Being the change–beyond hope, beyond fear

Every time I write an exhortatory post like the last one, I imagine my readers getting to the end and clucking their tongues in frustration.

“OK, we get it, now the is time to act—but what does she want us to DO?  Doesn’t she have any practical suggestions on what to do in this terrible transition time?  Isn’t she going to lead by example?”

Well, yeah.  In relentlessly focusing my attention, and by extension my readers’ attention, on the frightening facts of environmental degradation–from climate change to toxic pollution to the precipitous decline of millions of species—I am doing something.  It may not be much, but at least it’s better than sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the gathering storm, or selfishly trying to live it up as long as possible—let the band play on!

There are many things I dream of doing, but right now simply cannot.

I cannot build myself an environmentally sustainable, off-the-grid house, nor can I pick myself up and move to an eco-village at this time.

I cannot spend all my time sitting in trees to protest logging or marching on Washington D.C. to protest inaction on climate change.

I cannot devote myself 100% to environmental communications work.

And I can’t wave my wand and stop the poles from melting, or make all the toxic chemicals just go away.

What I can do is take the strengths I’ve been given, in writing and communicating, and use them to try to spread awareness among others, in the hope that the little ripple I may be able to start will grow to a mighty wave of positive change.


I need to think more about this question of hope, though.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley

Lately I’ve been reading and re-reading Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, So Far From Home, in which she talks, rather surprisingly, about the need for activists to move beyond hope.

The problem with hoping for change, she says, is that “fear is the constant, unavoidable companion of hope. What this simply means is that I hope for a certain outcome and I’m afraid I won’t get it. I hope for a certain result and I’m fearful it won’t happen. This is the way that hope and fear are wedded together….So, it might be that the road to fearlessness is only found by giving up hope. By giving up outcomes, by giving up goals.”

This is a challenging idea.  If we give up on goals, doesn’t it mean that we give up, period?  That we just bow our heads in resignation and accept the anthropogenic destruction of our planet as inevitable?

Not according to Wheatley.

Quoting from Thomas Merton, who says that we need to “concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself,” Wheatley gently asks:

“What if we could offer our work as a gift so lightly, and with so much love, that that’s really the source of fearlessness? We don’t need it to be accepted in any one way. We don’t need it to create any certain outcome. We don’t need it to be any one thing. It is in the way we offer it, that the work transforms us. It is in the way we offer our work as a gift to those we love, to those we care about, to the issues we care about. It is in the way we offer the work that we find fearlessness. Beyond hope and fear, I think, is the possibility of love.”

Could this be a kind of answer to those skeptics who would take me to task for writing about environmental issues without doing enough to be the change I want to see?

By giving myself to this work of raising the alarm, motivated by my deep love for the planet and my awareness of the inter-being of all her denizens, am I doing the work I came here to do in this lifetime?

The truth is that I don’t have much hope, anymore, that we will be able to “save the world.”  Nevertheless, I keep on writing, because writing is my way of working through and releasing myself from fear.

Having spent a lot of my life in fear, and having come to know it intimately, I can say with some authority that fear is a useless, paralyzing emotion.  Fear holds us back, it pinions our wings, it pushes us to do things we will later regret.

What we need, Wheatley says, is the clarity that resides beyond fear and its twin sister, hope.  The clarity that comes with knowing that since our time is going to come sooner or later, what’s important is how we spend each one of our days.

We need to do the work we came here to do, as well as we can, without expecting reward or recognition, without depending on external acclaim or tangible, material successes.

Beyond hope, beyond fear, I will keep going on, day to day, raising my children, doing my teaching and writing, enjoying beauty, pleasure and loving-kindness as they cross my path, and conjuring them myself in the way I live my life.  In that sense, yes, I will be the change.

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