MINDFUL HOPE – PART 1: Despair
I have been pondering for a while about making hope the theme of a New Year’s blog. The trouble is that now we have got here I am not feeling very hopeful at all. (Ed. but do keep reading, this does get better – a bit). After a year of climate change protesting & campaigning we have elected a government who seems by a long way the least committed to tackling the issue. There is no Green New Deal, no massive investment in housing nor any kind of rhetoric about Britain’s or the world’s poverty. I may be proved wrong, of course, (more than happy to be) but the populist rhetoric I am hearing seems skin deep at most and currently I am finding it very difficult to feel hopeful.
This may seem a bit defeatist and dispirited but I am at least partially encouraged by Jim Bendell in his blogs about ‘Deep Adaptation’ (do look for his You Tube video) where he suggests that we do actually need to despair – and that despair (honest, engaged despair), is a key part of our awakening to transformation. Perhaps despair then, and the process of grieving that goes with it, is the only fertile ground for true hope which transforms rather than the vague hope which seems more about putting our heads in the sand and ‘hoping’ danger will pass or that someone else will fix things (e.g. the government, technology, business etc.) – and which changes nothing. Powerfully, the narrative of Christ’s death includes a period of utter despair whereby, if you were there at the time rather than looking back having read the end of the story, there really was utter emptiness and failure – there really was no way forward. We tend to skim over such phases all too quickly but perhaps we need to dwell here a little longer. Perhaps only here, in our despair, will we find the seeds of the kind of hope which will transform.
I am very conscious that we need to heed radical theologian and activist Dorothee Soelle’s warning that despair is the ‘luxury of the rich’ – that only the rich can indulge in despair without actually starving. So I am clear that such despair needs to be active and honest as opposed to vague, passive and somewhat self-indulgent. But it also seems to me that a hope which hasn’t properly faced the facts – and grieved over them – is just as much a luxury indulged in only by those who are most protected from the real effects of those facts.
So, right now I have no happy ending or very many hopeful thoughts. All I have is a sense that we need a means by which we can be with our despair without giving up – without turning back either to passivity or to aggression. I know that one thing that will be key for me in this is to keep returning to silence in meditation but at the same time to stay in contact with others so that we can support one another through our despair and begin to watch together to see what emerges from it – and how all this may lead us to renewed action.
And so my intention this new year is twofold: i) to seek a deeper silence though my mindfulness practice and in this way to explore as honestly as I can my own sense of despair – to go up close, to look hard, to ponder deeply, to try not to look away too soon – and perhaps in future blogs I can share what I discover in the silence; and ii) when I am with others to try both to offer solidarity where others feel the same despair but also to look for the seeds of genuine hope in the lives of those who are seeing things which I am not yet seeing. I’m not sure if this will make me a very good dinner guest. But perhaps that is not the point.
SEEDS OF HOPE (RESOURCES)
But on this last point – learning to see the seeds of genuine hope in the lives of others – the best thing I can do is to point you towards a series of blogs called ‘Hope’s Work’ by David Gee who I have been getting to know recently. The hope he is identifying is what he has come to see in the lives of people who are fully engaged and active in the world often against all the odds. The hope he discovers in these people is powerful – both authentic and practical. So, if I have given permission to despair, he will lead you back to hope. Do read them, they really are excellent. Here is the link:
Another recommendation which manages to weave both despair and hope in an environmental context is Richard Powers’ monumental novel, The Overstory. It is an extraordinary piece of work in which Trees, rather than Humans, are the real protagonists even though in the narrative we engage with these extraordinary beings through the rich lives of nine very different humans. I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel despair or hope at the end. But perhaps the weaving of the two is what makes it such a powerful read:
On a slightly different note, you might also be interested in a podcast interview I recorded with retired BBC journalist and presenter, Mike Wooldridge for a series called ‘Things Unseen – interviews with people with unusual faith perspectives’. He wanted to explore with me my journey from science graduate to vicar, to mindfulness teacher and then to leaving being a vicar. It is personal and reasonably intimate but might serve as a helpful alternative view of faith for some. Here is the link:
Finally a poem for perspective… Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things