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Fear and Empowerment Work

Apocalyptic expectations can make us afraid, depressed and numb. Intense emotions like this can wipe us out -- to a point where we can't act effectively. But it turns out there is a gift hidden at the core of these emotions, a gift that gives us power.

But first a bit of history.

During the 1980s some peace activists realized that their fellow citizens were paralyzed by fear and powerlessness in the face of the threat of nuclear war. They observed people lost in denial, trying to go about their lives as if the threat didn't exist. Wanting to learn more abouit this phenomenon, these activists listened carefully to these haunted people -- and searched their own hearts, as well. They discovered that under everyone's denial was a deep caring for their lives, their children's future, and the fate of their world. From that insight, these activists developed a number of emotional and spiritual approaches to help people in groups break through their denial and despair to contact that deep caring. Once they got in touch with their shared feelings and stories and passion for life, such groups often found a new vitality and determination to do something about the problem. Buddhist scholar and systems thinker Joanna Macy, pioneer in this work, called it "despair and empowerment work."

John Steiner and friends in Boulder CO developed an abbreviated version to help people concerned about potential breakdowns triggered by widespread technological glitches ("the y2k problem"). Their approach, below, could be used just as well to help people despairing about possible economic collapse, peak oil, climate change, and other potential threats of serious disruption or civilizational collapse.

First, before a meeting, people read some shared written material and/or watch a video and/or listen to a tape, etc., about [whatever threat they have their attention on]. Then a series of actions are done -- in one or more sessions -- as follows:

l.) Everyone lists all the possible assaults they can think of on the environment and life as we know it, including [the one they're most immediately concerned about].

2.) They are asked: What are your greatest fears (re the focus problem)? They go around the circle at least once -- and more if required.

3.) They are led through a guided visualization designed to evoke their dreams and hopes - what they'd really like to see in their lives -- and in their society's responses to the threat.

4.) They explore "What is your life purpose?"

At that point, most people are ready to move into operational mode, taking action, individually or together.

This may be enough.



Two seminal books on this approach can give you insights to help you create such activities for your own friends, groups and community.

Joanna Macy, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (New Society Publishers, 1983)

Chellis Glendinning, Waking up in the Nuclear Age (Beech Tree/Wm. Morrow, 1987)