Participation Mystique

Participation Mystique


words by willow defebaugh

photograph by angelo pennetta

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

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“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again—and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before.”

Joanna Macy

Participation mystique is a psychological term for the perspective in which one does not distinguish itself from the objects and environment that surround it. In World as Lover, World as Self, author Joanna Macy describes this state as a profound intimacy, being “one with our world as a child in the mother’s womb.”


In many ways, the awakenings we have witnessed this year are all reflections of a return to this state of participation mystique. Reckonings around racism, the climate crisis, and our individual health: they are all directly tied to how tied we are to one another and the world around us. With such a revelation comes an incredible sense of awe—and at times, anguish.


Ten months into the pandemic, now at its peak, we watch the cases climb and the death tolls rise without fully being able to fathom the toll it’s taking on us. When we read that 3,611 Americans died from the virus on Wednesday, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about names, not numbers. We are talking about our human family, extensions of ourselves. In this sense, it’s difficult to grasp the amount of trauma we are collectively experiencing.


In our recent feature “I, Xingu, Am Dying,” Eliane Brum assumes the perspective of the Xingu River, a body of life on the brink of death. When she filed her story, I was struck by the power of her approach. When we understand the Earth as a being, we allow ourselves to feel its suffering. And when we understand ourselves as part of that being? That’s when real change begins. As Brum writes, “Everything is interconnected. What they do to me today will affect you tomorrow, even if you’re on the other side of the world. That’s why my imminent death is your affair. Those who are killing me are also killing you.”


This week, nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution listed as cause of death, a clear indicator of how pollution is a plague on both the planet and people—especially people of color. As Danni Washington puts it in her recent Atmos story, “When people talk about pollution, we’re often reminded that everything is interconnected. Environmental pollution will eventually cascade back to every single human on the planet in some shape or form. However, it is crucial for us to recognize that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities everywhere.”


Macy implores that we not fear or flee from the grief we feel in the face of our world’s suffering, which is our suffering. When it burns, we burn. When it chokes, we choke. So what if rather than a weakness, we saw this as a sign of strength? “Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world,” writes Macy. “So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”


Participation mystique is a doorway, inviting us not only into a deeper awareness of ourselves as part of the world, but to participate in it more wholly. To listen and learn from every moment and each other. To be the architects of collective liberation. Right now, that means following the advice of healthcare professionals to stop this suffering from spreading any further—so that someday soon, we can start to heal. So that we can come home again.

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