To Choose Life
by Molly Brown and Joanna Macy
I call heaven and earth to record this day to your account
that I have set before you life and death,
blessing and cursing:
therefore choose life,
that both you and your seed
As we confront the unprecedented crises in today’s world, it’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed. “We’re doing all we can!” Our hearts break with each new horror as we read the details of just how bad things are: climate disasters, new depths of poverty, financial conspiracies, police killings, mass incarceration, school massacres…. Why should we know all this when we can’t do anything about it? We try to avoid panic on the one side or paralysis on the other. How can we face the mess we’re in without going crazy?
Three Stories of Our Time
There’s no way we can single-handedly solve any of these problems, but we can choose to act on behalf of Life. We can choose where we put our mind and heart. And this may be the single most important choice any human being can make, especially now.
By story we mean the lens through which we see and understand what is happening in our world. Often, unconsciously, we assume it to be the only reality. In the industrialized world today, the most commonly held stories boil down to three and, in a sense, they are all “true”; they are all happening. Each successive story widens the circle to take more of our extended identity and responsibility into account. We have the capacity to choose the one we want to accept, the one that accords with our values and hopes.
Business As Usual is the story of the Industrial Growth Society as we hear it from politicians, corporate spokespeople, and corporate-controlled media. It tells us to keep trying to grow our economy and there is little need to change the way we live. Economic recessions and extreme weather are just temporary difficulties from which we will surely recover, and even profit. Business As Usual encourages us to avoid any feelings of alarm, and “get back to normal” as soon as possible.
The Great Unraveling story comes from scientists and journalists who are greatly alarmed but have not been bought or intimidated. They tell us what Business As Usual is costing us: massive extinction and collapse of biological and social systems. Fear, anger, grief, and despair arise as we confront the Great Unraveling.
The Great Turning story comes from those who consider the Great Unraveling and don’t accept it as the last word. This story tells of the emergence of new and creative human responses that foster the transition from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life Sustaining Society. The central plot is about joining together to act for the sake of life on Earth rather than isolated individuals battling overwhelming odds. Our pain for the world becomes an agent of this transformation.
The Spiral of the Work That Reconnects
What does it mean to “choose Life and act on its behalf?” How can we reconnect with our deepest purpose and the courage we need in these times of peril?
In the we move through a spiral of practices and insights that help us do just that. We call it a spiral because it widens at every turn as we move through its four stages: gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.
Coming from Gratitude
In times of turmoil, gratitude steadies and grounds us. It brings us into full presence, which is surely the best foundation from which we can act. Recall a time when you stood in awe of a crimson sunset, or in praise of another person’s act of kindness or artistic gift. Note how that put you into the present moment.
That our world is in crisis in no way diminishes the wonder of this present moment. Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances—on whether we like where we are or approve of what we are facing. On the contrary, we are granted the great privilege of being on hand to take part in the Great Turning and let the hardships of this time summon our strength, wisdom, and courage.
What’s more, gratitude is actually subversive to the Industrial Growth Society, because it helps inoculate us against the dissatisfaction that social marketing would have us feel. When we are grateful for what we have, we are far less likely to believe we need more.
As we face the Great Unraveling, we see there is so much to be done. We can proceed, of course, out of grim desperation. However, we act with greater ease and creativity from an attitude of thankfulness.
Honoring Our Pain for the World
As our hearts open in gratitude, they open also to the suffering of our fellow-beings and the destruction of the natural world. Feelings of the associated pain are healthy and inevitable; they arise from our love for the world.
Our capacity to “suffer with” our world is evidence of our interconnectedness with all life. This ability to suffer is essential for our survival. Our pain calls our attention to what’s going wrong in our world, and moves us to act in response.
When we stop avoiding our feelings of rage, grief, fear, and despair, we uncover our capacity to experience and express them, especially in community. These are not “private” feelings; they arise from awareness of our collective fate and build solidarity when they are shared. We become more fully alive as we experience that our anger is our passion for justice, our fear calls forth our courage, our grief is evidence of our love, and our sense of emptiness and not-knowing opens us to new ways of seeing and responding.
We discover both a heightened awareness of the suffering and dangers besetting our world and a greater confidence in our capacity to face them without dodging, denying, or numbing out. Listening to the deep voice of our hearts moves us to act on behalf of something larger than ourselves. It moves us to act on behalf of Life itself—even when that counters business as usual.
Seeing With New Eyes
Opening our hearts and minds to gratitude and our pain for the world moves us beyond the narrow paradigms of business as usual. We begin to see ourselves and our world with new eyes. We undergo a radical shift in identity; our sense of self expands as we discover ourselves to be part of the living being of Earth. We experience in our bones that we are fundamentally interconnected within the web of Life, and that Life can work through us.
We realize that we don’t have to understand everything with our conscious mind; we can allow ourselves to be guided from within, by our hearts and guts as well as our rational minds. We can use our moral imagination to view our world through the eyes of other beings and of the future beings whose lives will be affected by our actions now.
As our identity widens, so does our sense of community; we are both supported by community and accountable to it. Our confidence in the power of our solidarity grows along with a fresh appreciation for the diversity of our gifts, and of the many interdependent roles to be played in the Great Turning. We realize that we are committed to goals extending beyond our individual lifetime, and feel liberated from the tyranny of seeking immediate, measurable results.
When we perceive our deeper identity as an Ecological Self that includes not just us but also all Life, then acting for the sake of our world doesn’t seem like a sacrifice. It seems like a natural thing to do.
We turn now to consider the specific gifts we can bring to the Great Turning. We take a fresh look at our workplaces, communities, and society to discern precious opportunities for fostering the Great Turning. We go forth, moved by what Buddhists call “bodhicitta,” the choice to act for the sake of all beings.
The Three Dimensions of the Great Turning
The Great Turning is fueled within three mutually reinforcing areas or dimensions as depicted in the following diagram.
I. Holding actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings
The most visible dimension of the Great Turning includes all the political, legislative, regulative, and legal work required to reduce the destruction, as well as direct actions—vigils, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal.
II. Transformation of our life-sustaining systems
The second dimension of the Great Turning is equally crucial. To become free from the damage being inflicted by the Industrial Growth Society, we must first understand its dynamics. This includes the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity—the insatiable economy that uses our Earth as supply house and sewer. We must demystify the workings of the global economy and see how dependent it is on our obedience, how doomed it is to devour itself.
At the same time, we need to create structural alternatives to the Industrial Growth Society. Examples include conversion to renewable energy, community gardens, cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, watershed restoration, and local currencies.
III. Shift in Consciousness
The previous structural alternatives require a profound shift in our conscious perception of reality and our place within the web of life. That shift is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.
The realizations in this third dimension of the Great Turning help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand or to turn on each other to vent our fear and rage. Rather, we join together to find ways to help humanity and the world self-heal.
As elders, we may feel called to address any and all of these dimensions of the Great Turning. Because of our time of life, we occupy a special place in society and in our life. We have acquired experience, knowledge, and resources, including time to engage more freely in activism. We are stirred by a sense of responsibility to future generations. We have lived through decades of change and made discoveries that can guide our work for the Great Turning.
Let us bring our hard-earned experience and wisdom into service now for the sake of Life on Earth. Let us choose Life, every day.
Molly Brown combines the Work That Reconnects and Psychosynthesis in her work: teaching on-line courses, writing and publishing books and essays, coaching by phone and Skype, ministerial services and offering workshops internationally. Her five books include Coming Back to Life, Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning, and Turning and Lighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. Molly delivered the keynote address to the 2012 International Psychosynthesis Conference in Rome, entitled Psychosynthesis and the Great Turning. Molly currently offers workshops for elders in the Work That Reconnects with Constance Washburn, including an upcoming six-day retreat for elders, Awakening our Courageous Hearts, in Inverness, CA.
Gaian Teacher, Joanna Macy, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. The many dimensions of this work is explored through her books, audio-visual resources and teachings on the Great Turning.
Both the David Korten book “The Great Turning:…” and Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book “Active Hope” help us all understand how we humans and our society got to where we are today. The good news is that we can see and understand this and then take corrective action.
I didn’t mean this just in an Irish setting – I live in Canada, many of my late wife’s colleagues were from the US – this phrase is used all over North America.
I agree, it’s a great title, and could have been wonderfully appropriate in our context. But it’s already a sort of trademark for an entirely different purpose, which is not complementary to ours. I expect that many the people who now work or have worked for women would find such a title a bit of a barrier to joining up in this equally crucial work. And that would be a shame – natural allies as we all are.
This is a powerful way of thinking and I appreciate, indeed value, Molly and Joanna’s ideas.
For myself, I see what you are getting at with ‘choose life’. In an Irish context, you are absolutely, and sadly, correct.
However, if we look at ‘life’ as what many people refer to as ‘nature’ I suggest the title here takes on a different context. After all, what IS nature if not ourselves (and every other living being on the planet)?
Molly and Joanna: I have done some Work That Reconnects sessions with Dolores Whelan here in Ireland. Great, great process and I hope to work with it further in future.
Sorry that last comment sounded more negative than it should. This really is wonderful writing, absolutely on point, and very helpful.
I love this piece. It is a gift to be able to remain hopeful and even joyful, but it all depends on being grateful. Thank you.
Just one niggly bit – my wife, who died six years ago, was a tireless worker for women’s rights. She would have found your title and slogan “Choose Life” offputting, given the way that phrase is used by various political groups working against those rights.
Onwards, ever upwards,