Active hope

I recently read Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. This is a book that I’d highly recommend to anyone who is concerned about the issues (ecological, economic, social) that are facing our world today. (Incidentally, it seems appropriate to be reviewing this on a night featuring a debate between the two main presidential candidates for this election.)

There is plenty of information available about the threats that we are facing globally today, and while the book touches on some of these issues, it is not its primary focus. It looks instead at why so few people seem to getting involved to try to make a difference. The authors propose that we tend to get stuck either in the mindset of refusing to believe that things are as bad as we hear so we should continue with business as usual or we believe that it is already too late to do anything to stop the coming crisis. Some of us (myself included) tend to waffle back and forth between these two positions. The problem is that neither one of these stories motivates us to action.

Macy and Johnstone suggest a third story that they call The Great Turning. This story believes that many people making whatever small changes they can wherever they can will work together to create enough change to prevent catastrophe. This view is predicated on more people being willing to take action where they are such that all of these smaller changes add up to a larger tipping point.

I have tended to easily get discouraged by the idea of trying to make a difference in these areas because the problems seem so overwhelming, so much larger than anything that little old me can do anything about. It feels like there is nothing I can do that could make a difference in the scope of all this.

But this book left me encouraged that maybe the ripple that my actions take will be enough when combined with the actions that others are taking to build into a wave of change. By living in active hope, I become willing to not only hope that I can make a difference, but to take action where I can to try to make that hope a reality.

This is powerful stuff, and I’m feeling more inclined to try to make changes in my own lifestyle after having read this book. But given my struggles with hope, it also spoke to me at a deeper level about what hope is all about. Perhaps one reason why I sometimes get disillusioned by hope is that I tend to think of hope as a passive thing. The thing hoped for is something that I think a lot about and want to have happen, but I’m not sure I always make my hope an active kind of hope where I am consistently taking actions in the direction of that which I hope for.

Perhaps if I was spending more time in active movement in the direction I want to go, I would be less likely to be so overwhelmingly discouraged when things don’t go as I want them to. Since I’d already be in motion, I might be more likely to keep working toward the goal despite the temporary setback, even if it meant adjusting my path or my goal somewhat in light of new data.

It’s given me a lot to think about. I’m actively considering ways that I can get more actively involved in making a difference in the challenges facing our world. I’m also taking a good hard look at other areas in my life that I need to take a little more action to move in the direction of my hopes and dreams.

How do you live out active hope in your world?

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8 thoughts on “Active hope

  1. KJ,

    I am a strong believer in the fact that anything we do to make a difference no matter how small is important and beyond that as you said, there is a ripple effect even if we don’t see it. I agree that simply having hope can feel quite passive but what if that hope becomes a belief that no matter how little we do it will contribute to the collective positive change occurring every day? Maybe believing in our power as opposed to hoping for the change is what will create action.

    • Hmmm … “believing in our power” is not something I do well. Thanks for mentioning that because it gives me something else to consider as I shift my focus in this area. Believing that I have the power to make a difference may be the key that I’m missing! Thanks!

  2. It is the little things that we choose to change that make the biggest differences, whether it is treating ourselves more lovingly, which then allows us to treat others more lovingly, or switching to cloth napkins instead of using paper everything, it all makes a difference. For me, hope is not hard because I *know* that everything will be okay on the end. Even if it ends differently than I desire, or not beautifully, everything will be okay. That is where my hope and faith lie.

    • Oh wow! You’ve really got me thinking here. I am realizing that some of my struggles with hope come from being too focused on particular outcomes instead of the deeper desire/need behind it. For example, rather than hoping for rewarding and fulfilling work, I hope for a very specific job, which increases the chance that I will be disappointed. If I can take an approach more similar to yours where I know that everything will be ok in the end, it might help me to hope more for those things I really want (like rewarding and fulfilling work) and let go of trying to dictate the specifics of what that needs to look like (a specific job I’ve got my eye on). Hmmm … this will definitely require more pondering. Thank you!!

  3. Thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention! I must read and review it. As the African proverb reminds us: “If you think you are too small to make a difference try spending one night in a room with a mosquito!” A sense of futility can certainly dis-empower us – but there are also the dangers of information overload and also remoteness. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” said Aldous Huxley. Through all of this we have to have hope – Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “I’ve never been an optimist. I’ve always been a man of hope – I am a prisoner of hope…hope holds on even when things are seemingly doomed and dark.” “We must,” said Martin Luther King, “accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” There’s so much to say on this – I wrote about remoteness some time ago on my blog at You may also like I think I must write a bit more about this soon.
    Funny you should talk about ripples – I wanted to call my first book Ripples of Hope but the publisher didn’t like it – I still think it would have been a better title – each chapter deals with Hope in a different context!

    • You’re welcome, Eleanor. I think you will enjoy it. I love all of the quote you include here! What a treasure trove of wisdom! I really enjoyed both of your blog posts on this topic. I think your point about remoteness is very true; it’s so easy to ignore what is out of our sight. It’s a shame your publisher didn’t like the Ripples of Hope title. I just love the image of those ripples all working together to create a bigger wave!

      • You may be interested that Ripple of Hope idea taken from Robert Kennedy, in a speech he made in Cape Town on 7 June 1966:

        Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

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