Joanna Macy’s books are not only important for our world, they seem to me like living things that tend to grow and mature with the passing years. When Macy revised her seminal work, World as Lover, World as Self, a few years back, the result was an impactful new book with many fresh offerings, very different from its earlier incarnation. Macy’s latest project, written with Molly Young Brown, is a reworking of the vital text Coming Back to Life, which was a revamp of Macy’s earlier book Despair and Personal Empowerment in the Nuclear Age.
The focus of Coming Back to Life is a return to learning the value of living systems, spirituality, the natural world and sustaining life on our planet. While the authors refer to the volume as a “guidebook,” it is also a call to action. It offers teachings on the Great Turning, the “emergence of new and creative human responses that enable the transition from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life Sustaining Society,” and the Great Unraveling, the “ongoing derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic and social systems,” and outlines a series of workshops to promote education and action to help bring about the Great Turning.
One powerful group exercise in the new edition is titled “Invoking the Beings of the Three Times.” During this practice the group is invited to ponder others beyond themselves, naming and calling upon beings of the earth from past, present and future. Such invocations are designed to promote solidarity and compassion across time: “Heightening our sense of gratitude and responsibility, it strengthens the will.”
One of the most telling revisions involves the word “despair.” While the term was fairly prominent in the book’s last edition, it does not appear in this revision. A previous chapter titled “Despair Work: Owning and Honoring Our Pain for the World” is now “Honoring Our Pain for the World.” The emphasis feels consummately compassionate and projects hope amid the rapidly “unraveling” state of the world.
The new edition feels as honest and positive as possible in light of the changes our planet is experiencing. Case in point, the authors note that it is not helpful to “scold or manipulate people into what we think they ‘should’ be feeling if they were moral or noble; we simply help each other uncover what is already there. Only honesty is needed.” Naming that power of honest engagement during challenging times, the authors quote Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminder that “the pain and the joy are one.” That pithy little phrase for me sums up Macy and Brown’s approach to mindfully and boldly engaging with the Great Turning in this new edition of Coming Back to Life.