End of the World

Inexplicably Towards the Great Turning

There are three stories that describe this point in the earth’s narrative: Business as Usual; the Great Unraveling; and the Great Turning.

Business as Usual is a familiar paradigm. This story values growth over all other things. But only particular kinds of growth. Not growth in wisdom. Or health. Or happiness. But growth in terms of profit, of accumulation of material goods, of THINGS.

The Great Unraveling comes to us from those alerting us to all that has been lost, is being lost, will be lost if we don’t change and change now (and likely, change yesterday).   This story line reveals that we may already be, already are, at the point of no return.

The Great Turning, called also the Life Sustaining Society, gets overshadowed by the other two more often than not, but not always. The Great Turning is about Creation adapting and complexifying in both form and intelligence. It has been underway for decades and continues to gain momentum.

All three stories are true says Buddhist scholar, eco-philosopher, and a long-time environmental activist, Joanna Macy. Published over thirty years ago, her first book, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age unleashed her as the healing force for our planet that she has become: writing books, resisting militarization and nuclear energy, developing capacity in young leaders, envisioning new ways to honor this planet and our life on it. Her work challenges and invites us to put all our energies behind that third story, that its truth and reality might be stronger than the other two.

captured from http://tabublog.com/april-3-2014/
captured from http://tabublog.com/april-3-2014/

Last weekend, along with 79 others, including over a dozen young adults identified as the Earth Leadership Cohort, I was with Joanna at the Unitarian Universalist conference center in Rowe, MA. The workshop was called, “World as Lover, World as Self,” and is a long-established element of her repertoire.   It was a highly experiential weekend of education, transformation, and what I consider worship. About a third of those folks, along with others, stayed on for the whole week and are still there. Bless them and their efforts.

captured from http://infinity-imagined.tumblr.com/
captured from http://infinity-imagined.tumblr.com/

I don’t know about you, but as much as I would like to be fully convinced of the Great Turning, I get stuck in the other stories. The Business as Usual story seems normative — I’ve been breathing its oxygen my whole life. It takes real effort to see it as only a version of reality, rather than reality itself. That other story – the Great Unraveling – has become too true – what scientists are saying, what activists are exclaiming, what the people of Oceania are experiencing.

Thank god or Gaia, because Joanna Macy has some compelling ideas to help. They aren’t ideas that offer promise or guarantee or anything of that nature. There is no easy salve and she never suggests otherwise.

Along with the Great Turning, the Great Unraveling is happening too, and there is no way to tell how the larger story will end. So we learn again that hardest and most rewarding of lessons: how to make friends with uncertainty; how to pour your whole passion into a project when you can’t be sure it’s going to work. How to free yourself from dependence on seeing the results of your actions. These learnings are crucial, for living systems are ever unfolding in new patterns and connections. There is no point from which to foresee with clarity the possibilities to emerge under future conditions. (“Hearing the Call,” Macy)

All I know is that when I have been knocked to my knees by despair and fear, reading Joanna’s words, or listening to her talk, or practicing some of the activities she suggests we do in community, I find that I can get up and try again.


How we rise each morning,

instead of burying our heads

under bedcovers,

sewing them shut.

Why we keep on

welcoming babies

with bone-deep joy

to this sordid world.

How we fill burlap sacks

with grit and gratitude,

our hands shredded

as we drag one over the other.

How we refuse the daily pull

towards greedy dark,

keeping at least one toe,

some of us whole torso,

in the light.

(excerpt from Inexplicable, by Karen G. Johnston)

Joanna Macy divides the Great Turning into three spheres of influence, into which each of us is invited to enter. Each sphere is its own self, but also overlaps in that quintessential Venn diagram manner. Slide1

First, there are holding actions. Their aim is to slow down the Great Unraveling. They may be legislative in nature, or fall into the realm of social activism.   This sphere is full of heroic people, noble efforts, and sadly, so often: exhaustion, depletion, and the experience of more failure than success (at least, so far). This sphere is acutely necessary, and thank you to those of you for whom this is your life’s work — yet, by itself, it is insufficient.

The second sphere is what Macy calls, “Gaian ways,” both newly emergent and ancient ways of considering commerce, construction, generating energy, organizing our collective lives together. These are the folks who are doing permaculture farming; building solar arrays in partnership with communities; who write open source software or take part in the Commons movement; who are making a way where there is no way.   Even this, also indispensable, is not enough, even when paired with holding actions.

The third sphere is a shift in consciousness. It is bringing Spirit to bear on this mighty endeavor, transforming our engagement with the interdependent web of all existence. It is art, it is spirituality, it is the healing arts, it is embodying how expansive family can be and how we welcome the stranger in our midst. It is a deep and abiding sense that when we look into the ocean or the clinging moss, a decaying tree trunk or the intrepid ant, we are looking at ourselves.

Blessedly, each one of us does not need to be all three spheres (though there are some bold people who fall into overlapping space and some even into all three at the center of these circles – if that’s you, then

rock-on-artbut be sure to take time to chill out and pace yourself; we need you here,with us).

Yet the planet is calling us, maybe even begging, to find ourselves somewhere in the Great Turning: as part of those brave souls repelling the Great Unraveling; as one of those visionary folks who are making new ways upon which the Great Turning will happen; as one of those people who helps renewal of body, mind, heart, and soul that we may continue this journey, the only one we have.


It’s what makes a poem

worth writing, worth reading,

worth flooding the world

with redundant, flawed attempts

at explanation.


It’s just the way it is.

There is no other way.

Stumbling every time,

practice or no.

Just part of the bargain…

the unavoidable,




(excerpt from Inexplicable, by Karen G. Johnston)


0 thoughts on “Inexplicably Towards the Great Turning

  1. I love the possibilities Joanna lifts up. I don’t think it’s going to work out anything at all like the hopes she raises (yes, in me, too), but however it works out, it’s going to be better because of the hopes she raises.

    1. Meredith, isn’t that the crux of it? It’s not going to turn out like we hope, yet if we don’t hope for something vast and grand, it will turn out much more narrow and scant if we hadn’t sacrificed our hope at all? Peace to you and all beings ~ Karen

  2. I met for most of last week with a couple minister friends to discuss the works of Camus, most common perceptions of him seeming to focus on the brooding/existential atheist he indeed was. But at his core, all I could see and hear was resilience, courage, tenacity and the hope you cite as necessary despite continually being knocked to one’s knees. We get up, we find our spot, we do our work, we leave the rest to posterity. That’s faith, whether the practitioner is theistic, atheistic, or whatever else.

    1. Yeah, I think if you have the endurance (or unbidden impulse) to write like he wrote, then there’s something there at the core like you describe. It’s the ones without expression for whom we must lament even more.

  3. So now I want to read her. Where do I start? Especially now that the days of gulping down book after book seem to be in my past.

    And here’s a breadcrumb for the book that does something like this for me.

    1. johnarkansawyer — glad to hear that you are a fan of the Sharon Welch book which I have not yet read, but is on the required list for becoming a UU minister. I recommend Active Hope, but that was my way in (unless you count reading her translations of Rilke, which I actually do). I would also listen to her interview with Krista Tippett on the npr show, On Being. She does have a new edition of one of her foundational books coming out in a few weeks — I haven’t read it, so I can’t speak to it. If you read it, let me know! Peace to you and this world ~ Karen

      1. I made a little note to myself to read the Rilke translations for enjoyment. There’s not much in local libraries by her, but let’s see what I can do.

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