,” and “If we all do our bit…” and I really, really, don’t have faith in the UK government. I think this weird time of lockdown has made hope even harder for me to come by, as it feels so difficult to see how the pandemic will pan out and whether many of the ways of life that I have taken for granted will ever return.

Over the past year or two, I have run workshops that included a discernment tool based loosely on a mash up of the Ignatian Examen and the “Great Turning” spiral from Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects”. Wallowing in lockdown in this sense of hopelessness, I thought it’s time I actually read something about the Work That Reconnects and so I read “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The sub-title, “How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy”, sounded like just what I need, and it chimed with the rather more clumsy title of my workshop: “Taking action in a heating world without losing your cool.”

I found that many other things in this book resonated with me. I’ll just mention a few here, by way of personal reflection.

The spiral starts with Coming from Gratitude. I realise how much my life is transactional rather that grace-filled. For example, if I am pleased with something I have, whether a new coat or the meal in front of me, I paid for it with money that I earned. It doesn’t feel like a gift for which I naturally feel thankful. I am so far removed from the natural world that lies behind everything, where sunshine and rain, and cosmic and geological processes, provide a rich and regenerative world. By default I don’t think about where my stuff comes from and all the people, animals and plants involved in the chain from earth to plate or pocket. Even though I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person, an informed supporter of development charities, fair trade, organic farming and so on, my transactional life is far removed from the natural grace of the earth. I want to explore some habits that will build grace and gratefulness into my attitudes and strengthen my sense of connection with the natural world.

This leads into some of the aspects of “Seeing with new eyes”, the third station on the spiral, for example having a wider sense of self and a larger view of time. Macy and Johnstone write about widening circles of belonging, from family through community and the human race to the whole web of life. I find this helpful. I can’t always hold in my mind that big picture. It’s hard enough sometimes to belong in my wider family, or my church family, let alone my local community. The big picture of the world-wide web of life can be very abstract, but I can work on some aspects of my connection in it while recognising that developing similar caring and responsible connection in my local community is just as important. Working on those closer circles may help concretise my sense of connection in the big, global picture. If I want a peaceful, flourishing world, that requires all my layers of connection, from the immediate to the global to be peaceful, just and loving.

I also found it helpful to think about the temporal dimension of this connection: that sense of belonging in history. The idea of seeing my ancestors as my allies resonates with the Christian idea of the communion of the saints: that those who have gone before are cheering me on, inspiring me, warning me and guiding me. But also, what about those who will follow after? What about my responsibility as an ancestor to them? When the Haudenosaunee people make decisions, they ask, “How will this affect the seventh generation?” I can see my children, and they are getting to the age (although I am not!) when the prospect of grandchildren is becoming more realistic, but I can barely imagine the lives of my great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Thinking about them stretches my view of time forwards, with a reminder that what I do today impacts their lives. I belong to them, just as I belong to my great-great-great-great-grandparents. I belong in a story that spans centuries and, in fact, my story spans millennia in geological and cosmological time. In an age of now, having a deeper and wider sense of connection and belonging may help us all to be wiser and perhaps happier too.

Belonging in this wider, deeper, longer community is important for seeing with new eyes a different kind of power. Macy and Johnstone describe the conventional view of power as power-over: a commodity with winners and losers and with fear at its heart. They then describe a different view of power, as ability, expressed as power-with. This power-with, say the authors, is “not about dominating others but about being able to address the mess we’re in.” (p.108). Power-with is exercised in co-operation, taking small steps towards a big vision, seeking to give rather than gain, and letting an outcome emerge. I find this idea of power-with inspiring, because it gives me hope that positive change is possible. I am able to contribute my skills, my inner strengths, my experience and my vision and desire in community with you and others and something greater than the sum of the parts may emerge.

I have an old Greenpeace T-shirt that’s now so raggedy I just wear it in bed. Its slogan reads, “The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.” I interpret it to mean that the pessimist believes there’s no point in doing anything, so they never get beyond thinking about a problem. In contrast, taking action is inherently hopeful because you wouldn’t act without thinking it serves a purpose. The future may be uncertain, and the likeliest outcomes may be ones I don’t want, but doing nothing won’t do. I need to act, in community and connection, in accordance with a shared vision of a peaceable, flourishing world. Hope in action; active hope.

“Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone was published in 2012 by New World Library.

The Work That Reconnects website gives an introduction to the “Great Turning” spiral:

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