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What would we do in response to a terminal diagnosis?


People who have had brushes with death don’t return wishing they had spent more time in the office. The heart takes over. In the words of deep ecologist Joanna Macy:

“Whatever happens, this can be a moment of unparalleled awakening. We have a sense of what it means for an individual to wake up. For the collective to awaken, we cannot even imagine what it will be like. The evolutionary pressure on us now, which can feel so ghastly, pushes us toward this awakening. Life-forms have gone through periods when it must have seemed totally hopeless. For example, when oxygen was a poison, who could have imagined that life would develop the breathing apparatus to use it? I don’t think we’ve been given any absolute guarantee that conscious life on Earth will continue. It might. It might not. In either case, this is a most extraordinary and beautiful moment. Because in this moment we can make a choice for loving life and taking care of each other. Right up to the end, we can make that choice, and that’s glorious. So we don’t need to ask, ‘Will it go on forever?'”

If we allow ourselves to feel, crisis opens an opportunity for awakening fully to the present. Then we take action for different reasons. We are no longer heroes trying to save the world. We don’t consume too much because it doesn’t feel good now. We recycle and reuse because there is no “away” to throw things. Living sustainably is simply about living with integrity now, not for some imaginary future. If we ever really thought we lose power in losing “things,” we find that living with integrity is where we find our power, success and liberation. Slowing right down, surrendering to despair and living through darkness without fighting it is a very different kind of hero myth, one that therapists know a great deal about.

Mary-Jayne Rust is Jungian analyst who lectures and writes on ecopsychology. Excerpted from “Climate on the Couch,”Psychotherapy and Politics International, 2008. The full version can be read at

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