The Slow-Cooked Sentence

A lesson on active hope by philosopher Joanna Macy

Rachael Conlin Levy

The realization that we’ve a dozen years to avert ecological crisis leaves me feeling like a jackrabbit zigzagging in and out of a car’s headlights. What were pinpricks of danger are now white-hot beams illuminating a threat of such magnitude that it momentarily stuns me before I descend into panic.

I veer one direction.

Do I plant one more tree in the yard? 

Reverse course.

Should I jettison our cars?

Careen through the days.

How does our family become vegetarian when I’ve got teen-age athletes running 30 or more miles a week, and a 10-year-old who can finish off a whole pizza?

Desperate and overwhelmed, I try to remember Barbara Kingsolver’s advice that hope is as intentional and necessary as putting on one’s shoes before leaving the house.

Can I justify the carbon emissions spent to fly home for Thanksgiving?

But end up ricocheting off the news. Deny. Confront.

What’s Thanksgiving without turkey?

I donate the equivalent of airfare to a campaign for clean air and clean energy in my state, then conscript husband and youngest child into canvassing our neighborhood for Tuesday’s vote over Washington’s carbon fee. Our response to the future’s uncertainty propels me to act. I’ve got three older kids launching themselves into the world that’s overheating, and a fourth fighting for breath now. What will the air be like in 2030?

At a low point this week, I reached out to my siblings with a text message: Where do you see yourself in 12 years?

Sibling No. 1: no idea. any easier questions?

Me: Come on. Humor me. I’m having an existential crisis.

Sibling No. 1: i don’t really like to think that far into the future.

Me: Why not?

Sibling No. 1: i’ll think about it some more when I’m off work.

Sibling No. 2: Lol … I don’t like to think about that either. Probably the same place that I am at now except for having a 23 and a 20 year old.

Sibling No. 3: (emoji of a shrugging caucasian woman.)

“When we first become aware of the grimness of our situation, it can come as quite a shock. … When these issues do come up in conversation, they are often met by awkward silences,” wrote Joanna Macy who is a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and pioneering philosopher of ecology.

In her book “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in without Going Crazy” that she co-authored with Chris Johnstone, Macy outlines the active hope that Kingsolver alludes to, a hope that is a practice, like yoga or gardening, that we do rather than have. To actively hope involves three steps, Macy said: We must take a clear view of reality, identify what we hope for in terms of direction we’d like things to move in or values we’d like to see expressed, and then take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.

Three hours pass before my phone lights up again; two out of my five siblings want to keep talking. This time the texting touches on frustrations, limitations, and steps we could take. Such conversations must come with greater frequency and among widening circles of people, because our world’s health is the defining story of our lives. I’m no longer jackrabbit-ing out of harm’s way, but am facing it.

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