The Community of Hope
Hitchhiking into Chicago through a snowstorm years ago, I found the interstate shut down and traffic backed up as far as Gary, Indiana, with not a snowplow in sight. So I took a detour into Gary, where the driver I was with was headed, to catch the South Shore commuter train around Lake Michigan and into the city.
When the driver dropped me off I hoisted my backpack, asked directions, and started hiking toward the station. But the going was slow; Gary’s snowplows were overwhelmed, too. And every few steps, it seemed, I couldn’t resist flinging my backpack down in the snow to help push another car out of a snowdrift.
The people heaving and shoving beside me were all Black people, of course, since this was Gary, Indiana, home town of the Jackson Five. I was a long-haired hitchhiker, a stranger in their midst, with no car of my own. But that day stands clear in my memory as one of those occasions when people become people again, members of the human species rather than this or that political, religious, or cultural subspecies. We were all pitching in to help whoever needed it next. And we were having a blast.
I hope you have experienced it too. In an emergency, people tend to revert to default: the genetic programming of our deep tribal past. We come together, neighbors, strangers, even erstwhile enemies, and pool our wits and resources to solve common problems, rescue those in trouble, share what we have to share and do what needs to be done. And even in crisis, an odd exhilaration takes hold as we strive together to surmount the odds.
The multiple interlocking crises of the 21st century are a good bit more overwhelming than a midwestern snowstorm. But in a real sense, this is another of those moments when people rise to the occasion and revert to being people again.
As isolated individuals, peering out of the bunker of our cultural conditioning through our flat-screen periscopes, we see horrors, dangers, insoluble issues and insurmountable odds. Police brutality. Voter suppression. Wealth inequality. White supremacy. Nuclear waste. Nuclear weapons. War and terrorism. And looming over it all, the mounting catastrophe of climate change.
Even on mainstream media, we might occasionally catch a glimpse of people stepping forward, coming together in large or small numbers to take a stand. Whatever they’re protesting, from the bunker their cause looks hopeless. But what we don’t see from that limited vantage point is the exhilaration of meeting an emergency together, regardless of the outcome.
The people marching in the streets for Black lives or taking oil companies to court have no guarantee of success; the odds may well be as insurmountable as they appear. But look at it another way. If no one takes action, failure is guaranteed. If we all join the culture of denial, take the bait of complacency – shopping, entertainment, sports, technology, drugs and alcohol – what kind of world will the coming generations inherit?
From an individual point of view, one person taking action is as good as none. But each individual who stands up and takes action improves those odds. And if every single concerned person on the planet were to do so, the situation would look very different.
If you’re looking for hope, you can’t get there by sitting in the comfort of your isolation, looking on. Hope lies in taking action – not alone but together, sharing and cooperating, weaving our individual energies into a fabric of mutual support: a community of hope.
We are accustomed to seeing ourselves as individuals, with singular gifts and talents, proudly casting our single vote. But in the face of global emergency, when voting is no longer enough, another side of individuality emerges: contributing those very gifts and talents to the whole of which we are a part. For some, that is the neighborhood; for others, the watershed; for more and more of us, the entire planet. Though rarely acknowledged in the media, these individual and collective efforts form a vast and diverse global movement sometimes called “The Great Turning.”
Veteran activist Joanna Macy has worked for decades to help people overcome the hesitation, denial, and outright paralysis that prevents even concerned and informed people from taking action. Recognizing that states of mind like guilt, grief, rage, depression and addiction may be rooted in a deep and often unconscious love for the world and its creatures, she calls her workshops The Work That Reconnects. (See sidebar to right.) In their electrifying book Active Hope, Macy and co-author Chris Johnstone identify three different but equally valuable ways to plug in to the Great Turning.
First are “holding actions” that seek to hold back the tide of crisis: protesting, boycotting, lawsuits, homeless shelters, crisis hot lines, direct action of all kinds. Alongside these are efforts to build new structures and institutions that embody the world we want to see: co-ops, alternative schools, microlending, solar and wind farms, green building, organics and permaculture. And equally important are the visionaries in our midst who are seeding a fundamental shift in consciousness, from self-centered material gain to spiritual well-being, compassion for others, care for the planet and those who will inherit it. All of these are essential pieces of the work that needs to be done.
The first step in joining the community of hope is to turn within. Amid the cacophony of crises flashing across the screen, calling out to be addressed, which one awakens an answering call inside you? You are not limited to just one, but it’s best to start there. Or perhaps your calling lies in helping to create a new society that will be ready to catch us when our tottering civilization finally falls . . . or in helping to awaken people to the inner transformations needed to lay the groundwork for outward change. Where do your particular gifts and priorities inspire you to pitch in?
The next step is to look around for others who are stepping forward to meet you there. Usually at least one group or organization is answering the same call, working locally, regionally, nationally, even internationally. Which level of involvement fits your level of commitment? Which group’s style and strategy suits your personal comfort zone?
Of course, there are innumerable ways to help without joining a group: donate, sign petitions, “Like” and “Share,” write letters to editors and legislators, make a sign and show up for a march. But once you meet the people committed enough to work for change, you’ll discover a secret side benefit of activism: spending time with some of the best people around. That includes not only meetings and rallies, but socializing, conversation, party and play time. After all, community offers a tactical advantage only because it is fundamentally a web of relationships. The sense of exhilaration I spoke of springs from a merging of purpose and connection.
Humans evolved in tribal groups, extended families, villages and urban neighborhoods; community has been the key to our survival since our hunting and gathering days. In many ways every issue we face, whether local or global, can be traced to the loss of that ancient sense of belonging. This is why I believe we will not survive our current challenges without reclaiming our genetic heritage of tribal sharing and cooperation – becoming people again.
Remember the Buddha’s insight: nonattachment. The iceberg looms ahead, and no one can guarantee that we’ll succeed in turning the ship. But no one can say for sure that we won’t. Whether we succeed or fail, pooling our individual gifts to build community is inherently rewarding; community itself is a victory over isolation, division, contention and competition. And as Margaret Mead never tires of reminding us, it’s the only thing that has ever changed the world.
Countless activists, for example, have given their all to the cause of nuclear disarmament. Today we are closer to thermonuclear holocaust than at any point in the 75-year history of the Bomb. Yet for all we know, the planet might have long since gone up in radioactive smoke had those activists not pursued their hopeless quest.
Listen to your heart, and your path will reveal itself a step at a time. The best contribution you can make is one that brings you joy, fulfillment, wholeness, alignment with your best self. As theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman once put it, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Together – not just each of us but all of us – we just might steer the ship out of the path of the iceberg in time. Yes, the odds look slim. But it’s becoming clear that if we cling to our isolated individual identities, none of us will survive the shipwreck that looms ahead. The hope of each individual lies in the community of hope.
My own priorities as an activist fall into all three of the categories laid out by Macy and Johnstone. My anti-nuclear work and my career in recycling are holding actions, pitifully inadequate in the face of the shameless profiteering of the nuclear and plastics industries – but supported by thousands of others doing similar work. Simultaneously, I am helping to build an alternative world by serving on the board of a Land Trust in my Atlanta neighborhood and by plugging in to the neo-tribal vision of the Rainbow Family gatherings. And through my writing, readings and workshops, I am helping to cultivate “right relationship” with the natural world, re-learning the ways of reciprocity and respect practiced by our indigenous ancestors planetwide.
The “Taking Action” page of this website explains more about these aspects of my personal activism and invites you to take part. But if every activist on the planet shared my priorities, the world would be bleeding from a million other neglected wounds. I honor each person’s sense of where their energies are needed most, and take action myself on other issues as much as time allows. The right-hand column on my “Taking Action” page is dedicated to bringing such opportunities to your attention.
The community of hope is diverse and multi-faceted, with a place for each person’s unique contribution. I invite you to join us.
Why aren’t millions of people marching in the streets?
Joanna Macy and “The Work That Reconnects”
Buddhist activist and deep ecologist Joanna Macy digs to the psychological and spiritual roots of the political apathy that seems so widespread today. It’s not that people don’t care, Macy insists; it’s that our love and grief for the natural world are buried so deeply beneath social and cultural norms that they emerge only in unconscious ways such as guilt, denial, depression, addiction, and rage.
Macy’s work began during the Reagan years in response to the threat of nuclear holocaust, Her book Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age is based on the workshops she developed to awaken people to the need to act. As existential threats multiplied decade by decade to encompass climate change and global ecosystem collapse, her workshops evolved into “The Work That Reconnects.”
Learn more at Macy’s website, theworkthatreconnects.org.
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience & Creative Power
Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone
(revised edition; New World Library, 2022)
I first read Active Hope while camping alone in the woods, and it was just the jolt of electricity I needed. Macy and co-author Chris Johnstone begin by outlining three “stories” that underlie our lives and choices, often unconsciously.
(1) Business as Usual: everything is fine – nature is ours to consume, economic growth is the goal, corporations, technology and the “free market” are making life better and solving problems as they arise. (2) The Great Unraveling: Business as Usual is wrecking the planet and we and the world of nature are doomed. (3) The Great Turning: We can avert catastrophe by working together for change.
All three stories are true for those who believe them, but a growing number are opting for #3. To free ourselves from #1 or #2 and join the Great Turning, Macy and Johnstone lead us through a “Spiral” of steps: from remembering Gratitude, to Honoring Our Pain, to Seeing with New and Ancient Eyes, to Going Forth. Insight, inspiration, stories, and examples are interspersed with exercises for individual readers or groups. If you look around and see only doom and gloom, give this book a try.
Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work That Reconnects
Joanna Macy & Molly Young Brown
(revised edition; New Society Publishers, 2014)
I found Coming Back to Life at a yard sale, and assuming it was a sequel to Active Hope, I took it home and plunged right in. It turned out to be a sort of textbook for workshop facilitators applying the insights of the earlier book, packed with group exercises organized according to the steps of the Spiral.
As a lifelong book junkie, normally after finishing a book I immediately reach for the next. This time I jumped up from my chair and began organizing a workshop. When I checked Macy’s website, theworkthatreconnects.org, I found a directory of workshop facilitators, including Beth Remmes here in Atlanta.
With Beth enthusiastically on board, I persuaded my cohorts in Nuclear Watch South and the local chapter of Green Friends – ecologically active Quakers – to co-sponsor an all-day workshop at the beautiful Atlanta Friends meeting hall, followed by an outdoor “Council of All Beings” the next day. “Choosing Hope” attracted some fine folks and drew enthusiastic reviews.
The tough part was choosing one day’s worth of exercises from all the powerful group experiences in the book. “Exercises” sound like rehearsals for real life, but on a psychological and spiritual level, they perform the ancient function of ritual or ceremony in tribal communities. This is Macy’s genius at work: traditional ritual and ceremony act as “glue” to maintain a sense of community and reinforce shared beliefs. In our secular age, community must be forged despite a diversity of beliefs. The Work That Reconnects brings people together through the bottom-line conviction that the world must be saved for future generations, regardless of how we differ on other fronts.