Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy

Active Hope book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Active Hope \ Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

Climate change, overpopulation, rampant consumerism and other huge problems make it pretty hard to feel hopeful about the fate of the world. We can all rhyme off many ways in which our planet is being assaulted. Yet, according to Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, none of these phenomena are what most imperil our world. The problem is the debilitating fatalism that we harbour when we think of them. According to Macy and Johnstone, “the greatest danger of our times is the deadening of our response.” 

The environmental movement’s usual prescriptions for change contain a glaring omission: insight into how our deepest emotional responses to crisis stop us from acting. Fear, anger, despair and anxiety all form “a pivotal psychological reality of our times,” even if this fact is understated in mainstream media or everyday conversation. But we don’t have to let these emotions overwhelm us. We can learn to work with them so they become sources of strength.

Macy and Johnstone are well equipped to show us how. She is a respected author, activist and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. He is a medical doctor who specializes in the psychology of behavioural change and emotional resilience. Together they present an astute and heartfelt guide that explains how to bolster our capacity to meet our challenges. Fine-tuned in workshops around the world, their approach draws insights from psychology, Buddhism and science to offer a range of ways we can reframe our blinkered and distorted thinking. Their aim is to empower us to play our own unique role in “The Great Turning” – an epic transformation into a sustainable, life-affirming society.

Macy and Johnstone argue that we need to rethink our notion of hope itself. Rather than it being a quality we either have or do not, they maintain that hope is a practice borne of our values:

Active Hope involves identifying the outcomes we hope for and then playing a dedicated, deliberate role in bringing them about. We don’t wait until we are sure of success. We don’t limit our choices to the outcomes that seem likely. Instead, we focus on what we truly, deeply long for, and then we proceed to take determined steps in that direction.

The authors map out four successive “movements,” each involving shifts in our perspective. The first, which they call “coming from gratitude,” teaches us to realize we don’t need what consumer society is shilling in order to be happy. 

Following that, “honouring our pain for the world” demands a reframing of our understanding, so we can see pain for what it is – a testimony to how deeply we love the world. In a culture that exhorts us to think positively, a strong response to the crisis we’re in can be seen as negative, if not pathological. But it doesn’t have to be understood as such. 

Macy and Johnstone further implore us to “see with new eyes,” to develop a wider sense of self that goes beyond atomistic individualism, and to replace it with an understanding of the world that is inexorably embedded in various overlapping communities of the web of life. Finally, we must “go forth,” and learn how to become (and stay) inspired. We need to clearly imagine the future we want and move towards it.

Active Hope is an inspiring and powerful book that can benefit anyone seeking to step up and own her or his commitment to repairing our broken world. Though some readers might be wary of the authors’ reliance on Buddhist thought, they needn’t worry. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to draw on the rich wisdom of this tradition, just as you needn’t “have” hope in order to embrace it.

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Novato, California: New World Library, 2012, 288 pages

This review originally appeared in Greenbelts, Issue 39.2. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Kelley Tish Baker is a freelance writer and editor living in Ottawa.

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