Thursday, March 17, 2011

Planetary Despair

I don't have a lot to say today. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy that I really like:

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. 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."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

I honestly find myself sometimes really pissed at how much of this reductionism occurs in spiritual circles. It actually brings up anger for me. Whatever people's current positions are on things like nuclear power, one thing I see a lot of is despair. And it's ridiculous to reduce this to some individual psychological attachment or maladjustment, but you can bet this is going on. Maybe you're doing it yourself, or your teachers or students are doing it. Maybe the book or article you are reading is doing it.

In any case, I'd like to offer the following. Instead of thinking things like "oh, this is ego clinging" or "if only I weren't so attached to what's occurring on the planet" - why not just let all of that go. Let every last explanation for what's coming up go. And just be with what is, recognizing that whatever is occurring on the planet is us too. It's all functioning together. And maybe if we listen more closely to the despair and whatever else is coming, we'll know better what our next steps need to be.

Peace to you all.


David said...

I have to disagree with Joanna Macy’s assessment of American culture. It sounds like she is describing Japan, not the U.S. where I think we are largely a complaining lot, who wear our deficiencies, maladjustments, maladies, chronic conditions, psychological imbalances and vices like they were badges of honor.

If anyone thinks that it is clinging or some sort of unhealthy attachment to be involved in the world, then they have missed something important. The Buddha never advocated withdrawing from society.

By the way, a log-in window from a .gov site popped up when I landed on your blog . . . ??

Algernon said...

Last paragraph is excellent!

Unknown said...

Nathan - Thank you for writing about this. I feel what you're describing. And I also feel like it's too upsetting, or heavy, or overwhelming, or something to talk about. Not to mention that I think that it's simply true that most people don't want to fully apprehend what's happening because it's so profoundly disturbing. So there is a silence. It's like the hugest elephant in the room ever.

What also perpetuates the silence and the feeling of underlying despair is the truth that we can't come up with a comprehensive solution to taking humanity off our path of destruction that we can feel confident can be implemented. We have to work with piecemeal solutions and hope. And it's hard to generate the level of hope required when you're not even acknowledging the despair. So I very much like the approach in the interview that you're referencing. It definitely speaks to me and it seems like the best orientation to have at this time. Not withdrawal, not denial, not pretending that we have solutions that we don't, just facing up to what's happening, staying positive on a profound rather than superficial level, and doing what we can.

Even if we're all destroyed in the end this is the best way to go out, I think . . . horrible as it is to say that. It makes me so sad too that kids have to grow up in a world with this level of planetary despair. I didn't . . . but maybe they will have a resilience to deal with it that the older generations don't.

It's all unprecedented and has happened so fast - 100 years ago the world was so vastly different that it's truly mind boggling. We are in such a precarious place right now and it is profoundly disturbing.

Nathan said...

I think Joanna Macy's fairly accurate about American culture myself. And certainly, she doesn't advocate withdrawal from society.

I'm not sure what the deal is with that pop up window. Never have seen it before, but now I do.

Carol "Even if we're all destroyed in the end this is the best way to go out, I think..." Yes, I agree. I have no idea what will happen, or how far down the road we are, but I'm doing my best to respond to the world, including the despair, and stay involved.