Resistance and Regeneration
by Michael Rice
I am grateful that we begin with Gratitude. I am grateful that I was born human – or at all – for my most recent incarnation was as a bumblebee! I am grateful that I grew up my first six years in a beautiful garden, forty feet wide and sloping down a full 200 feet with an unobstructed view of distant mountains. I am grateful to have been educated from age six in 1936 until 1941 at Quakerschool Eerde in Ommen, The Netherlands. This boarding school was established, in the wake of Hitler’s accession to power, to educate children of diplomats and foreign NGO workers and, in particular, to provide refuge for Jewish children from Germany. And grateful that my mother and I were able to leave Europe on what proved to be the last refugee boat to cross the Atlantic in 1941 – and thus escape the fate of all 14 Jewish children who were still trapped at the school in 1943.
I’m grateful also that Carolyn Treadway brought my wife Nancy and me to Joanna Macy’s workshop in Milwaukee in 1983. I remember a milling, in which my last stop was in front of the other survivor of an imagined nuclear holocaust, and also a priceless cradling. And I’m grateful that, numerous workshops later, and with my second wife Sondra (Nancy having died in 1988 of cancer), I participated in a ten-day intensive among redwoods near Santa Cruz. Fran Macy gave a five-minute “newscast” each morning; on my birthday he reported on the Columbine High School massacre. Nonetheless, we celebrated my 69th birthday and the forthcoming 70th of Joanna’s.
What prompts this foray into the past is my recognition of the way Joanna’s work has matured during the 34 years that our paths have crossed, repeatedly though not nearly often enough.
In 1983, many of us were involved in the Nuclear Freeze campaign. It was the time of the first Reagan administration, with its Contra War in Central America, its disastrous trickle-down economics, its “Evil Empire” rhetoric and reckless nuclear arms race. (The summer before, Nancy and I had been in a crowd of 750,000 nuclear disarmament activists in Central Park in NYC.) Along with the 1983 workshop’s Despair work about nuclear annihilation, there came a sense of Empowerment, buttressed by appreciation of the gifts of life, the miraculous workings of the human hand and mind. It seemed that Joanna’s basic orientation was one of optimism.
Several workshops later, in the 1990s, Sondra and I were present when Joanna unveiled the beginnings of her thinking about the Great Turning and its, then, hierarchy of Holding Actions, New Models, and Consciousness Shift. (In later iterations these three features became more complementary aspects, less hierarchical.) Here especially I came to feel that Joanna was unreasonably optimistic about the expected time frame of achievement of the Great Turning, but I readily shared her hope.
During the ensuing two decades of workshops Joanna paid increased attention to an ever-widening array of causes for “despair.” There seemed increasing space in Joanna’s thinking for pessimism, without the slightest decrease of hope and determination. I found her descriptions of her own observations more realistic, more truthful, and thus conducive to an ongoing activism based on values rather than over-optimistic expectations. I saw Joanna’s Buddhism coming more and more to the fore – an active, not merely meditative, Buddhism: Active Hope!
My own thinking on this topic of “hope” has also been stimulated by the brilliant writing of Rebecca Solnit, particularly in her 2006 book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (updated and expanded in 2016). Her use of “dark” is from Virginia Woolf but has a resonance to the Buddhist concept of the unknowability of the outcome of any action. Her “untold histories” are about long desired events that no one really expected to happen when they did, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This book got me started thinking. I began to realize that “Optimism/Pessimism” are not interchangeable with “Hope/Despair”: to be optimistic follows a mentalcalculation that a particular desired outcome is more likely than not; to be hopeful is heartfelt commitment that it is possible. Thus I am pessimistic about the likelihood that sea level rise will be limited enough to allow low-lying islands to remain above water, but I am hopeful that the world’s people will be able to save themselves from run-away climate change. I am pessimistic about the likelihood that my great granddaughter will live to see an egalitarian society. But I am committed to resist the neo-liberal view that “there is no alternative (TINA)” as Margaret Thatcher used to say, and instead to act to achieve a more egalitarian economy – “another world is possible (AWIP)” as my fellow activists aver. To despair, to not hope, is to stop acting, and is to guarantee the less desired outcome.
On the other hand, false optimism invites disappointment. My commitment to hope is consistent with the Buddhist thought that we should act without expectation of a particular outcome, but merely because it is right. Failure to act, failure to hope, makes one irrelevant to outcome.
Back to Joanna’s teaching – one of my most important takeaways is the unity of ALL life; human, animal, “inanimate” Earth – the fact that every atom in my body is from that original Big Bang.
The other crucial teaching is that the thread of good and evil runs through every human soul. Difficult as it may be for me to find it, I am convinced that plenty of the “good” resides also in President Trump. I think it is therefore important to focus our resistance not on Donald J. Trump, but strictly on his policies. It is important to me to use the opportunity provided by Trump’s outrages to correct the fundamental flaws in our American (and world) political culture: its exceptionalism, its “manifest destiny,” its greedy exploitation and destruction of natural resources including soil fertility. It is not sufficient to replace rapacious Republicans with marginally less rapacious Democrats. Now is the Great Opportunity to realize an actual Great Turning.
I am happy to be challenged by the Organic Consumers Association not to regard Resistance as “enough” but to work equally on Regeneration. My own work has been the practice and promotion of organic agriculture to regenerate soil fertility. My life work has been to “improve the Earth” in both the literal sense of earth as soil and, metaphorically, the Earth’s culture.