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How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy

Game Changers: Reflecting on a day of big open-ended questions that let us talk about a topic that can feel too daunting to mention

It was unseasonably warm last October when I sat in a large-windowed room in Dublin’s Richmond Barracks to talk about grief, anxiety and hope. The Earth Care Self Care workshop was hosted by documentary-maker Kirsi Jansa and psychiatrist Brion Sweeney. It was a day of big open-ended questions, letting us talk about a topic that can feel too daunting to mention.

Listening to the worries of strangers was oddly consoling. A man said he’d seen a swallow lingering past its normal leaving date in the still-summery weather. It had been, like the warm day, both a joy and a worry.

My friend, who invited me to the workshop, followed up with a gift of Active Hope How to face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power, a book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. (An editor has tweaked the title since and it’s now subtitled How to face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy). A Buddhist and practitioner of deep ecology, Macy is due to celebrate her 94th birthday next month. She has spent decades working for justice in a world that has in her lifetime reached the end-of-days scenario we now face.

I can’t say I dived in with relish (sorry Louise). Its bracing opening chapter felt like too much cold water in a Covid-riddled Christmas. I closed it to binge watch The White Lotus while eating chocolate. But when I did open again there was lasting nourishment in every chapter. I have dog-eared many pages. There are micro mantras for days that feel too difficult: the idea of having “power with” rather than “power over”, shifting the idea of dominating and controlling everything into one of collaboration. There’s the story of the migrating geese who can fly further because the lead goose pierces the headwinds and creates the flow in which the rest of the flock flies. But the geese take turns at taking the lead. There’s the idea of a grateful gaze where even in the dishwater days of sideways rain we can be grateful that we’re here to see it.


“Things don’t have to be hunky dory for you to feel grateful. It’s a dance of the soul and it comes just like the breath,” Macy explains in one of the many YouTube videos that feature her wisdom. And in a follow-up email Jansa sent a link to the work of Renee Lertzman and her Secret to Talking about Climate Change, “a brilliant little animation... highly recommend this one,” she said. I didn’t click on the link until recently. After the thud of another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it feels more relevant than ever, a toolkit for all conversations, not just climate ones.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests