Hope for the wrong thing in the Anthropocene: finding courage within the “waiting”?

“We empty ourselves, we surrender, we unfold”: reflections on surrendering
August 27, 2019
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Hope for the wrong thing in the Anthropocene: finding courage within the “waiting”?

Listening to ABC Radio National this morning, there was a discussion about a large national survey of over 54,000 Australians – Australia Talks National Survey – about their views about a range of social and environmental issues and contexts. I listened to the social commentators and interviewer chat about what the results signified to them and one of the constant themes they kept returning to was the idea of hope, of remaining hopeful that global threats such as climate emergency would be resolved and we would get through it all in one piece. This kind of hope oriented perspective towards environmental and social issues is all too common in the mainstream media where the seriousness of the threats are usually understated or drowned by the trivial or mundane news. Extinction and civilizational collapse is rarely spoken about. I almost felt like yelling at them to move beyond the sugar coated pill of hope they were sickingly sharing with the audience. The media are significant players, along with inept, compromised and ecocidal politicians, in avoiding strong action on reducing emissions. The softly, softly or hope approaches pedaled by all the main players contributes to the publics collective ignorance or denial of the coming catastrophe of collapsing ecosystems and societies, and allows their corporate backers to continue their ecocidal business-as-usual bastardry.

The largely polly-annish commentary ignited a concern I’ve felt for some time about our collective tendency, in the mainstream media and political arenas to be overly optimistic or at least hopeful regarding pressing national and global issues that concern most of us. I find the expressions of hope understandable but when it is espoused by politicians or institutions that should have the information to know better, I become angry, bemused at their paternalism, their conscious suppression of the truth. We have warmed our oceans and atmosphere to such an extent that we are committed to ecological, social and civilisational collapse. This is a sickingly scary scenario that I can barely imagine, even contemplate for my sons and current young people, let alone future generations. Yet I must. Expressions of the wrong kind of hope, the lack of expression of grief and despair is not just delusional but dismissive.

I can more understand expressions of hope when the person is truly ignorant of the scale of the threats and disasters confronting humanity. While most people tend to be optimistic generally at the individual level, if we feel we have the resources and support, to exert more influence over the outcomes, we tend to be more pessimistic regarding national and global issues where we feel more disconnected from the causes and possible solutions. More than half the survey audience, mentioned at the start, were pessimistic about climate change yet the commentators had nothing much more to say about the psychological effects, the numbing, the anxiety, the depression and general melancholia. It was almost totally about the rationale for, or rather against pessimism and the need for hope to get through it. If we don’t respond to the threat, if we don’t adapt and prepare, which we are not, then hope is deferral, deflective, a knee jerk reaction to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Grow up people!!!

Most people express hope that we will resolve serious environmental issues and threats even while at the same time feeling pessimistic. While there are more climate change commentators breaking ranks and speaking about their despair and lack of hope, there is not yet a critical mass of people, especially leading commentators and politicians, that are speaking candidly about their pain in watching the devastation of the world, including their lack of hope. But is it okay, socially acceptable to not to feel or express hope? I suspect it isn’t. What does hope mean in relation to existential issues such as climate catastrophe and ecological devastation? Is hope, while a natural human tendency, really warranted or even useful if it means denial of the seriousness or bleakness of our capacities to avoid the worst case outcome? The phenomenology of hope is a subject too big to deal with fully in this small blog but I thought I would just discuss a few things that needs to be said about it in relation to climate emergency.

Hope for what? That is the real question isn’t it? Or rather, is the more fundamental question about our reliance on hope as a way of psychologically dealing with our own inner darkness such as powerlessness, guilt, rage, grief or angst? For dealing with uncomfortable conversations abut the reality of our bleak future? That we can continue as we have always done with a little dose of hope here and there? Do more people feel hopeless inwardly but socially express hope to be seen as positive and acceptable? I will reply to the easier first question, for what. What is the thing or outcome that we hope for and is it realistic, is it based on an improbable or unrealistic outcome based on the evidence and willingness to re-evaluate who we really are and our willingness to make fundamental changes?

In terms of the climate emergency, if it is a hope that we can make the type and level of changes required now and into the future to avoid ecological and civilisational collapse then it is another form of denial. Collapse is occurring NOW and based on the evidence and social psychology and systemic inertia and corruption, will continue to accelerate. So if the hope is of avoidance of collapse, or even disruption to one’s lifestyle aspirations, AND you are aware of the evidence (an important caveat), then it is a form of wilful denial, that is digging one’s head in the sand. Ultimately delusional and destructive if it is the hope of fantasy, inaction and unwillingness to respond or change to the contexts catalysing the hope. You could say that it is a fraudulent hope, a deliberate obsfucation of the both the reality and the facts.

Hope for something involves desire for some optimal future state or thing and without attending to those formative steps in each moment, each day, each year to realistically and practically move towards that outcome, then hope is “the wrong thing” as poet T.S Eliot once wrote. Expressing hope is a social requisite for being positive, cheery and fitting in with the often delusional status quo. From the perspective of our identity, expressing hope is so often based on the need to fit in, to be socially acceptable when speaking about serious threats. How we deal with our inner dark thoughts and feelings from real and imagined threats reflects our capacity to effectively cope with a stressor. Coping therefore, whether through adaptation, protection or management influences our ability to deal honestly with the inner darkness, and see the light of opportunity, rather than hope in the darkness. We can tap into our wisdom, our personal truth, allow it to unfold silently if and only if we confront our darkness using our personalised coping approach.

We gravitate towards the light of hope to avoid or temper the expression of darkness to others. In some ways our narrow construct of who we think we are plays a part in the felt pressure to be positive, happy and temper any expression of our inner darkness with appearing hopeful of some positive outcome. If that hope is truly felt and based on realistic and accurate information and capacities, then it is an honest statement. But for too many it appears, especially the mainstream commentators, expressing false or misleading hope is almost a kind of faith practice – if I just hope for some better outcome, perhaps an intervention by politicians, institutions or some version of God, then somehow, somewhen, this future happening or preferred outcome might just happen. Phew, then I no longer need to take responsibility for not just being part of the problem but part of the solution or response. Really?

It would be better to not leap to a reflexive hope, an unrealistic, delusional or deflecting hope, a fraudulent hope purposed to dismiss scrutiny, criticism or action, especially against the status quo of corporate and neo-liberal hegemony. The first response to threats and uncertainty and insecurity that illicits the desire for hope is to stop feeling the need to express hope if you know there is, currently, no basis for that hope. This is a hollow aspirational expression. Secondly we can avoid the tendency to reach forward to some future time where hope is directed and let that feared future state or outcome remain in that unrealised state. Acknowledge the possibility, even the probability but bring the cognitive focus back to the moment point of living, to the insecurities and fears of the moment and address those felt states now. How? One positive, self-empowering way is to create the nurturing space and time to surrender to the discombulating unknown, to the dark, uncomfortable feelings and fears within and allow your own truth to unfold silently into your deepening awareness, a profound acceptance of your vulnerability. To face this inner journey of acknowledging your darkness, our shadow self is not easy nor socially recognised or encouraged for it requires a persistent, fierce courage.

To hope for the wrong, or rather illusory outcome is to miss the opportunity that dark portents, dark moods such as despair and fear offer us when confronted with an issue or threat that our limited conception of self feels overwhelmed by. I know from years of being on the discombulating rollercoaster of hope and hopelessness that the reflexive and accepted private and social response undermines that inner stability required to effectively deal with threats or issues. But increasingly for myself and many others, the expression of hope, as well as hopelessness, is no longer useful or indeed necessary, at least in issues such as climate emergency. Expressing hopefulness despite the overwhelming contrary evidence for positive outcomes from insincere aspirations and inadequate actions is a form of denial, if its really about avoiding acknowledging our inability, incapacity or unwillingness to admit a negative or threatening outcome, or more likely, our lack of control over or interest in the causal processes contributing to the devastation. If you are not thriving now then hope for thriving, for yourself or the future world, will not happen if you are not willing NOW to acknowledge and let go of what restricts your willingness and capacity to manage the uncertainty, the potential threats.

Hope can be viewed as the metaphorical light at the end of the dark tunnel. It is only natural to gravitate towards the light and its promise of life and continuity. It is however like travelling through any tunnel or cavern the darkness through which we must travel. And so it is with the dark spaces of the inner world that we must traverse to find our way, our path towards the light. We, both you and I, all of humanity needs to acknowledge and confront our shadow aspects of our psyche, the self of trauma or insecurity or scarring or fear that we tend to hide away, even from our outward oriented ego self. One of the core goals of cognitive therapy or contemplative practices is to honestly acknowledge and deal with this shadow self, with what is within the dark recesses of our mind, to acknowledge and deal with what is rather than what could’ve been or what might be. Contrary to our distracted, past/future oriented mindsets, we can only ever physically live within each moment and it is within that moment to moment mindful living that we can truly deal, through compassionate, non-judgmental observation (supported by suitable others), with the darkness that overwhelms us, or threatens to do so.

Perhaps we can view this darkness, these dark, oppressive times for example as a beacon for our own awakening and salvation. These darkening times have been co-created by generations of humans, unconsciously for the most part, through our unwillingness to shift attention and commitment to the inner change required for deeper connection. We need to wait patiently, mindfully in the darkness of our inner space, as uncomfortable as that may be, to be able to listen to the wisdom that the inner silence may proffer. Perhaps what arises within this spacious Silence can replace the learned grasping for misguided hope with a quiet acceptance of what is, your deepest nature, the wisdom of the Earth and its life, and the inviolability and resilience of that future self you have the opportunity to grow into. To do this means to be mindful of your thoughts and expressions and step back from the brink of reflexive hope for the wrong thing.

I close this reflection with a stanza from TS Eliot’s poem, East Coker III. I hope it speaks to you. If you are to experience genuine hope, then it is within the “waiting”, the mindful emptying stillness that the right kind of hope, love and soul knowing (faith) can arise to nourish your inner and outer journey. We live in difficult, turbulent times and face a future world, not so many years before us, of increasing devastation, suffering and systemic collapses and rather than having hope we could countenance the higher human quality of courage to live honestly with despair and angst, to face our fears from that inner space of love and Self and acknowledge and express our vulnerability, and to continue to love, as if each moment were our last, what and who we most deeply love. Love is the glue that holds the universe together and it is with courage, heart-felt and unyielding courage that we can not just confront the threats but manifest peace and love within and around us to co-create the seeds for a more connected and wiser post-Industrial society. Instead of hoping, we must learn to practice the “waiting” and stilling to tap into the inner wisdom, courage and connectedness that can help us through the turbulent times ahead:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope
Would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T.S. Eliot, East Coker III, 1940 (the second poem of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets)

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