Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.
Our intention and our resolve can save us from getting lost in grief. … When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face. When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.
—Joanna Macy, from her Tricycle essay “The Greatest Danger”
One of the shows I’m proudest of pitching, producing, and getting played on national public radio is this interview Krista Tippett did with Ms. Macy. Her name had come up anecdotally years before for a show on “the soul in depression” when Krista interviewed poet Anita Barrows.
When one hears a phrase like “The Great Turning” in a pitch session, veteran journalists may shy away (or run) from it. It’s somewhat difficult to make concrete and can sound rather soft and puffy. To some degree, this is true. But, my task was to acknowledge this response from our executive producer and staff — and then describe it, explain it more plainly, and make sure all knew why her voice is different. And then emphasize its importance and her wisdom as an elder this world needs to hear from ever so much.
Q:love your work krista tippett.
my mom's 75th birthday is this weekend, and i'm thinking about what i want to say to the family assemblage. I often find your guests and your insights moving and thought-provoking - makes me wish my connection to the local synagogue was as enlightening.
in any case, you had a guest on this past weekend a woman with lots of wisdom, and i wanted to read more about her and perhaps re-hear the segment, but can't find anything on your site - what's her name?
Thanks for writing to us. You may have heard Joanna Macy if your station was doing a pledge drive. The name of that show is “A Wild Love for the World” and you can find the all the details on our website.
Alternately, you may have heard Sylvia Boorstein in “What We Nurture.” We aired that show for Mother’s Day.
Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Great Unravelings and Great Turnings
by Krista Tippett, host
photo: Hudson Gardner
On my 40th birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows’ translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
After reading this poem (listen to Joanna Macy’s recitation) for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of “the country they call life.” And after years of starts and stops, this program made its way into that country too.
I’ve ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany and had first read Rilke’s poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows’ book, I didn’t believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke’s words in Joanna Macy’s English and even more in her voice as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined. She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There, her husband ran the newly minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country, following the exile of the young Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe. She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation for “A Wild Love for the World,” for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. “I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions … that reached into geological time. … That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.
It is so fitting and lovely that she should become our first show as Being.