Active Hope in the Face of Despair
Active Hope in the Face of Despair
Heartsongs of Courage from an “Environmental Elder”
By Marc McGinnes
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve found myself teetering on the edge of despair. In the midst of the environmental movement, we’ve won important victories and suffered agonizing defeats. Our hearts have been buffeted and broken and our resolve has sometimes been shaken. What’s to be done with our heartbreak and despair?
To understand and work through my own heartbreak at the continuing predations of the consumptive economy upon people and the ecological community of the whole world, I had to go deep within myself to examine closely my innermost motivations and expectations. Why was I taking my work so seriously? Was I taking myself too seriously? Was I spiritually and emotionally fit for such a hard slog? How often and to what extent was I sufficiently awake, or was I walking around half or fully asleep? Did my efforts really matter much at all?
Falling for Earth
When I was a young man, thousands of men, mostly men like me, were fighting in Vietnam. At the same time, many men and women were fighting segregation and injustice in America’s deep south and in other places across the country. All of them were putting their lives on the line. I was not among them. I was in law school trying to figure out if I wanted to become a lawyer and, if so, what kind.
By the time I saw the whole Earth from outer space, I had become a well-trained lawyer and fallen in love, not with the law but with a woman with whom I wished to have children.
When I saw the Earthrise image for the first time, I fell head over heels in love with the Earth, a love more vast and intense than any love I have ever known, and when I got Pete McCloskey’s call inviting me to come work in Santa Barbara, California in the aftermath of the January 1969 oil spill, I threw myself headlong and heart-first into work that I hoped to do for all of my life.
When I entered the fight, my fighting skills were honed and at the ready, and I was hoping that in my lifetime, most people would come to hold the Earth in deep reverence. I was hoping for too much, and it was that hope that made me vulnerable to disappointment and despair when the forces of the consumptive economy rallied themselves to counter the efforts of the environmental movement that I had helped to get underway.
My teeth are all my originals, but it felt like all of them had been knocked out by the blows I suffered when my efforts and those of my companions went to naught, and when Whole Earth consciousness seemed a chimera destined to fade and disperse.
Yes, I had hoped for too much to take place in my lifetime. No, I have not given up on hope. In order to continue my work in good spirit and fine tune, I’ve found it necessary to move beyond hope as a source of motivation to keep on moving forward in the face of disappointment and despair.
It’s been a tall order for me to face. Vivid in my mind were the words I heard Wendell Berry say during one of his visits to Santa Barbara when I was asked whether or not he was hopeful as he went about his work. “Isn’t hope a virtue? If you haven’t got any, well, you surely should find a way to get some.”
Like many, if not most of us, I was afraid to fully face and get to the roots of my despair. For years, I wallowed in and at the edges of my despair, and I licked my wounds until I was tired of their bitter taste.
During the unraveling of my second marriage of many years, I felt caught up in a torpor of hopelessness and I felt myself sinking to the bottom, and when we decided to live apart, I bottomed out.
The rugs on which I had stood, wobbling so long, were pulled from under my feet, and I had no choice but to get better footing somehow. I had to decide what meaning to make of the rest of my life. I was at a fork in the road, and I really had no choice but to fully face and confront the roots of my despair and find a way through to a stronger sense of presence in order to keep on serving my purpose. As many wise traditions seek to teach us, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
I did what was needed to invent myself anew.
What freed me up to undertake and accomplish my task centered on embracing both my ignorance and my certainty: my ignorance about how my efforts could ever lead to the sustainable world I envision, and my ignorance of what will actually come to pass in the future; the certainty of my gratitude and love for the Earth, for the opportunity to be and do what I can in service to the Earth so long as I live, right up to the moment I die and my spirit moves on.
As a young athlete, I always practiced beautifully, because during practice I had no fear of failure. As a football quarterback, none of my errant passes in practice would lead to defeat in real games, and in baseball, none of my strikeouts in practice carried such weight either. But in real games, my fear of failure too often kept me from doing my very best.
I know now that failure is a fact of life, best regarded not as a sin, but as something that gifts us new perspectives of how to be and what to do better.
Failure can lighten up the shadows. It can illuminate opportunities that had been hidden in the darkness, just out of sight. Failure can be a creative place if we open ourselves to what failure can show us. Each failure can shine a light on another aspect of what was or might have been missing that would have allowed for success.
When we’re playing “the big game” in our lives, we confront failure on a regular, even daily basis. The game we are playing is a big one indeed. It is a game in which getting a handle on our fears will help us to keep doing our best in the face of failure, disappointment, and despair.
I want so much to live among others who are in reverence for the Earth, and so I’m constantly devastated to find myself in the midst of consumer culture and the consumptive economy. When I accept my ignorance and come to gratitude and humility, I can muster compassion and forgiveness for myself and my shortcomings. If I could not do this, I would be crippled.
During meditation on the beach one day, what I call a “heart’s breath song” came to me. As I inhaled, the word “forgiven” whispered itself into my heart and inner being, and as I exhaled I heard my heart and inner being whisper “forgiving.”
After several minutes of this, I felt bathed in healing light and energy. I was filled to the brim with gratitude for the gift of this experience, and it has become one of my core practices of gratitude and grace which bring me to center and to presence.
Such practices lift me out of the pits of disappointment and despair in which, idealist that I am, I’m prone to stumble into from time to time. They help me to recognize the beauty and abundance that abound and are available to draw upon, to move forward in good spirits in the company of people I love and who love me.
My practice is to come to center throughout the day. What that means to me is to call my own awareness to be present in the present moment, what Ram Dass called “being here now.”
In presence, I abide in conscious awareness. It’s a means of awakening and remaining awake, of fending off apathy, torpor, and discouragement. It’s a means to quiet anger and dissolve fear. It’s a means to come to balance, acceptance, and clarity, to choose what we want our purpose to be and to align our actions to fulfill it as best we can, through thick and thin.
There is no “Away”
It’s so easy to get distracted by illusion, and distraction is a stealthy foe. Distraction lies at the heart of mindless consumerism. Instead, let us be mindful.
When we’re present and noticing being here now, we become awake to the complex field of relationships within which we exist.
It’s wondrous to realize that our understanding is limited compared to our far-reaching entanglement in the web of life. We can feel profound humility in the face of complexity. Life isn’t an illusion but rather a circumstance about which we manufacture illusions.
One of the illusions we manufacture is the idea that our actions are of no consequence. Our actions always have consequences; some intended and some unintended.
Why not just pour this waste on the ground, in the lake, in the river, in the pond, in the ocean, into the air? Let’s put it “somewhere else.”
But my “somewhere else” is someone else’s “here.” In reality, there is no “somewhere else.”
We’re all in the soup together, in the stew, in the pot, where things are heating up. There is no “away.”
When I was a boy riding beside Grandfather Edgar in his old car with our windows wide open, I once opened a Baby Ruth bar, offered him a bite, and tossed the wrapper out the window and away.
Grandfather pumped the tired brakes to a stop, turned off the ignition, and said to me, “I will wait here while you go back and pick up that wrapper and put it in your pocket until we get home.”
“Go lightly on the land, and by all means don’t litter.” This was the message he delivered unspoken, since in my surprised gaze at his face I saw that his lips were unmoving. He was a picture of kind patience.
Our challenge is to widen ourselves to include the whole world and to be a respectful part of it. When we know this about ourselves, we don’t make use of the world as a garbage bin. We don’t try to get rid of things by carelessly putting them on or into the land or waters or air or fire. From these four elements we ourselves have come to be.
We are challenged to turn the heat down, both for our climate and within ourselves, and I believe that we have the capacity to do so if we can come to our senses. Cooler heads than those who have steered the consumptive economy into such a ditch are needed in order to lead the effort to cooler ways to proceed in the future. The path to cooling things down will not be industrial or technological. It will require a shift in and further evolution of human consciousness.
We are consequential, and we could gratefully embrace that obvious fact of life. We may pray, each in our own way, to be of service in leading our lives. We may pray, each in our way, to have the courage it takes to fulfill such a commitment.
I know that my prayers are essential in my process of making meaning of and in the world. In one way or another, I pray all the time these days.
We can choose to be citizens. Whole Earth consciousness and citizenship is achieved through an ongoing practice of choosing to gratefully and humbly serve the needs of the larger Whole Earth community.
It’s a process, and the process begins with choosing to be in conscious awareness. Choice is a subject explored extensively by philosophers. Like my fellow humans, I often seem to make the choice to avoid this state of mindfulness, as one temptation or another leads me to choose to exist on a lesser plane, to narrow down onto something I desire, something I think I need. For me, it takes daily practice to keep awake and on task.
At our best, we humans are kind and compassionate to each other. At our worst, we murder and enslave. Speaking for myself, at my worst, I fall asleep, I forget who I am and what I’m for. At my best, I am an Earthangel, alive to my capacity for gratitude and in love with the whole Earth.
On Despair and Active Hope
One of the reasons I stopped teaching regularly was that, having hoped for too much, I lost hope.
Not only had I hoped for too much in the future, I was caught up in hoping backwards into the past, and that dreadful combination had driven me off-center and out of the present.
I no longer felt I could be an authentic source of inspiration to my students and colleagues. My purpose had been to be an inspiring presence. I came to a place along my path where I became dispirited, where I looked into the abyss of despair. I was seething with a kind of sour anger born of disappointment, rather than the clean, bright, clear resolve that is needed to sustain the kind of work that is my purpose.
For some time now, I have been thinking a lot about hope, and have considered its uses and misuses as deeply as I am able. Is hope needed? Is it really a virtue, and to what extent it can actually be a burden? I challenged myself to think anew about hope, think differently, to entertain other ideas about something I had been taught one should always have, no matter what.
A couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of seeking a better understanding of hope, I dropped in to speak with my friend Sigrid Wright to catch up with each other. Her eyes lit up when I began talking about my inner wrestlings about hope and despair, and she promptly performed one of the miracles that makes her the Earthangel that she is for me and so many others.
“Have you seen this?” she asked as she held out a book. “It has been helpful to me.”
The book she handed to me was Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. I hadn’t come across it, but I had met Joanna years before and had read several of her other writings. I thought of her as a medicine woman, delivering messages of surpassing wisdom and grace.
As I took the book in my hand, it seemed to open itself up to just the page I was meant to see first. Had Sigrid performed some kind of feat of kinetic ventriloquism? The words my eyes fell upon concerned the Earthrise photograph that I saw and that had knocked me into Whole Earth consciousness so long ago. I read the words of astronaut Bill Anders who had taken the photo. “We came all this way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Everything about Active Hope is familiar to me, especially the role of centering in gratitude and the knowledge that we must be and act as citizens to work together to confront the craziness of the consumptive economic and political system.
Within a few weeks, I submitted a proposal to teach a seminar that I called “Hope That Works” during the Spring 2017 term for the UCSB Environmental Studies Program, and I was enthusiastically approved. The seminar centered on a consideration of the ideas set forth in Active Hope and readings I selected to accompany it, together with discussions with various members of the faculty concerning their views about the place of hope in their work and lives.
This step was so important for me! It reaffirmed my duty as an Earthling elder to express my conviction, once again, that we are much more powerful than the forces of materialism and greed that have brought about the consumptive economy and the culture of consumerism and their politics.
Finding Grace in Gratitude
One can feel overwhelmed by despair, such despair that there doesn’t seem to be a way out. New diagnosable conditions are being defined in response to this suffering: climate-anxiety. Eco-grief. Eco-anxiety.
It’s a new reason to feel bad, a different condition from anything most people living in “modern” society have ever confronted before. There are support groups and eco-grief pills. A new fear arises: that the climate goes into chaos and we can’t depend on it to be the cornucopia of all that consumption. Then what?
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation had no choice but to surrender his body and the bodies of his people to “the white man’s way.” Was it not what has now been named “eco-grief” that wracked his heart, mind, and spirit as he was forced to do so?
Maybe the consumption economy is falling apart. The way to get through and not be pulled under by grief is to make the transition to more simple and respectful living. The choice-point is now here, and becoming more and more clear.
Many people have come to me to share their worries about the future. It is a blessing for which I am grateful. We share our fears so we can better get a handle on them, to keep them from overwhelming us. “Yes,” we say to each other, “it’s scary.”
At this point, many of my students with whom I’ve huddled in this way have said, “If only everyone would wake up and see what’s happening, then we all could….”
In one way or another, I would say to them that I was quite sure that “everyone would not” and that “we all could not” do anything in one way or another about the future.
What kind of help was that for me to offer to anyone in distress about the future, especially to a young person?!
Into the quiet that followed my saying these words, I would say, “On the scale of the problems we’re dealing with, I think that we may be one hundred percent certain that everyone and we all will never do or not do anything. In our diversity we should not hope to achieve unanimity, as that would be to hope for an impossibility, given the scale of the conditions.”
To get through our fears and to keep on with our work we need to avoid being diverted by misplaced hopes and impossible dreams.
All that is needed is a critical mass of people working within any human population to bring about a shift in the beliefs and behavior of most of the members of their wider community; most but never all, and I think that is a good thing. Hoping for the impossible is not only self-defeating, it is a toxic pollutant in the environment.
We don’t know what’s going to happen. So let’s start by accepting that as true. We don’t know. That comes first.
Secondly, we fear what might happen. Okay, we can count that as true too.
Third, since we know that we don’t know what will happen and have accepted that fact, we can decide if we are going to let either our fears or our hopes distract from our efforts to bring into being a critical mass of people who think and behave like us in order to move away from overconsumption.
So, knowing that we don’t know is the place to begin. That’s the place to build upon. From there, you may see yourself as the sacred being that you are. You may see yourself as this beautiful, luminous person here in the present, knowing that you don’t know.
And what do we know? That we are a part of everything. That we are a part of our friends, that we have good in us and that we don’t have to be perfect to be okay. That we are a part of a movement that will build the critical mass needed to transform from overconsumption into balance.
Build upon your practices of gratitude and humility. Be present. Be centered. Be of brave heart and frisky spirit. Focus on forgiveness. Commit to forgiveness of your own failures and the failures of others. Commit to gracefully seeking and receiving the help that you need. Honor all of the connections and relationships that sustain you. And then work as hard as you can for the world you are determined to bring into being.
It is clear to me that gratitude is essential to our work. Gratitude is its own reward. As a state of consciousness, gratitude begets reverence. As I see it, we either come to reverence or we and much else comes to bust.
Whatever you may believe about how it is we came to be here and what this lifetime is about, you can be sure that if you’re here, that this is where you belong on your journey. And here we are on this magnificent gem in space, resident on a planet with a gentle moon, and the sun as our star at just the right distance from us to be nurturing to us and the other forms of life that arise here.
Adapted from In Love with Earth: Testimonies and Heartsongs from an Environmental Elder, by Marc McGinnes, Community Environmental Council & Mercury Press International, 2018
About the Author
Marc McGinnes, Professor Emeritus and a founding member of UC Santa Barbara’s Environmental Studies Program, is a graduate of Stanford University, where he was an honors student in history and an intercollegiate athlete in four sports, and of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). Following post-doctoral studies, he joined the San Francisco law firm of Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges as an attorney working for clients in the engineering and construction industries. In 1969 he moved to Santa Barbara in order to begin work as an environmental lawyer in the aftermath of the offshore oil platform blowout and spill early that year.
He served as chair of the January 28 Committee which presented the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights at the national Environmental Rights Day conference on the first anniversary of the blowout and spill. He then became the founding president of the Community Environmental Council (1970), one of the nation’s first community-based environmental education centers, and in 1971 he accepted the invitation to join the faculty at UCSB, where he developed and taught ten courses in the areas of environmental law, policy, dispute resolution, and ecopsychology, including the longest running undergraduate course in environmental law in the United States. McGinnes is the author of Principles of Environmental Law (Rainbow Bridge 1980), Rise Up: A Stilter’s Adventure in Higher Consciousness (2017), and his latest work, In Love With Earth: Testimonies and heartsongs from an environmental elder.
In addition to his academic teaching and scholarship, McGinnes has been a pioneer in the professional practices of environmental law and legal ecology since 1969, and in 1977 he led the founding of the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), a regionally-centered public interest environmental law firm. EDC led a successful 6-year struggle on behalf of Native American groups to prevent the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility near Pt. Conception on land held by them to be sacred. EDC lawyers have represented dozens of environmental organizations and others in scores of cases involving a wide variety of planning and environmental protection issues.
From 1970 to the present McGinnes has served as a director and advisor to numerous non-profit organizations including the Congress on Optimum Population and Environment (Chicago), Earth Island Institute (San Francisco), Antioch University (Santa Barbara) and Viridis Graduate Institute (Santa Barbara). He’s been interviewed in a wide variety of publications and was featured prominently in the 2019 film, Better Together, spotlighting 50 years of Santa Barbara activism.
Marc looks forward to a season as Earth Ambassador on the University of Colorado Semester at Sea program, providing outreach and lectures on what was accomplished and what could be possible for the Earth, to celebrate and motivate action for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.