Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power (Revised Edition)
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
February 1, 2023
By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. New World Library, 2022. 288 pages. $18.95/paperback or eBook.
Most books about the mess we’re in these days either expose terrifying problems or offer aspirational solutions. Active Hope starts with the assumption that neither is the key for finding our way forward. Rather, our essential task is to build our inner capacity to see, connect, gather resources, and go forth. And this, the authors argue persuasively, is also the best recipe for living a life of great meaning and joy.
They situate us in the deadening time of Business as Usual. Caught between the Great Unraveling, as our very systems lose their coherence, and the Great Turning toward a livable future, we’re trapped in a double reality: we’re fine; we’re doomed. The most critical need is to unblock our numbed response. Though grief for the world is culturally forbidden territory, and fear threatens to paralyze, both can be our friends. Noticing and naming our fears alerts us to real danger, and feeling our grief allows us to root in the larger reality of our deep connection and caring.
In the section on seeing with new eyes, we are challenged to widen and deepen our sense of both self and time. Our culture centers on immediate, individual gratification. Yet when we can stretch our sense of ourselves out ever farther—beyond our own skin to our loved ones, our tribe, our species, all life, the whole planet—then we can want for ourselves, passionately and wholeheartedly, without danger of being either selfish or patronizing. When we can deepen our felt sense of time, beyond now and the few years surrounding it, to take in the ancestors who are cheering us on from the past and the seventh generation who are looking back in wonder and respect, then our choices in the present gain context and greater meaning.
What if we could think of ourselves as engaged in a great team sport, taking a lesson from serious athletes who stretch together beyond comfort—or even what seems possible—and rest intentionally as well? We are invited to go forth with imagination and vision, cultivating our enthusiasm as a precious renewable resource, aware of the possibility of positive tipping points. The unexpected resilience and creative power of life itself may turn out to be the game-changing ingredient, and the greatest gift we can give our world may be that of paying attention and being open to life acting through us.
Active Hope offers the compelling frame of the adventure story, where the protagonists always face obstacles that seem overwhelming but, nevertheless, set off to discover the allies, tools, and wisdom that will help them succeed. What if this is the essential adventure of our time, and we are its protagonists? We are propelled forward not just by information about problems and solutions, nor by our fears alone, but by a deeply rooted sense of connection: the essence of our very identity as part of the web of life is under attack, and our vision of what it means to be alive and whole is too palpable and compelling to ignore.
A Buddhist sensibility infuses this book, complementing and enriching our Quaker/Abrahamic perspectives, reminding us of the reality of universal truths. The book is consistently accessible, with clear language, many subheadings that serve as guideposts along the way, illustrative stories, and “Try This” boxes. Open-ended questions and prompts, such as When I consider . . . , What troubles me . . . , I love . . . , Something that inspires me . . . , I am drained/energized by . . . , invite deeper individual or group reflection. Those looking for more are directed to the resources of the authors’ Active Hope project.
These words only scratch the surface of the wisdom to be found in this book. It offers medicine of the best kind, and serves as a trustworthy guide to these perilous times. Newly revised after ten years, it’s available for anybody who missed it the first time around, and those who savored it back then have the opportunity to benefit from its healing and bracing message anew. Here are the authors’ final words for us:
What helps us face the mess we’re in and take part in the Great Turning is the knowledge that each of us has something of great value to offer, a priceless role to play. In rising to the challenge of playing our best role, we discover something precious that both enriches our lives and adds to the healing of our world.
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. Author of Money and Soul, her newest titles are That Clear and Certain Sound and a second volume of poetry, Encounters with the Sacred and the Profane. She blogs at pamelahaines.substack.com.
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