Finding Hope in Heartbreak

There has been a steady beat of heart-breaking news lately from various fronts.  Did you hear that the flame retardants required by law to be sprayed on American sofas are highly toxic chemicals that continue to break down in your living room? And those sofas, by the way, if they’re the nice wood-framed ones from Ikea, are being made from irreplaceable 600-year-old trees.  When you lie on your sofa to breast-feed your baby, you’re getting a whopping dose of PCB-type chemicals, and your infant is too, since toxic chemicals pass right into breast milk.

Or maybe you caught the long article in the New York Times the other day about American zoos becoming Arks for modern-day Noahs, who have to choose which species to try to preserve and which to let go into extinction.  This was one of the most candid acknowledgements I’ve seen in the mainstream media of the explosive pace of extinctions occurring around the world, partly due to the loss of those ancient trees to logging.

And meanwhile, in my corner of the world, there was more bad weather—record heat in May, followed by violent electric storms, complete with hail and the threat of twisters, which knocked out my power last night, including permanent damage to my DSL box, leaving me without internet access this morning.

The relentlessness of this kind of information, combined with the evidence I can see before my eyes of climate change and the contamination of our landscapes, is like a steady drag on my spirit, a weight around my neck.

Even when I’m enjoying myself with friends and family, as I did this past weekend, I have one mental foot in the future, imagining a time when such happy, peaceful and bountiful gatherings will exist only in memory.

I am always giving myself silent pep talks, hanging on to the hope that we will accomplish the switch to renewable energy sources; that we will stop the deforestation and the industrial agriculture; that we will become responsible stewards of our home planet, rather than the armed pirates and chemical warriors that we have come to be in the last hundred years or so.

Joanna Macy

Lately I have been finding some comfort in Joanna Macy’s 1991 volume World as Lover, World as Self, reissued in 2007 by Parallax Press.  When I think of how oblivious I was back in 1991 about global heating and toxic contamination, I am amazed at Macy’s prescience.

Rather than simply bemoaning, or even exhorting her readers to change their ways before it’s too late, Macy offers us a way to understand and process what is happening to our world, principally through coming to the recognition that the traditional human individualist view of the self is a misconception.

“The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen in its military, ecological or social aspect, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self,” she says.  “It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things.  It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”

In place of this, Macy draws on the work of systems theorists and ecological philosophers like Arne Naess, as well as the Buddhist notion of “inter-being,” to argue for a “greening of the self,” a way of self-understanding that recognizes our essential connectedness with all other life forms on our planet.

Arne Naess

Once we have understood that we are integrals parts in the living system of Earth, we should no longer have to appeal to human beings’ dubious moral sense to prompt a shift to a more sustainable way of living.  We can simply appeal to self-interest, Macy says.

“For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t cut off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.” It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is a part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body.”

One of the ideas I find most exciting about this part of Macy’s work is her application of the concept of “inter-being” to temporality.

“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time.  It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime.  The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception.  Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first spinning and splitting of the stars.

“Thus the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and own our story as life on Earth.  We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layers of our neocortex and what we learned at school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined.  When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us survive.”

When I think of my place in time and space in these terms, I do feel that gladness.  It is true that we are living through the sixth great extinction on the planet now.  It is true that we are producing and spreading contaminants in the air, water and soils that will last, some of them, for billions of years.

But the Earth has time.  And who knows, perhaps what we think of today as toxic waste can in time become the building blocks of new forms of life.  Our planet has shown itself to be remarkably adaptive.

Macy is unusual in working across disciplines and discourses that are generally kept apart, speaking fluently and persuasively in the tongues of sociology, systems theory, psychology, neurology, geology, ecology, theology, and even spirituality.  We are going to need the wisdom from all of these avenues of inquiry to begin to understand what will be happening to us in the coming years, as individuals, as a species, and as a part of the living fabric of Earth.

Perhaps that is what most distinguishes us most as human beings.  We want to understand.

And perhaps there is still a chance that if we can understand in time, we can, as Macy says, survive.

Leave a comment


  1. Wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking piece, thanks for posting. The wisdom of those visionaries from 20, (30, 40, 50, and even more) years ago is simply astonishing. And the ridicule they have taken from MSM, Rush Limbaugh, Faux Knews, etc, is so harsh and unfair. In the words of my surrogate father Gene Mendoza, the Choctaw Indian, “I knows what I knows, don’t confuse me wid duh facts!”

  2. Martin Lack

     /  May 31, 2012

    Thanks Jennifer. Twenty, or even ten, years ago I would have dismissed talk like that of Macy or Ness as evidence of New Age pantheism over-taking a wayward post-Christian world. However, even if I may have mislaid my own faith in God, I remain sympathetic to a monotheistic way of thinking; but have managed to overcome the simplistic tendency of many evangelical Christians to pursue dominion over nature rather than stewardship of it.

    However, monotheism is not the problem. On the contrary, I think we have The Enlightenment of the 17th Century to thank for this complete misconception of our place in the natural world: The problem is the very essence of humankind – inherently proud, arrogant, stubborn and greedy. Socialists are optimists who think such things can be overcome; and they dream of a Utopia where the principles of the French Revolution may yet be attained. I am pessimist (I prefer the term realist), which is why I am not a socialist (even though their goals are worthy ones).

  3. Thanks for this- much food for thought brought together in one place.

  4. I’m joining the discussion late, because I was busy writing about Syria (which I consider at present as the most pressing issue) and had to leave all other things aside. I liked your post, this comment is just for paying attention and respect.
    Joanna Macy is definitely worth reading. As a Buddhist scholar and as an exponent of General Systems Theory she embodies two most useful approaches for understanding our world and ourselves.
    System Theory/Cybernetics is about self-regulating (self correcting, self-organizing, adaptive) systems. Regulation occurs by feedback loops and natural selection (meaning: systems which don’t have the necessary regulatory mechanisms will break down and seize to exist).
    System theory in combination with higher mathematics (especially the theory of nonlinear dynamical systems, chaos theory, statistical mathematics) goes a long way for getting an idea about the world around us. The understanding may be only intuitive and incomplete but will enable us to make the best possible decisions.
    Buddhism represents the wisdom of the ages, gathered by observation, compiled and sorted by intuition (the power of pattern recognition) into a coherent ethical/philosophical framework.
    Both approaches inevitably induce the feeling of being a part of nature, which further inclines that we are not as exceptional as most religions want make us believe, that we are not “the crown of creation”.
    Buddhist sentiment also includes the realization that our abilities are limited and some of the quandaries of life unsolvable. “Life means suffering” (the first of the Four Noble Truth), so we just muddle through trying to make the best out of it.
    The words Hope and Heartbreak are representing mental states, which in neurological terminology are caused by specific neurotransmitter levels (of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin for instance).
    Feeling heartbreak is burdensome, disturbing, paralyzing, and it can be quite unhealthy too. Being hopeful and lighthearted is for sure a more enjoyable way to pass one’s day.
    We all have our individual methods to level and balance the neurotransmitters in our brain. I chose meditation, music, nature, learning and teaching as methods.
    Buddhist meditation is a way to achieve control about our mental state and disconnect our inside world from the often grim and gruesome outside world (Matthieu Ricard, the “happiest person in the world”).


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