In August, 1978 I chaired a week-long seminar on planetary survival issues. College professors and administrators had prepared papers to deliver on themes ranging from the water crisis to environmental effects of nuclear technology.
As we convened, I took time to acknowledge that the topic we were addressing was different from any other, that it touched each of us in a profoundly personal way. I suggested that we introduce ourselves by sharing an incident or image of how it had touched us.
The brief introductions that followed were potent, as those present dropped their professional manner and spoke simply and poignantly of what they saw and felt happening to their world: of their children, of their fears and discouragement. That brief sharing transformed the seminar. It changed the way we related to each other and to the material, and it unleashed energy and mutual caring. Late one night as we talked, a name for that magic emerged: “despair work.”
Just as grief work is a process by which bereaved persons unblock their numbed energies by acknowledging and grieving the loss of a loved one, so do we all need to unblock our feelings about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.
In striking upon “despair work,” we were not being rhetorical; we were groping for an explanation of what had just happened. We knew that it had to do with a willingness to acknowledge and experience pain, and that this pain for our world, like pain for the loss of a loved one, is a measure of caring. We also knew that the joint journey into the dark had changed us, bonding us in a special way, relieving us of pretense and competition. This occasion led to the further development of despair work in groups, and to the spread in many countries of what we originally called “despair and empowerment workshops.”
The thousands of people with whom I have worked in church basements, community centers, and classrooms have revealed to me, in ways I had not foreseen, the power, size, and beauty of the human heart. They have demonstrated that pain for our world touches each of us, and that this pain is rooted in caring. They have demonstrated that our apparent public apathy is but a fear of experiencing and expressing this pain, and that once it is acknowledged and shared, it opens the way to our power.
As I meditated on the lessons I learned from these workshops, and on the connections between pain and power, five principles emerged to illumine the nature of despair work and encapsulate its assumptions.
Feelings of pain for our world are natural and healthy.
Confronted with widespread suffering and threats of global disaster, responses of anguish—of fear, anger, grief, and even guilt—are normal. They are a measure of our humanity. And these feelings are probably what we have most in common. Just by virtue of sharing this planet at this time, we know these feelings more than our own grandparents or any earlier generation could have known them. We are in grief together.
Pain is morbid only if denied.
It is when we disown our pain for the world that it becomes dysfunctional. We know now what it costs us to repress it, how that cost is measured in numbness and in feelings of isolation and impotence. It is measured as well in the hatreds and suspicions that divide us. Repressed despair seeks scapegoats and turns, in anger, against other members of society. It also turns inward in depression and self destruction, through drug abuse and suicide. Our refusal to acknowledge and feel despair keeps it in place.
Information alone is not enough.
To deal with the distress we feel for our world, we need more than additional data about its plight. Terrifying information can drive us deeper into denial and feelings of futility, unless we can deal with the responses it arouses in us. We need to process this information on the psychological and emotional level in order to fully respond on the cognitive level. We already know we are in danger. The essential question is: can we free ourselves to respond?
Unblocking repressed feelings releases energy and clears the mind.
This is known as catharsis. Repression is physically, mentally, and emotionally expensive; it drains the body, dulls the mind, and muffles emotional responses. When repressed material is brought to the surface and released, energy is released as well; life comes into clearer focus. Art, ritual, and play have always played a cathartic role in our history—just as, in our time, psychotherapy does.
Unblocking our pain for the world reconnects us with the larger web of life.
As we let ourselves experience and move through this pain, we move through to its source. By recognizing our capacity to suffer with our world, we dawn to wider dimensions of being. In those dimensions there is still pain, but also a lot more. There is wonder, even joy, as we come home to our mutual belonging—and there is a new kind of power.
—By Joanna Macy, Eco-Philosopher
Excerpted from a piece which appeared in Ecopsychology, edited by Roszak, Gomes and Kanner, published by the Sierra Club in 1995.