A couple of years ago I started sometimes asking, at the end of my conversations: “What makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?” It turns out that answers to the two parts of that question are more often conjoined than oppositional. The puzzle of us, the contradictions alive in each one of us and in this moment we inhabit — these are the crucible of my hope.
I should say that hope for me is distinct from idealism or optimism. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is a muscle, a practice, a choice: to live open-eyed and wholehearted in the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. We are strange creatures. We mask fear with rage, and despair with violence. Growth is always messy, never linear. We have so far to go to live into our name, Homo sapiens: the creatures who are wise. And we may not get there. Yet I know that in life and society, wisdom emerges precisely in those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.
We are at one of those in-between moments as individuals, as nations, as a species. I cleave to a line of a poem by William Stafford, on vocation: “Your job is to figure out what the world is trying to be.” You could make a persuasive case that humanity is hurtling backward. But hope calls me to attend, too, to the world that wants to be born. Our strangeness turns up as ugliness and betrayal and destruction, and it turns up as bravery and creativity and unfathomable dignity. I see beautiful lives, everywhere, stitching new relationships across rupture, seizing new life out of loss.
Hope keeps me amazed at the larger narrative of our century too, of the learning and wisdom unfolding right alongside our better-publicized dysfunction and decay. In self-understanding as in social planning and science, we’re working with words and disciplines that did not exist when I was born and others that are a mere century old: neuroscience, social psychology, ecosystem, biome, tectonic shift. Evolutionary biologists in our day are rediscovering humanity’s superpower of cooperation and so are redefining how the fittest might survive, the principle around which the Western world has organized.
In that world, we advanced by dividing our bodies and minds and spirits, our territories and our knowledge. We perfected systems for making an “us” and an “other”; we made of the natural world an “other.” Now, on frontiers of seeing inside our brains, we are grasping new forms of agency to change. Now, as we explore the cosmos above and underlands below, we’re understanding that we live in stardust-infused bodies — and that we’ve inhabited ecosystems while we organized around parts. For us, all of life is being revealed in its insistence on wholeness: the organic interplay between our bodies, the natural world, the lives we make, the world we create.
We should allow ourselves to pause, every once in a while, and draw a long collective astonished breath. Culturally, we are the generation of our species that is redefining elemental human fundaments like community and marriage and gender. We are, that is to say, retreating famously into either-or, tribal feeling and organizing. At the very same time, life by life, we are softening the either-or that has defined each and every human from birth. And for all our awakening to the power of digital technologies to divide and isolate us, this too is true: our technologies have given us the tools for the first time in the history of our species to begin to think and act as a species.
We are strange creatures, hope reminds me: again and again we are made by what would break us. O
Krista, you have so beautifully expressed the two-sided coin of hope and despair! I do wake up hoping everyday that we are in the age of a tectonic shift and try to use a historians perspective to remember that we are only a few dozen years out from the first photo of earth from space. I re-read Archibald MacLeish’s reflection published on December 25, 1968 in the New York Times over and over and over again: “…Now in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen the earth: Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space….The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere beyond the range of reason even lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. . .To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now they are truly brothers.” A tectonic shift in perspective that has the potential to shift our vision of humankind and “softening the either-or”. Thank you for all you do!
Thank you for this essay. You might like to read this new text by author and spiritual thinker Pierre Pradervand, and feel free to share it
I have been keeping a “Hope” journal since 9-11. I record what brings people hope and on days when I’ve lost hope, I can glean it from others.
Thank you Krista, it’s a wonderful piece. There seems to be a lot of these excellent connections being made in this time of undeniable pain and loss. We’re collecting people’s windows—what do they see opening and closing at the moment. That seems to be a good way of holding potential at the same time as the difficulties.
Windows to date: https://be-benevolution.com/2020/03/29/sp-ns-the-window/ Anyone, please submit yours too!
While this sort of writing is helpful for stabilizing the emotional mood of a tense moment, and for that I am thankful, it really falls flat in any regard to applicability to reality itself. The hopefulness which it contains seems shallow, or even vacant. What I mean is, the whole article is a fluff piece of emotionally charged jargon. It reveals the process of degradation in language which we are immersed in culturally. Words like “hope” at times like these come to mean nothing, because they are thrown like feathers in the wind, void of any attachment to a practical reality – they are purely emotional biases in presentation – and they become accepted merely because they resonate with the emotional biases of other people, and therefor create a windfall of emotionally sympathetic people. Orion, as well as any culture niche, is exactly this. A place where thought is made irrelevant because everyone around the words has already proved them unnecessary of actually articulating any real idea, due to their consent to the emotional authority of the author. Unfortunately, real hope isn’t that easy. It will take serious thoughts, from grounded perspectives towards the full reality, which is much more than emotion alone, to begin to work towards solutions capable of meeting the predicament of this time.
Very deep thoughts in your article. Now I have something to think about before going to bed…
Thank you, Krista. As I re~read this the day after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, it is all the more dear to me. As my way of taking the hope you~~and she~~inspired and passing it on, I wrote the following…
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