When asked whether I’m hopeful about the future, I have a mixed response: sometimes I am; sometimes I’m not. My levels of optimism and pessimism fluctuate. The widespread sprouting of transition towns, part of a grassroots environmental campaign, the Occupy movement and other expressions of positive change feed my sense of buoyancy. Then there is the bad news, which comes round after round after round. Is it possible to remain inspired and enthusiastic when facing such a barrage?
Addressing this question has been my central focus for more than 20 years. What I know, because I’ve seen it so many times, is that people can sometimes access breath-taking courage, resilience and generosity of spirit. But what helps us do this, and is it learnable? The first breakthrough in my quest was discovering the work of Dr Joanna Macy, an eco-philosopher and scholar of Buddhism.
In the late 1970s, Macy developed a form of group work that helped people face their concerns about the world and support each other. Initially called “despair and empowerment work”, it offered a radical reframing of pain for the world – an umbrella term for the range of emotional reactions to distressing world events. Rather than seeing grief, fear, despair, anger and guilt as negative feelings that should be kept out of view, they were welcomed as honoured messengers carrying important information. Creating a supportive space for people to hear their own distress allowed these feelings to serve as a wake-up call to action.
There is a process to digesting disturbing information. At first we might be aware of something, but not have appreciated its full significance. For awareness to move us and motivate a response, it needs to reach our hearts as well as our heads. With grieving, for example, the pain of mourning is a natural, even necessary, step in accepting the reality of loss. By allowing space to grieve for what is being lost in our world, the workshops developed by Macy and colleagues help the disturbing realities of our times sink in.