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Goddess "" Earth "" Cosmology "" Women's Health "" Reader Contributions "" Book Reviews "" Editor's Desk

After Despair

This past Sunday, I didn't go to one of my regular group meetings because I was deep into production of MatriFocus. I missed a learning activity on despair, facilitated by two group members who are long-time environmental activists, gardeners, and teachers of sustainability.

despair. c.1325, from O.Fr. desperer "lose hope, despair," from L. desperare "to despair," from de- "without" + sperare "to hope," from spes "hope" (see speed). Noun replaced native wanhope [want of hope]. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

hope. O.E. hopian "wish, expect, look forward (to something)," of unknown origin, a general Low Ger. word (cf. O.Fris. hopia, M.L.G., M.Du. hopen; M.H.G. hoffen "to hope" was borrowed from Low Ger. Some suggest a connection with hop (v.) on the notion of "leaping in expectation." (ibid.)

I can't imagine that Sunday's work on despair wasn't inspired or informed by the work of Joanna Macy, an activist, teacher, deep ecologist, and systems thinker:

For the past twenty years, she has guided people through a process first called "despair and empowerment work" and now called the "Work that Reconnects." This work is generally conducted in workshops where group energy supports participants; it invites people into despair about the plight of the planet and the destructive course we are on. The work does not end there. Joanna uses exercises that strengthen the minds and hearts of participants for the struggles ahead. Through this work, participants transform their despair into compassionate action. (Personal Transformation)

It's interesting to see this progression of possibilities on the other side of despair: from hope, to empowerment, to compassionate action, to "solidarity and the courage to act," to "work that reconnects" (from her newest book, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World).

Macy encourages folks to do despair work in groups, because we tend to think that despair is a personal problem that we must handle alone. She says:

I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling 'pain for the world.' (ibid.)

So what do we do with this "suffering on behalf of the world"?

1. Find hope. As devastating as the Asian Quake Tsunami was, from a geological perspective, it gives us some reasons to hope.

'It's hard to find something uplifting about 150,000 lives being lost,' said Dr. Donald J. DePaolo, a geochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. 'But the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn't occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet. '(Quakes Renew the Planet)

And there's reason to hope that the December 26 tsunami may:

... 'prove to be an ecological boon over the decades for coastal areas hardest hit by the giant waves.' (ibid.)

Tsunamis enrich soil by distributing rich sediments from river systems across coastal plains and bringing fertile soil into lowland areas. While this will bring back no lives lost recently, it is fundamental to feeding future generations.

2. Chop wood, carry water. Begin again. Carry on.

Tsunamis and earthquakes have destroyed before and they will again. Thera, Crete, Atlantis. Some archaeologists argue that quakes are responsible for the downfall of the Harappan Civilization, the ends of the Bronze Age and the Mayan Classic Period. (Ancient Civilizations Shaken By Quakes)

Those who survive do what living creatures do. We carry on. We find food. We build shelters. We make love, have more children. We make community. One life does make a difference, and if the mitochondrial Eve theory is correct, human beings populate the planet today because of one woman's chances and choices 200 thousand years ago.

3. Reconnect with the divine. What's your preferred spiritual technology? Prayer? Meditation? Trance Dance? Solitary Magic? Group Ritual? A Walk in the Woods? Art-Making?

When and where do you feel most alive? Go there. Do that. Recharge.

4. Play. Remember the immortal words of Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." (Or was it: "If I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution.")

5. Do something about what causes despair. Macy says:

I’ve become convinced that, in part, people remain uninvolved because there are so many issues. They don’t know whether they should try to protect sea mammals or battered children or work for the climate. (Personal Transformation)

So just choose one thing, the issue you have the most passion for, and do what you can. We know that all of life is connected and can be confident that the pieces, large or small, that we do will affect and be affected by the work being done by others.

6. Don't go it alone. Macy says:

I think it’s a cardinal mistake to try to act alone. The myth of the rugged individual, riding as the Lone Ranger to save our society, is a sure recipe for going crazy. The response that is appropriate and that this work elicits is to grow a sense of solidarity with others and to elaborate a whole new sense of what our resources are and what our power is. (ibid.)

7. Stop stuffing your despair. Macy, again:

It takes tremendous energy to repress something so strong, which stems from our instinct to preserve life. Repressing our feelings of pain for the world isolates us, and can also drain us. When we allow ourselves to experience these feelings, we cease to fear them. We learn to turn them into strong solidarity with all beings. (ibid.)

Graphics Credits

  • Rainbow over Sumatra, 21 Days after the 2004 Tsunami, U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Rebecca J. Moat
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