At 91, Joanna Macy still sees the good in — and hope — for all of us
By De Herman
One is never too old to be a catalyst for positive change. Indeed, the voices of our elders are needed now more than ever. Joanna Macy is a prime example.
“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment is not that we are on the way to destroying our world—we’ve actually been on the way quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves, and to each other. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world.”
(Picture of Macy, above, at home in Berkeley, by De Herman.)
This is how Joanna Macy, Ph.D., sees humanity at this time in the story of our existence.
Macy is a visionary, anti-nuclear activist, writer, deep ecologist, systems theorist, teacher, Buddhist scholar and, at 91, a wise elder. It’s been a long and circuitous life journey, woven by the threads of spiritual seeking, insatiable curiosity and passion for justice and activism. Her work, as described on her website, “addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and postmodern science.”
In 1978, taking lessons from grassroots activism, wisdom from East and West, and her spiritual stirrings, Macy initiated the workshops that would eventually be known as the Work That Reconnects. More than 40 years later, the workshop exercises invite participants of all ages and backgrounds “into fresh relationships with our world, and not only arouse our passion to protect life, but also steady us in a mutual belonging more real than our fears and even hopes.”
Those hopes and fears often came to Macy in dreams. They still do. She recalled a recent one “of a wave at the beach. The sand is marked by many footprints. With the incoming tide, there’s a whoosh and a great flat circle of water washes up on the beach and withdraws. And it just wipes out everything. And so I thought, that’s what can happen. With the societal collapse that is coming with climate breakdown, it shows all we’ll lose. And I shudder. Whether Shakespeare or the Buddha, the cultural gifts of our whole human story could all just go…pshhhh. After that wave receded, it looked as if nothing had ever been there.”
A Depression era child and the middle of three children, Macy was born in California and grew up in New York City, but she felt most at home at her paternal grandfather’s farm, east of Buffalo. The seven summers she spent there from ages 9 to 16 would inspire the growing girl’s lifelong bond with nature and spirituality, reinforced by her relationship with a maple tree and a horse.
“What’s coming so strongly now are the memories of my years at my grandfather’s farm. It’s where my mind wants to go now,” she said when we talked last August at her Berkeley, California home. “I close my eyes and I can almost smell again, hear the thudding of the horses’ hooves and the cows returning from pasture, coming into the barn. This seems so vivid to me. It’s been 75 years and it still fills me with longing and gratitude.”
After embracing Christianity in her youth, she later rejected its institutional version and embraced Buddhism, “although I’m doing it with a heart that grew up with the Sermon on the Mount,” she says. But it was not an easy path.
“After dropping the studying of the faith of my fathers, I felt somewhat at sea until 15 years later with three children, and a husband helping run the American Peace Corps in India. There I encountered the Tibetan refugees,” she recalled. “I was working with them, for them, so they could stay together — both lay people and lamas and monks — and not be scattered into road gangs and residential schools. In serving them, my life was changed by their way of being human and from then on I was devoted to the study and practice of Buddhist teachings.”
(Below, Joanna Macy speaking at Bioneers in 2009)
Today, Macy is still writing, and continues to advocate for social and environmental justice as she elucidates the intersection of Buddhism and systems science. But she is also contemplating the legacy she may leave her children and grandchildren. What does she want them to remember when they think of her?
“That I love this world,” is her unhesitating reply. “I hope they get that from me. That I love this world. And the world loves you back. There’s this reciprocity.”
The challenge for humanity, as she sees it, is to wake up, demonstrate care for one another over financial gain, change our thinking and behavior and celebrate life on Earth.
One person who has embraced that challenge, is teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, whose picture Macy has on her refrigerator. “Oh, she lives in my heart,” Macy says. What would she say if the two talked? “Oh, my, why I would want to thank her, and bless her. And encourage her to keep on.”
But she feels the despair of the youth protesters, too. And she wishes others could feel it and make different choices, such as “those out here, just an hour away at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Lab where the latest forms of nuclear weapons are being insanely produced, far more than we need, far more different ways to kill, millions pouring in there, and they’re automatic — preparing a collective death, as if we have abdicated our capacity to choose,” she said.
“We could wake up and choose. That’s what Yahweh said right at the beginning, didn’t He? ‘I’ve set before you, Life and Death. Therefore, choose Life.’ It’s that simple!”
De Fischler Herman is a Rabbinic Pastor, Chaplain, Spiritual Director and Sage-ing Mentor.
This article is adapted from a longer piece by De Herman — Joanna Macy, PhD: The Tireless Voice of a Wise Elder Activist — published in the Journal of Health and Human Experience, and is republished with kind permission of the author.
Headline photo by BEVNorton/Creative Commons