Joanna Macy advocates 'Work That Reconnects' in Vermont visit


BRATTLEBORO >> When 87-year-old activist and author Joanna Macy appeared recently on the national public radio program "On Being," she spoke of "our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life."

Macy could have been talking about her improbable yet seemingly seamless journey from her birth in California to childhood in New York City, Fulbright scholarship in France, CIA job in Cold War Germany, Peace Corps work alongside the Dalai Lama in post-colonial India, and now, back in the United States, the Buddhist-inspired talks she gives everywhere from her home in Berkeley to, on Saturday night, Brattleboro.

But Macy instead was referring to a larger message, one she shared with a capacity crowd squeezed into this town's Centre Congregational Church.

"Threats to life on earth, from climate chaos to permanent war, can sink us deeper in denial," she said, "or awaken us to our moral beauty and mutual belonging."

Macy is encouraging people to rise up to the latter.

"To learn about our world involves a desire and capacity to be fully present, and that is hard to do when what's here is unraveling," she said. "Why bother at all? That question arose for me 40 years ago. It's also known and felt by many of you right here."

Macy finds the answer in what she calls the "Work That Reconnects" — acknowledging the pain as a source of motivation to heal it.

"What it boils down to is not being afraid of the suffering of the world," she said. "When you're not afraid, you can go right out there — nothing can stop you. Bring forth your courage and your creativity."

Macy calls the current period the "Great Turning," in which one group is "business as usual" as it squeezes people and the planet for economic growth, a second group is disconsolate about the resulting problems, and a third group, rather than sticking to the status quo or falling into fear, sees an opportunity to work toward "a life-sustaining society."

"A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world," she writes on her website, "We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs."

Through teaching and such books as "Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy," Macy encourages people to do three things: First, take personal action such as recycling or attending rallies.

"Work of this kind buys time," she says.

Second, analyze current systems to understand inherent problems and potential solutions.

"What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity?" she asks. "What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our Earth as supply house and sewer?"

And third, shift one's consciousness toward caring and connection.

"The realizations we make in the third dimension of the Great Turning save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis," she says. "They help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand, or to turn on each other, for scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage.

"When we see how this system operates, we are less tempted to demonize the politicians and corporate CEOs who are in bondage to it," she continues. "Not waiting for our national or state politicos to catch up with us, we are banding together, taking action in our own communities."

The teacher and translator visited Vermont upon the invitation of William and Kirstin Edelglass of Marlboro College, which utilizes her teachings in its undergraduate, graduate and master of business administration programs because of her combination of idealism and pragmatism.

Macy doesn't favor one or the other. She spoke of the need for both wisdom and compassion, experiencing the painful truth of the world's plight and embracing the planet wholeheartedly.

"We're caught in a culture that, because of the almost maniacal need to keep growing, is undertaking actions whose disastrous consequences last forever," she said. "We really need each other now to take in what is happening. There's no private salvation. We're in this together."

Macy has coauthored "A Year with Rilke," a collection of the writing of the late 1800s to early 1900s poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who also chronicled a turn-of-century world-altering period.

"Just give me a little more time," she read from Rilke's "Book of Hours: Love Poems to God." "I want to love the things / as no one has thought to love them, / until they're worthy of you and real."

"I just love that," Macy responded. "That's what we're here to do at a time when the world is coming apart."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and correspondent who can be contacted at


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