On Hopelessness

I wrote this meditation on hope and hopelessness on 9/11/2007 and a friend suggested I post it anywhere that’s appropriate.

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by frost.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

In some ways we obviously minimise the challenges that our planet faces, but I think some of us who are acutely aware of these challenges take an alarmist attitude that, while understandable, may be based on fear and conditioning as much as actual knowledge about the forces shaping the future. I’ve met people who are absolutely convinced that we’re screwed. It is obvious to me that humans are doing some insane and stupid things that seem capable of throwing the earth metaphorically (and actually) off its axis, and that it’s necessary that we take immediate action to reverse these trends, but our knowledge about how royally we’re screwing up doesn’t equate to knowledge about how complex dynamic forces will actually unfold and shape the future; how risilient nature is when put to the test; how resilient humans are when put to the test. The view that we’re doomed and that our problems are insurmountable is just that, a view — and others with the same information come to different conclusions. Some people in sustainability circles seem to look at the mainstream structures and bemoan, “If only you had the truth,” forgetting that, really, they don’t have the truth, either. No one posesses the full truth; and humility as to our not knowing is important. We may see the pain others are causing, but we must acknowledge that we don’t have the truth, either. Yes, we may be closer to it, in some sense, but we don’t have it. Jesus said on the cross “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What did they not know? Perhaps they didn’t know what suffering they brought to themselves in the act of killing another. Perhaps they didn’t know they were crucifying the Son of God. But even those who cherished Jesus and saw the cruelty of the crucifixion did not really know what was done. They did not and couldn ot know that in this event lay the salvation of humanity. And the full meaning of that is a mystery; simply, we don’t know how spirit moves, and that’s a blessing.

This isn’t to say that we should dismiss theories such as global warming because we “just don’t know”; rather, we should take them very seriously, and accept the worst-case scenario as a precautionary principle of action. There’s a concept from engaged Buddhism: committed action, non-attachment to outcome, which is extremely powerful and incredibly difficult to put into practice. I think that the extent that one is able to put this into practice is the extent to which we’re truly living. There are so many examples in my own life where attachment to outcome prevents a fully engaged, present, committed action. I’m afraid of losing love so I’m unable to be fully present for it. I’m afraid of death so I’m unable to be fully present for life. It seems that truly committed action — action that comes from our core and deepest vitality — can help us achieve non-attachment to outcome; and non-attachment to outcome can help us learn committed action. I’m getting some chills at having just made this connection; but it’s just as Morrie Schwartz says in the wonderful book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Learn how to live, and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll learn how to live.” Learn to be a little less attached and we can be more present and committed. Learn to be more present and committed and we can be a little less attached. That is, we can truly live; and be free. This is a powerful exercise, from the Maverick Sutras, that I should probably make it a habit of practicing. I originally heard about it from Gil Fronsdal, and here it’s put so well. Simply, remind yourself every now and then, “I don’t know.” “Not-knowing is unlimited; knowledge is limited. Not-knowing is the ground of mystery, the land of wonder; a haven to be visited daily. It is the source of creativity, inventiveness, and tranquility all in one. Not-knowing is the only place from which freshness can emerge. Of all the knowledge which you consider ‘yours,’ how much is merely the leavings, the conditioning of others? What have you truly learned on your own, through observation, intuition, enquiry? Return to not-knowing! Rest there a while. Expect nothing. Then emerge gently to view the world with fresh eyes. Not-knowing. Go there daily! This is meditation, rejuvenation, the source of creativity, even therapy, all rolled into one.”

Those with a spirituality too focused on the earth may suffer from hopelessness; but for me bringing my awareness to the cosmic dimension of spirituality — gaze at the stars with wonder and maybe you’ll know what I mean — is an anodyne to this hopelessness. To quote once again that amazing poem by Patricia Lay-Dorsay, “But it’s OK if sometimes we’re out of balance because the Universe goes on whether we’re along for the ride or not.” She continues, “Nothing humanity can do will disrupt the perfect balance of the Universe. We are not that powerful. Even though our choices can throw certain elements like climate species survival land and water ecology out of whack nothing we can do will throw off the beauty of the Universe itself.” This to me is a perfect example of balancing our caring for the earth with a cosmic perspective that cannot possibly allow us to be stuck in hopelessness. The entire poem, which I think I will get into the habit of reading every day, or at least every week, in order to allow its wisdom to seep into the fibers of my being, can be found here. I think a person has to have a pretty developed cosmic spirituality in order to deal in a dignified way with the despair one encounters everywhere if one takes the time to look at world events and the consequences of our way of life; and I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t want to unwittingly open for anyone a door into awareness of the challenges we face who lacked such a spirituality (or some mature — uninhibiting of actualisation — way of coping.) Of course, deep pain is often the yeast of an expanded spiritual sense; but I see people who are lifeless, because they’ve cared so much, and have given up hope because they think they know. It’s very uncomfortable to be around such people.

For a long time Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been for me a model of this sort of cosmic spirituality. It’s a perfect allegory for modern times. As Gandalf says: “Despair, or folly? It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” For Gandalf reminds us, “Even the wise cannot see all ends.” Some people delude themselves with the strength of their conviction that the future is hopeless. They see the end beyond all doubt, or they think they do. Perhaps they’re afraid to live in uncertainty and would rather choose hopelessness over that. In any case, I’m awed by Tolkien’s work, and its spiritual relevance for modernity. I think I’m going to ask a friend to read the Lord of the Rings with me; it brings me spiritual nourishment, and the idea of reading with someone makes me happy.

We talked about this on Saturday: our focus on the negative, our despair, may very well be a product of our cultural upbringing. To seek out the good that is happening, and to believe that such good things are possible, is a rebellious act. I wonder: how do other cultures deal with despair? What are the psychological processes that various cultures have used to come back into balance? How do existential issues manifest themselves cross-culturally? I haven’t begun to explore these questions, but I’m thinking about this possibility: even the despair that leads us to deny the possibility of a positive future may be culturally conditioned; and, perhaps moreso, the way we relate to our feelings of despair may be culturally conditioned. I’m aware that in certain situations and around certain people, I am more connected than despairing; and in other situations and around other people, it’s all but obvious that hope is dead. In both situations I’m exposed to the same information, so why is my attitude, and hence my orientation towards hope, so very diffent in these two sitautions? What this says to me is that hope and hopelessness don’t originate in facts. A person who is hopeless isn’t so because of the facts before her. Hopelessness does not derive from the intellect. It’s influenced by something more subtle: our orientation towards life; the orientations of those around us; our spirituality; what we focus on; our cultural conditioning; our general mood prior to being exposed to the information. Here’s my hunch: put me in a room of ten people discussing global warming, peak oil, or species extinction who look at the facts and determine the situation is hopeless, and I’ll feel pretty hopeless, too. But put me in a room of ten people discussing the same information, but who are hopeful and have a spiritual strength with a cosmic reach, and I’m likely to feel pretty hopeful (nay, a better word: reslient) as well. I may assume the reason I’m hopeless because of the facts themselves, but really, it has a lot less to do with the facts, and a lot more to do with the people around me (among other situational and existential factors) than I give credit; I don’t want to admit that I am so easily influenced, so I think it’s the facts that have made me hopeless. I can remind myself, when I feel despair and hopelessness, that these feelings are not me. What’s more, these feelings aren’t even in the facts themselves; they’re just interpretations. Our hopelessness is not a product of the facts but of the orientation we develop within ourselves; which is influenced in part by the people we surround ourselves with, the millieu of our entire culture, past experience, and maybe even the fact that it’s a cold and dreary day. In the end, we really don’t know. And that’s powerful.

There’s so much more I want to write, about a lot of things, but I think that’s the end of my ruminations on hopelessness. The world will never be without suffering and it’s not meant to be; we’ll always be disappointed if that’s what we’re expecting; but the universe is beautiful, and the source of our earth’s beauty is something we can never destroy. Somehow I’ve been able to write this in a way I haven’t been able to write in years. It feels pretty good. There are many more things I have to say — and hopefully I’ll be able to say them in a way that feels as good as this feels — but this is what I’ll share, for tonight.


~ by dewiniaeth on December 22, 2007.

4 Responses to “On Hopelessness”

  1. You have woven so many great ideas together here that it is hard to draw them all together. What really grabbed me was your observation of the sky is falling types who tend to get caught up in the doom and gloom of it all. Instantly I recognized aspects of myself in that little vortex of despair. You also helped me realize what I dislike about such useless panic; in so many ways it is based on a need to know something, anything, for certain (though of course that is impossible). Thanks for making clearer the freedom that dwells in not knowing – it is infinitely more life-affirming that half-believing in the end of the world as we know it.
    In the end I know I will not totally lose myself in the fear of all humanity has destroyed because I too hold tight to the knowledge that the Universe is infinitely beautiful. I am indebted to you for giving me one more reason to remember its perfection.


  2. HI Dewiniaeth.

    A website and project that may interest you as a writer, and reader, concerning Matthew Fox: http://www.originallyblessed.org

  3. Thank you for your post. I’m reading James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency”, which although a good book it can paint a somewhat hopeless picture for humanity post-peak oil.

    In this day of peak oil, global warming, 2012, and other prospects, it’s easy to become hopeless and develop a “what’s the use?” attitude. However, Jesus assures us that we still have hope, not a ethereal kind, but the hope that gives us strength to pray and work for the best.


  4. Super On Hopelessness | Sacred Awe filme online on sacredawe.wordpress.com pentru tot cel ce vrea sa vada.

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