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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  1. I read all your postings, Jennifer, and this is the best so far. Perhaps because it is the most realistic. Yes, beyond fear and beyond hope. This is where we are, and in whatever small way each of us can, we must make every day count. If it is too late to reverse the doomed path our leaders are taking us on, we can at least set an example–as you do–of moral conviction in the face of such irresponsible greed.

  2. Anna

     /  July 9, 2013

    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.”

    I love the liberty expressed in Wheatley’s proposition — that we find fearlessness in offering our work as a gift from the heart.

  3. Jennifer, I love this post.
    I, too, spend time and energy trying to raise awareness and beyond that to get people to care and to feel moved to do something. But then the question, “do what?” always arises. One of my answers is that I try daily to do the little things that I can do – conserving water and electricity, not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, being aware of how the food I eat is farmed and produced, composting, recycling, trying to drive less and slower in order to use less gas. I’ve been told that all of these things add up to almost nothing at all in terms of impact on undoing the damage we have done and continue to do. BUT, I believe (and I think science does too) that if everyone were doing all of these things it would have an impact. Surely, there is much more to do, more radical changes to make in the way we live. I understand that. But doing these little things does move me beyond hope and fear, it moves me to possibility – to the knowledge that change is not impossible. It moves me to the understanding not only, that I can always do more, but also, that I must always do something. And, for me, there is joy and love in doing something.

  4. leavergirl

     /  July 14, 2013

    Gadz, dear women, this does not make enough sense. It’s too much of a copout. And I don’t say it to put anyone down. The question that Jennifer raised again, and raised with starting the blog, and keeps going back to… it really deserves more of an answer than… exhortations and shorter showers. No? I mean… it’s so easy for us intellectual types just to keep on blabbering, keep on cogitating, keep on rearranging the chairs on the Titanic with shorter showers and recycling and fair trade coffee. I think we are at a place now where harder work is required of us. Delving deep. And coming up with something new, not the same old tired … rationalizations. How about stopping the “I can’t do x and y, and moving onto “but there must be something I *can* do — what is it?” We all came here to be of use to the planet at this time of crisis. Will we rise to the occasion?

    • Leavergirl, I agree with everything you say and I admire you for being able to make the break from the life most of us are so entrenched in. I am not there yet. I am caretaker for my 98 year-old mom who lives with me, as do two of my grandchildren – ages 4 and 2. If it sounds like I am making excuses, I have to say, I agree. But, at this point in my life, I really don’t know how to do it differently. So I make small changes and I hope that my book will make a few people think.
      I wish you well in your move and I look forward to reading about it.People with your commitment and courage have much to teach all of us. I am eager to learn.

      • leavergirl

         /  July 19, 2013

        Jan, I know that everyone has obstacles to doing things differently. You mention some sizeable ones. I have some too. But isn’t it a real task for all of us to get past that point where we go, like you (we all do it) — “at this point in my life, I don’t know how to do things differently.” Do it for those grandchildren, no? I mean, if we don’t START LIVING DIFFERENTLY, then what kind of world will they inherit? And btw, being in an ecovillage doesn’t necessarily provide the answers either. It pushes the envelope in certain ways, but there are other ways to push it…

        Like Jennifer says in her latest, we need to push off from the mainstream, and I suspect it can be done in all walks of life, or at least prepare the way for when the next door opens up. How about finding a way to do a green funeral for your mom when her time to pass on comes? Pretty radical in most quarters. Just an example — I wish her health and ongoing long life.

  5. Anna

     /  July 21, 2013


    Radical thinking is necessary in these times. I believe each and every one of us must begin making lifestyle changes — as many as possible ASAP!

    Several years ago I began wondering what happens to the chemicals used to color, curl, or straighten hair. I learned from my hair stylist that beauty shop chemicals are collected in underground tanks and trucked out for “disposal”.

    I had been coloring my hair for over a decade to hide white streaks. But when I considered the health and environmental factors of having my hair dyed every three weeks, I decided to get a radically short hair cut and let my white hair grow. I work in a youthful environment teaching guitar so I was concerned about appearing older to my co-workers and students. Plus I live in the south, the land of getting hair foiled and painted with blonde highlights, in-between coloring appointments.

    These days strangers compliment me on my hair. In chatting with them I know for a fact there are a lot women who would love to stop dying their hair but they can’t imagine going through the transition. I think most of us need encouragement to break free from old behavior patterns.

    Granted, this is just one teeny example of someone trying to walk the walk. But I have to say, the more I practice the art of being radical, the easier it becomes.


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