Can We Save the Earth?
Not unless we deal with our grief!

by Cindy Squillace


Icecaps melting…hole in the ozone getting larger…depleted uranium weapons…war throughout the planet…great apes dying…AIDS spreading…GMO food everywhere…It’s all enough to make you hide your head in the sand! “It’s too overwhelming, I can’t think about it anymore!”

In the summer of 2003 I attended the Global Integrity Conference in Italy. I was riveted to each presentation and lecture. For days I listened to scientists, environmental lawyers, and ecologists reporting on research, court battles and ecological disasters around the world. They were all trying to make sense of what they saw happening to the planet, the escalating slide toward irreparable global degradation. They were bitter and despairing and it became evident they didn’t have much hope we could reverse the destructive trends they were documenting. It was frightening to hear report after report about how close to the environmental brink we are.

I overheard one world-renowned ecologist ask in anguish, “Why, when we absolutely know the consequences of our life-consuming destructiveness, why aren’t we changing our behavior to save the earth, ourselves and our children’s children?” When he learned I was a bereavement therapist, he challenged me — What are you doing to help people grieve the loss of the natural world?

A lightning bolt went through me. I knew that I needed to somehow find a way to answer his question. These educated, powerful advocates for the Earth were grieving and angry and did not have the skills and resources needed to keep them from cynicism and despair. Instead of listening to and validating the enormous pain just under the surface, their despair seemed to be isolating and immobilizing them, each in their own little ‘hell’ of predicting doom, arguing about which disaster would happen first.

I believe all of humanity is experiencing this anger and despair about the world situation. I also believe that finding tools to help direct these feelings may free up our creativity to move us beyond the immobilizing cynicism and apathy which surrounds us in our numbed-out US culture.

I returned to Syracuse, to my bereavement work, determined to grapple with these issues. This led me to the work of Joanna Macy. Joanna is a theologian, ecophilosopher, writer, teacher and social activist. Her work doesn’t fit any tidy package. She sometimes calls it engaged Buddhism; that is, “the work of acting boldly and simply for the sake of the Earth and all the beings on it.”

In 1978 Joanna began to write about the role of grief and pain for our world. She saw that people were unable or unwilling to open to this pain for fear that once opened, they would never emerge from it. This fear of pain for the world is overwhelming and has caused most of us to become apathetic and disconnected from our grief. This apathy, Joanna believes, is the greatest danger to our planet’s survival. It makes us disregard the dangers we face. She believes that our ability to feel this pain brings compassion, and this compassion is what will move humans to choose a sustainable future. Acknowledging grief in community energizes us and brings wisdom and compassion; no small feat in our world! This is the time that will decide the fate of lifeforms, as we have known them. We are the ones who decide whether the self-destructive, Industrial Growth worldview continues on, consuming all life, or whether we turn toward a Life-Sustaining worldview.

Joanna calls this the Time of the Great Turning, and has named her teachings on how to move us toward compassionate sustainability, the Work That Reconnects. This work requires action on three levels: 1) actions like boycotts, tree-sitting, demonstrations that hold back destructive forces; 2) actions that build alternative structures such as Ithaca Dollars, CSA agriculture, co-housing; and 3) processes that help bring about a worldwide change in values and consciousness. Joanna and others have developed experiential workshops, global projects and on-going study groups to support these actions.

Through a remarkable set of circumstances, I had the opportunity this past summer to spend 10 days at a Tibetan retreat center in California, where I joined Joanna and Fran Macy, and 29 other participants from around the world learning the Work That Reconnects. I was deeply moved by this work. There is much more to share than I have space for in this article... the radiation detector project outside of Chernobyl, the Elm Dance, the Project for Nuclear Guardianship, the emergence of Shambala Warriors….I welcome questions about the Work That Reconnects or interest in the projects it’s a part of. I would love to join with others to do some of this work in the Syracuse area, and organize a way to bring Joanna and Fran to Central New York for a workshop next year. To learn more go to <www. joannamacy.net>.

Cindy <csquillace@hospice-pca.org>is a mother, social worker, peace activist and the Regional Coordinator for the NYS Center for Sudden Infant Death at Hospice CNY.