For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with Joanna Macy on a new edition to our 1998 book, Coming Back to Life, to be published by New Society in November 2014. In the process, I read and somewhat revised my preface, and found that my perspective on the world situation has not changed much. If anything, I have grown more dismayed as I see an apparently increasing number of people, corporations, and governments acting in blatant disregard for human life and well-being, including the health of the natural world and its diverse inhabitants and ecosystems on which we all utterly depend.
I share this Preface as a Molly’s Musings because I hope my experiences and perspectives will resonate with you.
Coming Back to Life:
The Updated Guide to The Work That Reconnects
by Molly Young Brown
I first met Joanna Macy in 1987 at a gathering of Interhelp, an organization founded by Joanna’s colleagues who wanted to help themselves and others respond to threats to their common survival. Our next connection was at a workshop with Joanna in the winter of 1991, where I learned of her vision of “nuclear guardianship.” I was especially drawn to Joanna’s work because of my childhood in the Atomic City of Los Alamos, New Mexico; I felt a kind of karmic connection to the problem of radioactive materials and began to work with the Nuclear Guardianship Project that Joanna had inaugurated. When I enrolled at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley the following fall, I signed up for Joanna’s class in Deep Ecology, which brought me more fully into the worlds of systems thinking, Deep Ecology and engaged Buddhism and helped me understand their common threads.
Soon Joanna and I were working together: editing (with Wendy Oser, Fran Macy and others) three pithy issues of the Nuclear Guardianship Forum, and teaching a year-long class in applied living systems thinking at the California Institute of Integral Studies. I began offering talks and workshops in this work through my connections in the psychosynthesis world, continuing to this day.
When Joanna asked me to coauthor the first edition of this book with her, I jumped at the chance to bring together my love of writing, my love of this work and my love for this woman. In his Foreword, Matthew Fox wrote of Joanna’s prophetic voice, and her ability to pass it on to others. Writing these books with Joanna has helped me develop my own prophetic voice and build my courage to write and speak and act on behalf of Earth, something I have sought to do all my life.
I would like to share a little of my life story, to make clearer what has called me to this work. Being raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico gave me an intensive experience in what historian Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” It has taken me a good part of my adult life to fully grasp how deeply flawed were the assumptions of the scientific/military culture that predominated there – and how good and loving people could perpetrate such harm.
Los Alamos is nestled in the forested mountains of Northern New Mexico, so my childhood playground was nature. From an early age, I camped, picnicked and played outside, establishing a strong relationship with trees, mountains, creeks and critters. I was also subtly shaped by the Native American and Hispanic cultures in the region. But my family was part of a scientific community (although neither of my parents were scientists themselves), so I learned to worship the God of Science along with the Christian God. I remember going to Family Days Open House at the Lab, the rare opportunity to go behind the security fences and see a little of what people did there. The apparatus, the cloud chambers, the accelerators, the glove boxes and the tissues studied under microscopes enchanted me. I wanted to be A Scientist when I grew up. I wanted that access to the mysterious inner workings of the world.
I also learned that there was a correct way of thinking: logical, rational, backed by scientific data and framed within measurable parameters. If something couldn’t be measured and replicated in the lab, it probably didn’t exist. Even then, one would have to defend one’s understandings and hypotheses against the rigorous (and often hostile) critique of other scientists. I learned that feelings and fantasy had little place in scientific thinking, and that I had best keep those kinds of things out of discussions. Feelings and dreams were fine for girls’ slumber party chatter, but had no place in The Real World.
Nearly 50 years later, on a solo vision quest at the beginning of 1996, I saw more clearly than ever before how this “mere purposive rationality” (to use Gregory Bateson’s term) distorted people’s innate morality at Los Alamos – and led them to enable grievous harm to the world. I was finally able to break through my own denial about my community of origin and see how profoundly this distortion affected me as I grew up there. During the vision quest, I felt sick to my stomach and remembered how often I had stomachaches as a child, how I spent much time in the school nurse’s office, especially during kindergarten and first grade. As I focused on sensations of discomfort and pain, so similar to what I had felt as a child, I found myself asking, “What is the secret? What is this deeply hidden trauma from which I have defended myself all my life?” And suddenly I knew.
My family moved to Los Alamos a few months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I believe now that I knew, as a small child can, that something wrong was going on. I doubtless heard radio news and conversations about bombs and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I must have known on some level that people in Los Alamos had something to do with what had happened there. I came to know that the town existed solely for the Lab to carry on atomic research, primarily focused on nuclear weapons, and instinctively I must have known that this work was wrong. Even so-called Atoms for Peace, highly touted in Los Alamos in the 1950s, was an elaborate self-justification for the main work of the Laboratory: designing weapons of mass destruction. The good that came from the Lab’s work could have come anyway. It didn’t justify the bad. As a child I knew all this at a deep unconscious, level.
Yet from everyone around me, all the important people in my life, from the entire community, I heard only rationalizations, justifications and deceptions. We were special people doing important and special work, protected from the rest of the world by fences and guard gates. Even while I felt proud of the title Atomic City, I felt pain and confusion in my heart about its implications. Although I may never have consciously thought about this deep contradiction, I carried it in my body, primarily in my digestive system. I couldn’t stomach it. But neither could I, as a dependent child, speak of it. How could I let myself know that nice, good people that I loved and admired were engaged in destructive work, when they themselves could not acknowledge it? How could I challenge the myth of my whole community?
I can play the tapes of rational justification in my head, and they still have the power to confuse me. “We had to invent the bomb before the Nazis did” and then, after Germany was defeated, “We had to stop the Japanese.” Everyone has heard justifications for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet we know the deep anguish most of us feel for the massive suffering engendered by that so-called justified act. In Los Alamos, however, such emotions were taboo. Emotions might call into question behavior so elaborately rationalized by thought.
Los Alamos is not alone in this practice of covering up and denying its wrongdoing, and inventing elaborate so-called rational justifications for it. The whole structure of corporate capitalism participates in this kind of self-deception, as we ignore and cover up the enormous harm done to the environment, to our fellow creatures and to oppressed peoples around the world and within our own country – for the profit of a very few and the convenience of some. Too many law-abiding, church-going, family-loving moral people enjoy their sport-utility vehicles, their vacation cruises and their GMO-laced foods with little or no thought to the true costs of those short-lived pleasures.
Living within a society that denies the pain it causes engenders deep conflict within us, but the taboos against speaking of it, or even seeing it, are subtle, strong and complex. Being nice – even being “intelligent” – means going along with the communal deception, like the mutually shared trance of an alcoholic family. Yet we do ourselves and the larger world real damage when we go along with the taboos and deny the truth of our inner knowing, as I did for so long.
I believe we can cut through denial and take a good hard look at the dysfunctional economic system that has captured humanity and is destroying our life-support system. This is not who we really are: self-centered, arrogant, greedy, contemptuous of other humans and life-forms. No! We have been hijacked by an insane, alien culture of our own foolish making. Let’s reclaim our true humanity: loving, generous, caring, connected and joyful, heroic, persevering, willing to endure suffering as part of life, heart-centered, creative and wise.