Joanna Macy and the Great Turning

Muir Woods, 2010

At her recent talk at CIIS, Joanna Macy posed the following question: "How do you dare to give yourself to something when the outcome is uncertain?" 

An apropos question, seeing as most of us there were some iteration of environmentalist/deep ecologist/Buddhist/spiritual seeker/nature lover/naturalist and we were there to hear her thoughts on what the hell we can do to stop the wholesale destruction of the planet. I'm sure many of us there had wondered, more than once, why we should even bother to continue the struggle when things can seem so bleak in the face of the Deep Horizon disaster or mountaintop mining or wolf slaughter or clear-cutting.

Her answer: "That's what brings us alive -- to go toward things that are uncertain."

She would know something about that in her line of work. One of her main focuses is on the Great Turning, which she describes as the move from industrial growth society to "a life-sustaining civilization." There's no guarantee that the Great Turning will happen. Some might even argue it isn't going to happen and that we're heading toward something more like the "great unraveling." But Macy doesn't let the uncertainty stop her. The key here is that it enlivens her...and it enlivens all of us.

She spoke that night of "risking into life." Jumping in with both feet and not stopping to worry about the thousands of things that could go wrong. She said that without risk "we can't discover the full measure of our creativity or courage."

Let me just write that one more time: without risk, we can't discover the full measure of our creativity or courage. Take a moment to let that sink in.


This statement could apply to any aspect of our lives: love, a job search, a business endeavor, deciding where to live, deciding whether to take that trip to Fiji or Europe or Thailand. Without taking the risk, how can we know what we're made of? We have to ask ourselves, as my friend Cynthia would say, "How good can it get?"

So how do we get around the feeling that this is difficult, that bringing about the Great Turning (or a new relationship or a new job or a new life) is an insurmountable task?

By allowing. By surrendering. By letting go of our ideas of how it should look, should happen, should be.

"This work will feel like something coming through us...like grace. If that's our compass we don't have to struggle. The power comes through us," Macy said. "When we don't need to see the results of our actions, we're liberated. We can just act."