Whence Cometh Hope?
In these very challenging times – I’m speaking particularly about our work with Climate change and the gigantic task of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy and the urgency to do so – I have been thinking about hope in relationship to the actions we take.
What keeps us going when it can seem rather futile in some ways; like will there be enough time to make a difference? Already the prognosis for the future is looking bad. If I feel my actions are not having much effect, what keeps me going? For that matter what keeps people like Bill Mckibben (a long time environmentalist and climate activist) going after all these years? What keeps anyone who has been involved in activism in one form or another going?
Yes, I know change does not happen overnight…or at least not usually…and even when it does, it often is the result of so many accumulated actions from the past pressing into the present. But still, what is the fuel that keeps any of us going, whether we see change or not? And where does hope fit into this picture?
So I use myself as an example. When I read or hear the most dire predictions for our future on this planet and can barely listen or watch what is happening or very likely to happen, why don’t I just give up, do nothing and pray for the best? Is it because I have hope for a better future?
I am not aware of being that hopeful about the future and yet I am not in despair either. It almost feels like it’s part of my nature to be hopeful, or ‘brightful’ in spite of what is happening. What is that all about?
Recently I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book, “Hope in the Dark,” which was written in 2004 during the Bush administration when there was a lot of reason to be in despair. She goes into illuminating details about what hope is quoting from many writers past and present.
At one point she quotes from Vaclav Havel, the writer, statesmen, philosopher and dissident from Czechoslovakia, who wrote, when he was still a jailed playwright in the Soviet bloc:
“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind., not a state of the world. Either we have hope in us or we don’t; it’s a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…It’s an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced; and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy that things are going well…but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just that it stands a chance to succeed.”
What a beautiful sentiment that rings true to my being. It’s like there is a deeply embedded “hope” within our nature that goes beyond what might appear to make sense, goes beyond the particulars at any point in time. And that “dimension of the soul” wants what is right, good and meaningful and persists in spite of the difficulties. And I see that is what keeps many of us going. Hope for a better world is there even when nothing in the moment may be pointing to it; even when I may not “feel” hopeful.
And there is more to the picture. By that I mean, being human, it makes sense that I would want to know my actions and our actions are having an effect to some degree or that they will in the future.
For example, again using myself as a point of reference, when I do hear about some positive change, like now in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, there are 22 members from Congress (Republicans and Democrats) when only a short while ago, there were none, it does give me hope and that hope fuels my energy to give more. It’s a very human phenomenon. In seeing change, it then feels like almost a demand from the Universe to try harder and do more. In that way, hope and action are so integrally connected.
Hope (and action) thrive where the vision of the future is less solid. Rebecca Solnit talks about hope in relationship to the unknown, to what is not certain where possibilities of something yet not cognized can emerge. She says, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act… (It is) an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.”
I am a member of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby where, in some ways, changes are slow, but they are happening. One member who has been actively involved since almost the beginning of the organization compared “our work” to climbing the grand canyon. In the process of climbing, when one looks forward to the goal, it can feel overwhelming and impossible to reach, but if one looks back and sees how far one has already gone, this is greatly encouraging. And it does give hope.