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On Hope

On Hope

The appearance and persistence of a genuine people’s movement (Occupy) in the past month or more has made me hopeful for the future of my species for the first time in a long time – as I think back, maybe for the first time in my life. But “hope” is a word used by politicians recently, too – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – just to get people to vote for them. In what way or ways is it healthy and productive to hope? Should we hope at all?

When writer Margaret Wheatley pondered these questions for herself a few years ago, she found these words of German philosopher Rudolf Bahro helpful: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by people who aren’t afraid to be insecure.” Wheatley admitted that she found it hard to imagine how she could work for the future without believing that her actions would make a difference. But she found some comfort in a quote from Vaclev Havel: “Hope is a dimension of the soul, an orientation of the heart and the spirit. It isn’t the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Wheatley went on: “Being liberated from results, giving up outcomes, doing what feels right rather than effective. Havel helps me recall the Buddhist teaching that hopelessness isn’t the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it a happen, we also introduce fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating. I’ve listened to others describe this state. Unburdened of strong emotions, they describe the miraculous appearance of clarity and energy.

Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, clarified further the journey into hopelessness. In a letter to a friend, he advised: ‘Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.’

I know this to be true. I’ve been working with colleagues in Zimbabwe as their country descends into violence and starvation by the actions of a madman dictator. Yet, as we exchange emails and occasional visits, we’re learning that joy is still available, not from the circumstances, but from our relationships. As long as we’re together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we persevere. Some of my best teachers of this have been young leaders. One in her twenties said: ‘How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.’ A young Danish woman at the end of a conversation that moved us all to despair, said quietly: ‘I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.’ A Zimbabwean, in her darkest moment wrote: ‘In my grief I saw us all holding one another in a web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst holding it all.’

Thomas Merton was right: we are consoled and strengthened by being hopeless together. We don’t need specific outcomes. We need each other.

Hopelessness has surprised me with patience. As I abandon the pursuit of effectiveness, and watch my anxiety fade, patience appears. This is how I want to journey through this time of increasing uncertainty: groundless, hopeless, insecure, patient, clear, and together.”

This is the heart of the Occupy movement, and even if at points it appears to be faltering and “failing” (not that it has yet, and it may not ever), let’s stay true to that spirit and to each other.