Scholar and activist Joanna Macy is leading an upcoming workshop at the Garrison institute, “Rainer Maria Rilke and the Force of the Storm,” on September 19–23. The workshop will explore the work of Rilke, Germany’s great lyric poet, in the context of her well-known experiential seminar called “The Work That Reconnects.”
Leading up to the retreat, journalist Andrew Revkin spoke with Macy about what Rilke has to offer those working on behalf of the planet and the increasing need to combine a sense of urgency and patience while solving complex global problems.
For those who aren’t familiar with Rainer Maria Rilke, is there an aspect of his work that you think resonates most in this question of how to inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world?
In Rilke’s early poetry, he was amazingly prophetic and insightful about what would be coming down on people over the course of the 20th century. In one of his poems, he writes, “You are not surprised by the force of the storm. You have seen it growing.” This uncertain time is when you are tested. Before you knew where things stood, but now the world has become a riddle and you a stranger. From there you venture out.
I often use his early poetry to help people “get it” on their heart level. What is our opportunity now? Where do we find the creativity and the courage to bring forward the culture that we know is possible? This work can help people find their appetite and their energy in doing what their heart wants to do for the sake of the planet.
This reminds me of some things I’ve written about when considering the large, sustainable progress question that humanity faces. We have a big, complex challenge. The thing that has come to mind for me increasingly is the need to somehow combine urgency and patience. The two words don’t seem to go together.
What I have found marvelously effective in finding the patience required is to expand people’s sense of time. This can be done through practices and processes that I call “deep time work,” where we expand the meaningfulness and impact of our lives beyond the span from our birth to our death in this lifetime, and realize that we’re here at this critical juncture of our history where we could blow it all. And we’re acting for and with both the past generations and the future generations.
That gets at the other reality, which is this isn’t a single generation’s challenge. If the goal is to develop new norms for society going forward—and if it’s not seen from the get-go as a kind of handoff process—then making sure there’s lineage is just as important as doing the individual work. It took a long time to get into this bind, and it’s not going to be a single path getting out of it.
That’s right. Our relation to past and future generations—especially future generations—has been affected by our engaging in actions now whose consequences last forever, such as nuclear waste, genetic modification and fracking. The toxic chemicals you pump into the groundwater, the little remaining fresh water we have, cannot be removed ever.
You’re probably familiar with the term “karma.” Karma means the consequences of our actions. So we’re living in a moment when our karma lasts forever.
That’s a key point regarding climate change, because of the long life of CO2 and the commitment that comes with it. Once ice sheets start to disintegrate, it’s on these timescales that make this moment particularly impactful, as you say, going forward. Extinctions are another thing that are forever.
Exactly. Extinction is forever. By bringing in both the practices and the poetry of Rilke into this, it helps people deal with the events of today without shutting down or going into paralysis. Future generations can become present to us—and I don’t say that just metaphorically but kind of literally to—to help us confront and work through this in a creative way.
One of the things I’ve had to recognize as a journalist is that a lot of behavioral science demonstrates pretty powerfully that, most of the time, information doesn’t matter. People choose information. And it’s increasingly possible in today’s information environment to sort of filter your own experience.
That’s what got me into “The Work That Reconnects.” I recognized, as a nuclear activist back in the late ‘70s, that the information was only a part of it and that people had to hear the truth about what they want for life from within themselves. That to be able to process what’s happening on an effective level, you have to keep your heart open as well as your eyes open.
Andrew Revkin writes the Dot Earth environmental blog for The New York Times’ Opinion Pages. He is also the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies.