To reframe what we’ve generally been told about mental anguish and suffering by the mental illness system is a very important part of healing. Psychiatry makes out that the individual is sick. A much more honest as well as empowering way to view much mental anguish is to see ourselves as part of the web of life. Our despair is telling us something very real and valid. We should listen to it and pay attention and learn. Feeling pain is not a weakness, it is a capacity. We can learn to let it fuel us rather than cripple us.
The below is an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy from Personal Transformations:
Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.
Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling “pain for the world.”
In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.
Feeling the pain of the world is not a weakness. This is God-given or, put another way, an aspect of our Buddha nature. This openness of heart that characterizes the caring individual is a function of maturity. Don’t ever apologize for the tears you shed on behalf of other beings. This is, in its essence, not craziness, but compassion. This capacity to speak out on behalf of others, because you have the right to, because you can suffer with them, is part of our spiritual nature.
PT: Realizing that despair comes out of compassion legitimizes what people feel and provides a context for addressing what they feel.
Joanna: It also provides a context for action. It transforms the pain that isolated them.
PT: How are we to relate to despair?
Joanna: We have to honor and own this pain for the world, recognizing it as a natural response to an unprecedented moment in history. We are part of a huge civilization, intricate in its technology and powerful in its institutions, that is destroying the very basis of life. When have people had this experience before in our history? We ask people to relate to what they experience with respect and compassion for themselves. They’re not just griping and grumping. It is absolutely shattering when we open our eyes and see that we are actually, in an accelerating fashion, destroying the future.
PT: As people take in the staggering enormity of what we’re faced with, how do you address their sense of being insignificant and feeling overwhelmed, as if what they do will make no difference?
Joanna: People fear that if they let despair in, they’ll be paralyzed because they are just one person. Paradoxically, by allowing ourselves to feel our pain for the world, we open ourselves up to the web of life, and we realize that we’re not alone. I think it’s a cardinal mistake to try to act alone. The myth of the rugged individual, riding as the Lone Ranger to save our society, is a sure recipe for going crazy. The response that is appropriate and that this work elicits is to grow a sense of solidarity with others and to elaborate a whole new sense of what our resources are and what our power is. (read the rest here)
So often we blame all the wrong things for our despair. Really, it’s all so very simple. Sadly and tragically simple. We need to wake up.
More posts that feature Joanna Macy’s work:
- How Life Organizes
- To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe
- Spirituality and politics (activism) — being in the world
- The great turning: the shift from industrial growth society to a life sustaining society
Books by Joanna Macy: