An Open Letter to the Whidbey Institute Community
by Heather Johnson
I am honored to serve as Executive Director of the Whidbey Institute. I have profound gratitude for this organization and for the many people who have brought it to this place of health and relevance in meeting the world’s greatest challenges.
The Whidbey Institute is now harvesting what has been sown by past leadership, donors, staff, and volunteers. Many have walked with the organization, sometimes in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, to reach this place of engaged, impactful presence. Our remarkable, committed board and caring, creative staff continue to nurture a community of Whidbey Institute contributors and participants who see the very real impact of this organization as it lives out its fundamental mission.
It is with excitement and gratitude that I step into this role, and into this moment of possibility. Today, I wish to speak to the deep purpose of this organization which has helped shape me as much as I have helped shape it during my five years here.
Each of us has our own unique relationship with the Whidbey Institute. For me, it is more than a beloved place. It is more than a conference and retreat venue, and more than a community of learners and leaders. I have come to know the Whidbey Institute as a hearth around which we gather—one that holds us together in our collective and individual development, inviting us to meet the deep challenges of our time. The Whidbey Institute is a home for the Great Work.
Finding a simple way to express the purpose of the Institute is a task that has worked me, and many others, for years. Rather than swim in the echo chamber of word chasing, I want to speak to the meaning behind the words, and to explore our unique role in this vital moment of our shared human story.
What is “the Great Work of our time”? Thomas Berry wrote, “history is governed by those overarching movements that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people. . . . the Great Work now . . . is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”
To specifically name the “Great Work of our time” has proven difficult. In Joanna Macy’s words, “it’s been called the Ecological Revolution, the Sustainability Revolution, even the Necessary Revolution. We call it the Great Turning.” A movement of movements, this one is anchored in the dignity inherent in all of life, or in Berry’s words, recognizing that “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
When I view this movement from a meta-level, I am in awe of what has emerged in just five decades. I can’t help but see an expression equal to the force of life itself, working on behalf of life, unfolding in momentous waves.
The first wave arose in response to growing environmental devastation and social maladies. We gained a collective awareness that we, as humanity, have been killing the planet and ourselves through the ways in which many of us live. A name for this wave: Waking Up.
The second wave emerged as broad exploration of how we might live differently. In recognition of this challenge as a human problem, more than simply an environmental one, we engaged as a species in inquiry around all realms of human existence: spiritual, psychological, cultural, social, scientific, economic, technological, political, and industrial. This wave is: Learning.
Third, we see the emergence of widespread action to implement change across all human systems, accompanied with the awareness that this work must take place at scale, at pace, and in response to urgent challenges. A name for this wave: Living.
Many of us are waking up, learning, and dedicating our days to living in a mutually beneficial manner with the planet.
We face daunting fears and realities in this work. Many of us question whether the increases in harm outpace the implementation of solutions at an irrecoverable rate, whether the damage is already too extreme, whether said “solutions” are even solutions at all— indeed, whether humanity is fundamentally capable of moving beyond our destructive habits. There is grief in response to our collective losses, and fear of the consequences already coming and yet to be experienced.
Moving with these realities and fears, what is there to do? We simply contribute what we sense is somehow ours to do. I am mindful of the words of Václav Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Regardless of our best intentions, this work has shadows. One of the more perplexing shadows lies in the notion that the work is about awakening them, educating them, getting them to believe and behave differently. More directly stated, the troubling statement might read as, “we have found a right answer— if they would change, we would be ok.” This is a subtle pattern arising when “like-minded” people come together, learn together, and find solace with one another. It can grow into a crusade mindset, or the belief that the answer to the problem is to indoctrinate the other into the right shared ideology.
There is something very human about “othering.” Us-and-them mindset has served important evolutionary purposes, but it will not serve to address the challenges we face in this time. We all carry constructs from the meaning-making structures in which we are steeped— cultural, racial, religious, familial, generational— which allow us to see the world and our place in it in unique ways. These can also make us blind to perspectives beyond our own. We are all, to some degree, in over our heads, doing our best to navigate being human in a changing world.
If the foundation of the Great Work is inherent dignity, then seeing other human beings as objects to convert is incongruous with the Great Work. We cannot move forward by objectifying some of us—even in fear, anger, or hurt. This movement will require dignity, respect, action, courage, invitation, inquiry, and humility.
To be with others in this work is meaningful beyond words. I experience extraordinary delight as a member of this team. My colleagues and our community offer me challenge, support, and learning opportunities that stretch the very fabric of my being.
Through our shared love of this place, may we find ways of being and doing together, abiding in difference, and recognizing one another’s inherent dignity. May we step into our work fully, together, and “be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”