4 Ways to Transform Despair…. And The Patron Saint of Lost Causes

4 Ways to Transform Despair…. And The Patron Saint of Lost Causes

on Jun 10, 2014 in World We Live In | 12 comments

Joanna Macy teaching at Upaya Zen Center / Photo: Roshi Joan Halifax

Joanna Macy teaching at Upaya Zen Center / Photo: Roshi Joan Halifax

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.

~Joanna Macy


A few weeks ago, a piece of devastating news came out: a large portion of the West Antarctica ice sheet has been confirmed to be melting. The consequences of this are huge. Ocean levels across the planet will rise somewhere between 4 and 15 feet within 200 years, effectively wiping out hundreds of seaside cities.

This is no longer a theory, it’s the real thing. And it’s irreversible. As one glaciologist said, “It has passed the point of no return.”

If we have any level of awareness that hasn’t yet been numbed out, this is the kind of news that can trigger deep despair. It’s a feeling that I’m hearing more and more from friends these days, and one I’ve felt myself at times.

This kind of despair is not limited to environmental situations, of course. It hits close to home:

    • When we see our aging parents go into decline and realize there is no way back to good heath for them
    • When a friend with cancer passes away her despite courageous efforts to battle the illness
    • When we lose our job, the one we absolutely needed to make ends meet, even after great performance reviews

And on and on….

The world is full of disappointment and despair. How can we possibly go on knowing that everything we love will one day disappear, perhaps sooner rather than later? What is the point of taking any action at all once we realize that life as we know it is ending? How can we find any kind of freedom in the midst of terrible circumstances?

When I was growing up in a very Catholic environment, St Jude had a special place in my heart. Of all the saints, he was the one designated to watch over lost causes and desperate cases. Devoted Catholics invoked him whenever they were facing some dire situation. To this day, you can still find pleas for St. Jude’s intercession in the classified section of many newspapers.

Perhaps that’s what we need now – a contemporary patron saint of lost causes. Well, maybe we have one.

Joanna Macy has been one of my heroes for many years.

I first met Joanna in 1994, while I was in graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies and I served as the teacher’s assistant (TA) for her course. TAs are typically called on  for mundane tasks – copying handouts, making sure the teacher has the supplies she needs, etc.

But Joanna sought me out ahead of the class and asked lots of questions about my work and what I truly cared about. Unlike other teachers who were preoccupied  with their own agenda (understandably), Joanna went out of her way to learn about me. At the start of the class she introduced me to everyone – not like I was ‘just’ a TA but rather as a valued colleague.

I have always remembered that interaction. Because of that, I deeply appreciate Joanna as someone who does not only theorize about a subject but who embodies her teachings on every level. Several years ago, I had the honor of spending time with her again when she taught at the Upaya Zen Center Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.

One of Joanna’s core teachings is on “despair and empowerment.” Here’s the essence of it:

  • It is our very despair that indicates how deeply we care for something, as well as of the truth of interconnection – that all things depend on one another for existence.
  • The “enemy” is not despair but rather our numbness and our tendency to block out these intense feelings of grief and sadness.
  • By turning toward our despair and grief rather than away from it we can tap into a very powerful source of energy.
  • That energy and the actions that manifest from it can be surprisingly creative. It is our nature to be amazingly resilient in the face of huge challenges.

That’s a very quick scan of Joanna’s profound teachings. If you’d like to learn more about her, visit her website. If you ever have a chance to see her in person, don’t pass it up. She is one of the true mystics of our time. And her wisdom informs the list I’m about to share with you.

As we face a desperate situation, how can we respond? How can we transform despair into empowerment? I believe that the following four guides can be helpful whether it’s a global situation like the climate crisis or one that strikes right in the middle of your everyday life, like facing the truth of aging parents.

4 Ways to Transform Despair

1. Make friends with your fear

Fear can be debilitating and it’s the primary reason why we so often move into numbness. We are scared of feeling overwhelmed by emotions, we are scared of the unknown, we are afraid of what might happen if a certain scenario unfolds in our life and on the planet. If we are able to acknowledge our fear and find generative ways of working with it rather than letting it overtake us, we’ll be well on our way to shifting despair into empowerment. How to do this? For some ideas, check out this LLP article I wrote a couple of years ago, “Freedom from Fear.”

2. Practice non-attachment to outcome

One of the primary tenets of socially engaged Buddhism is that we can be completely devoted to acting on an issue (like climate change or economic justice) but that we can also be unattached to the outcome of our efforts. That sounds like a pretty impossible task, doesn’t it? I mean, why bother doing something if the outcome doesn’t matter?

The answer is pretty simple: our most effective actions will come from a place of love, and true love is non-grasping. If we act from a place that is informed by anger or fear, the action will carry that energy and tend to be self-defeating. Or we’ll end up re-creating the very dynamic we are trying to change. Lord knows we’ve seen this happen over and over in social movements that have imploded.

Be careful, though. Being unattached and not caring may sound the same, but they are two very different things. The late Angeles Arrien, who I count as another one of the people who have deeply inspired me, said something similar in her Fourfold Way: Be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome. It’s possible to care deeply even as we let go of our attachment to a certain result.

How do we do this dance between caring and non-attachment? I can tell you from my own experience that meditation helps a great deal.

3. Get creative in your responses

Non-attachment to outcome is actually a smart thing, for as we stay flexible rather than being obsessed with one solution we open up more possibilities for creative responses.

Last year, I got a chance to hear climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher speak in Santa Fe. You may know Tim’s story – he spent almost two years in prison after being convicted of a felony. His crime? He bid on a piece of Utah land at an auction with money he didn’t have. By doing so he successfully stalled an attempt by oil companies to obtain and exploit that beautiful parcel of public land. And he gave us a wonderful example of the kind of response that is possible when you realize how hopeless a situation is — and you throw out the rulebook.

See what happens when you really lean into the possibility of total disaster, whatever the situation might be. When all is lost, there is nothing to lose. What kind of space does that open up for creative responses to arise in your life? You can have fun with this. Really. I mean, if we’re going down the tubes we might as well go down dancing, right?

4. Realize that this is your chance to wake up – and our chance to wake up collectively. Let’s not waste it!!!

Here’s my definition of “waking up:” we realize and remember how deeply connected we are to each other.

In the talk I mentioned above, Tim DeChristopher spoke about the fact that climate change had gone past the point of no return. If that’s the case, the logical question for an activist would be: why bother? And yet Tim was brimming with passion and commitment.

Tim’s point was that inherent in the collapse of society as we know it there is actually a great opportunity: we can learn how to build communities that are based on relationship rather than profit. We’ll have to.

Whatever desperate situation you may be facing, remember this:

You are not alone. We are not alone.

What happens when you begin to connect with others going through a similar situation, and support each other to find ways through the morass?

Well…at least two very cool things happen. First, suffering is greatly alleviated when we find companionship with others who are facing the same issue. Second, some wonderful ways to approach the problem emerge, ways that riff off of this ‘community’ thing.

In my own case, the challenge of having elderly parents and trying to best discern the way forward is very much up for me right now. I could feel quite isolated about this … that’s how it often lands for most of us, a sense that we are facing it completely on our own.

But I’m starting to see how so many other people are in a similar situation. As we put our heads and hearts together and realize this is a systemic issue, not just an isolated one, some innovative solutions emerge. I love the examples collected in a new book by Beth Baker, With a Little Help From Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older.  The beautiful thing about these ‘solutions’ is that they can be good for everyone. Neighborhood-based approaches to eldercare help to build community for young, old, and in-betweeners. So what has been my personal challenge can become an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow and benefit.

If you give any of these 4 guidelines or all of them a try, let me know how they work for you. What would you add to this list? How have you practiced with despair in your own life?


I’d love to stay in touch with you! When you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive my monthly e-letter with reflections on life and liberation, as well as “9 Keys to a Liberated Life.”



  1. This is fantastic Maia. Thank you!


    July 8, 2014

  2. Maia,

    This is an excellent post. To add to what you are saying, it’s so often how we interpret these circumstances that show our real character.

    While many people would do nothing about that piece of land, Tim saw this as an opportunity not just to make noise about what was going on but to do something about it. I love stories where people choose themselves.

    One way I like to think about frustrations and times like this that I’ve been through is to think about how I’m building my emotional immume system. Each pain I had, toughened me for the next one which meant I had more of a base to do better things.

    For example, I was bullied a lot growing up. While at the time it was terrible, when I started to put my work out into the world and got haters, I was immune to it! Experiences like this, where pain has built me up and I’ve been rewarded later on, allow me to take a lot of hope from desperate situations.

    Great post,



    June 12, 2014

  3. This is powerful and helpful, Maia. I have an untenable situation with my beloved (former?) partner — had to pull up stakes and move back to my Mom’s house two days ago. So hard. No solution in sight…yet.

    Sharyn Dimmick

    June 11, 2014

    • So sorry to hear this, Sharyn…. please do take good care of yourself.

      Maia Duerr

      June 12, 2014

  4. This is truly a brilliant post, Maia. This is the first time I’ve heard about the West Antarctica ice sheet melting. I love everyone of your suggestions, especially letting go of outcomes, and they are all a part of my approach to life.

    I think we must also realize that we are much bigger than this life and this life is much bigger than us. In essence we are a spiritual being, not a material one. And, at the same time, there’s a collective karma in place that we cannot necessary shift on our own. We can only change ourselves and influence others. If this is indeed the Kali Yuga and it’s slated to end in 2025, its not surprising that natural disasters are taking place. But, we still need to act with individual integrity for ourselves and others. Because, that’s what’s going to count for us regardless of whether the earth is destroyed.

    Thank you for this important post!

    Sandra Pawula

    June 10, 2014

  5. Maia,

    Thank you for this post.



    June 10, 2014

    • Thank you for reading and for your note, Donna. Blessings.

      Maia Duerr

      June 10, 2014

  6. As usual, you speak to the heart of current issues playing in my life. Each of the 4 tools is perfect for conveying to friends why I am not in despair over climate change, even tho I do believe we are playing in a changed game.
    And as I get older, I and those in my circle face life altering changes, inescapably moving me in to the present. Numbness is not an option and far more painful.



    June 10, 2014

    • Yes, in my experience numbness tends to generate more suffering down the road… so I like the way you say it, Jane: Numbness is not an option!!! Thank you for your practice. Deep bow!

      Maia Duerr

      June 10, 2014

    • Thank you for the teaching of your life, Roshi! Along with Joanna and Angeles Arrien, you are up there in my trio of wise and courageous women who inspire me to lean into the challenging parts of life. Blessings!

      Maia Duerr

      June 10, 2014


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