Working For Change: An Interview with Bob Massie

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

BW: What do you think is the root of our biggest problems that we need to address for a happier society?

RM: One thing that has been a mystery to me is human hard-heartedness — how we close ourselves off from each other and from many things about life. Now there are a lot of reasons for hard-heartedness. Sometimes it’s fear. We’re afraid of what other people can do to us. We’re afraid of losing something. We’re afraid of being broken or harmed, so we wall ourselves up. Sometimes, sadly, it’s affluence. In the Bible there’s a lot written about this strange phenomenon where sometimes when we have more, we seem less able to give. I see that all around me, and I have experienced that in myself sometimes, but I don’t understand it.

The opposite of hard-heartedness is open-heartedness — being genuinely open to other people. Being forgiving, gentle, and excited. This is closely related to having the capacity for awe, for being able to be amazed at what the world can offer us. I don’t know how anyone can look up at the sky on a dark night, see all those stars, recognize that there are billions of galaxies out there and not feel that this is a magnificent place to be living, as mysterious as it is.

The other thing that we need to cultivate is gratitude, and I wrestle a little bit with this in my book, because even as a child I recognized in some ways I was very fortunate. I had two college-educated parents who loved me, who did not have much money but were both trained as reporters, so their response to my hemophilia, an illness they had no experience with, was to dig in to try to get the answers to what would really help me. Now, if I had had parents who didn’t have those skills or didn’t care that much or were burdened by problems, I wouldn’t have benefited. I also grew up middle-class in a powerful country, and I was white. So there’s all kinds of things that put me in categories that made my life easier.

On the other hand, I grew up with this illness that prevented me from being able to walk for most of my childhood. I wore leg braces. People reacted fearfully to those leg braces. I couldn’t do a lot of things that other kids could do, and I was always balancing back and forth. Should I focus on what I’ve been deprived of, or should I focus on what I have? I wish I could say there’s a secret lever in the back of your head that you lift to automatically feel grateful. I think it’s a matter of cultivating that response so that as you’re inclined to feel it, all kinds of other things melt away.

Now that’s not to say that I’m not occasionally frustrated, or that I’m not occasionally seeking some self-serving outcome. I’m very much human. But I have lived through three potentially fatal illnesses! … Those things were all amazing, unexpected outcomes. I really have to tell myself, if I’m crabby about something, that if I can’t feel gratitude after all that, there’s really something congenitally wrong with me on a spiritual level.

BW: What’s your secret for resolving conflict?

RM: We were in the middle of pulling together an international project to help big companies measure their environmental human rights and child labor practices. Enormous amount of complexity and a lot of very strong feelings. Occasionally at one of our big public meetings, someone would come up to me at the end and say, “This project is going to fail!” I would answer, “Really? Why do you think that?” And they would tell me. In a sense I understood that they wanted to express their concern, frustration, or even their anger. I would then say, “You know, you’re probably right. This may fail. It’s a very hard thing that we’re trying to do. But I can tell you something. You’ve clearly given it a great deal of thought and we’d be less likely to fail if someone like you were to be engaged and help us avoid making the mistakes that you’ve just laid out for me. So perhaps you would like to be involved. We have working groups of all different kinds of things.”

I used to put it into sports terms. “If you’re not ready to come play down on the field, you could sit close to the field on the bleachers, watch what we’re doing, give me your feedback about how we could do better, and if at any time you’d want to come join and give us a hand, I will make sure we find something that will honor your skills.”  It was amazing how, over time — it didn’t happen right away — many people would say, “I’ve given what you said a lot of thought and I have some specific things I’d like to contribute. Is there still a place for me?” And of course, I’d say yes.

This taught me that part of the anger and frustration that people were expressing initially was a fear that if they trusted in this project and put their hope in it, that hope might be dashed and they would be disappointed. They were telling me preemptively why it wouldn’t work, and they were expecting me to defy them and say, “No no no, it’s going to be fine.” But by saying in fact they were right, that allowed them to feel better about their concerns and often unleashed their own creativity.

BW: What are you involved with these days?

RM: Right now we’re in a moment of change about the purpose of capitalism. People are experiencing a number of dislocations and frustrations that are being expressed in different ways. There’s income inequality, where a lot of people that should be prospering as our economy grows are not. We are having a terrible time with our economic systems locally, nationally, globally, operating within the limits of the planet. The planet is starting to run out of resources. I’m currently the president of the New Economics Institute [editor’s note: now called the New Economy Coalition], which is raising fundamental questions about the kind of system of prosperity we want to generate and how we want to get there.

Innovations are taking place all over the country and the world, as people are rethinking very basic issues: how to grow food, how to exchange products, how to distribute energy, how to design new forms of work. These are positive signs. Whether they can happen fast enough to address many of the problems that we have structurally, I don’t know. I’m trying to bring together all these initiatives so that people can recognize that the idea of a new economy is not something far in the future. We can see evidence of it if we start linking the different pieces we see as part of the ecosystem of life and exchange of production. It’s a forward-looking, visionary community.

I’ve never been drawn to people who are cynical about life, who say, “Oh that’s not worth trying,” or who question other people’s motives. We all have complicated motives. I’m drawn to people who have aspiration of where the world can go and who trust that underlying all the difficulty, fear, complexity, and brokenness that human beings express and live through, there’s always that possibility for rejuvenation. I’ve certainly seen that in my own life, both physically and spiritually.

I know it’s possible. It’s not automatic, but it remains out there for individuals and communities who dream of creating something better.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


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