E S S A Y S ,   A R T I C L E S   A N D   R E V I E W S

9/11 and the Heart of the World
by Joanna Macy

EarthLight Magazine #43, Fall 2001
( click here for )


When 9/11 riveted our lives, I assumed at first that mine would go on as before. There were immediate gatherings, of course, vigils for peace instead of vengeance, and visits on Fridays to a mosque for solidarity with local Muslims. But soon I wondered how to proceed as I'd planned with a teaching trip to Germany: With my country going to war, dare I travel so far from my family? Dare I presume to teach about deep ecology and justice, as my government bombed civilians in Afghanistan, and my own heart with shame?

I am glad I went. The journey taught me a lot about the Great Turning.

I stopped in New York en route. Standing with those most affected by the tragedy, I learned that the grief that united them was not a call for retaliation. I went to pray at Ground Zero, where beyond the barricade the mountain of rubble still burned, then at Union Square, its expanse transformed into one vast altar for the dead, with flowers, candles, models of the Twin Towers, pictures of faces, names, prayers, drawings, scrawled messages. "Our grief is not a cry for war;" and "Do not dishonor the dead by bombing the innocent." I felt as if I'd entered some inner heart of the world, where the greatest loss ignites the deepest wisdom, and horror melts into compassion.

In Germany the next three weeks, giving workshops near Frankfurt and then in Freiburg in the Black Forest, I discovered that this inner heart is truly global. Burdened as I was by a sense of shame over American militarism, I had not expected my country's shock and grief to be so totally, compassionately shared by people half a world away, whose souls still bear the scars of war. The tears that came, as sorrow was spoken, had no nationality, nor did the resolve to walk new paths for a just peace.

As my German colleagues and I worked together, we found, once again, that the Great Turning provides a good conceptual framework for seeing the opportunities present now and guidance for the way ahead. An antidote to panic and paralysis, it lifted our sights, cleared our vision, ignited our energy and will. It was particularly helpful to discern the three dimensions of the Great Turning, as they continue to unfold even in the present crisis.

The first dimension, resistance to violence stemming from the industrial growth society, was most visible in mass demonstrations against the war. At the time of my workshops in Germany, scores of thousands of marchers in Berlin, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, protested the Schroeder administration's support for the bombing of Afghanistan. Along with quieter vigils for peace in uncounted small towns, these rallies occurred in spite of the media's enthusiastic alignment with President Bush as "the leader of the free world"--with dissenting voices reprimanded, and little if any coverage given to peace sentiments in the U.S. As I had experienced at home, many small acts of friendship and protection were being extended to local Arabs and Muslims; and ordinary folks were finding ways to raise money for deliveries of food and medicines inside Afghanistan, through such agencies as Doctors Without Borders.

Creation of alternative structures is the second dimension of the Great Turning: new ways of meeting our needs for food, housing, health, and a safe environment. Given Germany's achievements in composting and fossil-free energy, I was not surprised to see the elegant, ubiquitous measures for recycling, and the high blades of windmills turning above the plains of Schleswig Holstein--but still they made my heart sing. In Freiburg, I saw how an old French military base, established after the second World War, has been converted to a lively housing complex for five thousand people, soon to number 7,500. Vauban, as it's named, features single and multiple dwellings with the latest in passive solar and photovoltaic energy, car-free enclaves with fanciful gardens and playgrounds, and toilets that generate gas for cooking. North of there, in central Germany, a young biologist wades through streams counting the endangered freshwater mussel. I learned how his passion for the fate of this lowly creature is contagious: local schools are creating curricula around its preservation (great for teaching everything from math to writing, ecology, social studies); local townspeople and farmers, learning how and why their freshwater supply is disappearing, are taking measures to protect it.

The third dimension of the Great Turning is the shift in consciousness that is required for a life-sustaining civilization. Unless deeply grounded in our radical interdependence in the sacred web of life, all our protests, all our new approaches and technologies, will avail us nothing. This tidal change of spirit may not be featured in the news, but it sweeps in on us now in countless ways. I sensed it in the Sufi dance we offered before the Freiburg cathedral and in the faces of the dozens of passersby who joined us. I feel it in the courage of all who are searching their own souls and culture to plumb the roots of terrorism. I see it in Earthlight, as it draws from science, cosmology, and faith traditions, to enliven our understanding of our place and our calling.


Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an ecophilosopher grounded in Buddhism and living systems theory, who works worldwide with movements for peace, justice and ecology.  Her web site is www.joannamacy.net


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