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Active Hope

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy
by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012
238 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen

For everyone concerned about the health and survival of our planet, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy is a timely and shining arrival, each page packed with wisdom, hope, and good information, all infused with a deep spirituality that will especially resonate with spiritual directors. Author and ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, partnered with Chris Johnstone, an author and medical doctor with specialties in resilience, addictions, behavioral medicine, and the psychological dimensions of planetary crisis, to write Active Hope. Readers are the fortunate recipients of their scholarship and experience, taught in workshops around the world.

The book is divided into three main sections, each addressing a stage of what the authors call “the spiral model of the Work that Reconnects”: “The Great Turning,” “Seeing with New Eyes¸” and “Going Forth” (6). The spiral is offered as a spiritual practice, to be tapped into as a source of strength and renewal (40). A poem called “Trusting the Spiral” (35) captures the heart of the matter so beautifully that it would be worth buying the book for this page alone.

In story and parable, and with illuminating graphics, the authors model how it is that each of us can embrace what the authors call “active hope,” a practice defined as “becoming participants in bringing about what we hope for” (3). The book gives details about how “business as usual”—pushing economic growth and increasing consumption at the expense of the Earth and its people—has led to the current “great unraveling” witnessed in climate change, loss of resources and species, war, and worsening economies (16, 17). Readers are urged, in the words of the famous Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, to “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying” (75). This awareness of our “radical interconnectedness” (66) will open us to “a source of strength and resilience as old and enduring as life itself” that will empower us to act on behalf of the world (76), moved to be a part of the “great turning” that is happening even now as people take life-giving action, motivated by a core of compassion and a new way of seeing the world (31-32).

Two of the book’s many insightful images vividly portray how very recently the current generations have arrived on the planet, and how “we have used up more resources and fuel than in all human history before this” (155-56). We are encouraged to think of our ancestors as our allies, and ourselves “as the ancestors of future generations” (157), considering how our present actions will impact those who will come after us “when the oil age is over” (130).

The authors call us to let “the vaster story of our planet ... imbue the most ordinary acts with meaning and purpose” (160), knowing that we are part of something greater than ourselves (114-15). In their clear love for our world, alongside unstinting descriptions of its pain, these visionaries lead us toward hope and the great turning. Spiritual directors will resonate with the poems and themes, reflect upon their own lives, and receive helpful tools to accompany spiritual directees.

Jacqueline Leksen completed a master’s degree in transforming spirituality with an emphasis in spiritual direction at Seattle University, Washington, USA. She offers spiritual direction in Lynnwood and Seattle, Washington, where she works as a host in a drop-in center for people who have no permanent home. She loves romping with her grand boys, taking long walks under grey or sunny skies with her large puppy, and putting words to paper for fun and with the hope of being a part of righting some of the wrongs in the world.

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