Denison Journal of Religion


This article examines Joanna Macy's theory of "despairwork" and its roots in the Sarvodaya Buddhist movement. Macy writes with the purpose of inspiring communities and individuals to look honestly at the state of the world and to respond passionately. She argues that apathy appears so common today because feigning disinterest is far easier than facing the monumental problems that face the world. From the threat of nuclear war to environmental destruction, humanity is overwhelmed by the possibility of its own end. Instead of giving in to crippling despair, Macy believes that honestly admitting the frightening possibilities can be a powerful force to generate action. Actions gain strength through the interconnectedness of all things. Real change, therefore, is a distinct possibility. Schroering argues that this defining theory in Macy's work is inspired by her study of the Sarvodaya Buddhism movement in Sri Lanka. Schroering sees echoes of Macy's aim of translating powerlessness into power in Sarvodaya's ultimate goal of helping everyone to achieve enlightenment. In this movement, enlightenment can be understood as listening to community, striving for social change inspired by spirituality, building "collective self-esteem," working in community, and engaging youth. Macy's work, inspired by the Sarvodaya movement, asks people to find hope in despair by realizing that acknowledging the issues that breed despair inspires them to acknowledge the present, and find the power in community to change the present.


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