Wise hope

 

‘Everywhere I looked, hope existed – but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (…) Hope, I began to realise, was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life.’ Sr Joan Chittister

 

Hope as a quality is ephemeral, and at the same time it can profoundly impact how we experience our lives. To have lost all hope means to be in the pit of despair. On the other hand, what does it mean to have hope? We can have all the hope in the world that everything will turn out okay, yet we know this is not how life works. Things go wrong all the time, and none of us are immune from accidents, illness or other calamities.

Zen teacher and writer Joan Halifax talks about ‘wise hope’, by which she means finding value in our efforts to make the world a better place, even as we understand there is no guarantee what we’re working towards will succeed. She was writing in the context of her work with the dying, in prisons, and for social justice causes. All of these require her to remain engaged and give a lot of herself, yet may show little in the way of ‘outcomes’. The opposite of ‘wise hope’ may not be despair but apathy, a pervasive sense of ‘why bother?’ The problems are so numerous and overwhelming, what difference can one person really make?

Whenever doctors need to give a prognosis, they are navigating this difficult terrain between hope and disempowerment. It would be unethical for a doctor to tell a patient ‘don’t worry, you will be just fine’ when the patient probably has only a few months to live. On the other hand, a doctor’s words can be very powerful, and they need to somehow convey the reality of the situation without inadvertently taking away the patient’s will to live. A prognosis is only a statistical average, not a foolproof prediction, but can potentially be internalised by the patient as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether we have hope or feel resigned will profoundly influence our life, but we cannot have hope at the expense of denying reality either. If, as Sr Joan Chittister said, hope is a ‘gift of life’, then what are the conditions which can allow the ‘green shoot’ of hope to flourish in the midst of our sometimes difficult reality?

When life is very tough, we can become vulnerable to the pedlars of false hope who promise us miracle cures or ever-lasting salvation or immunity from suffering. We long for a way to control life rather than being swept up in its vagaries. Yet this doesn’t mean we should just be resigned either, or never look outside conventional understandings for innovative solutions.

Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as acceptance, beginner’s mind, non-judgement and trust, can be helpful qualities to explore in relation to hope. Hope can be complex, nuanced, and difficult to describe. It’s not something we can obtain and then possess, we may not even be able to describe what hope feels like, but we do feel its absence keenly. One of my favourite quotes about hope comes from Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident, written during the Russian occupation of his country:

‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’

 

Mindfulness practice:

Set aside some time, such as ten or twenty minutes, and either through journaling or during meditation, keep asking yourself the question – ‘for me, hope means…’ What emerges for you as you keep sitting with this question? Does anything unexpected arise for you?

 

Anja Tanhane

           

           

           

 

 

 

 

Hope





‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’

Vaclav Havel

To lose hope is akin to despair, but sometimes it might also seem that being hopeful about the future is like seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses – pretty perhaps, but just not realistic. We might feel quite optimistic about our personal circumstances, but despair at where the world seems to be heading. Or we might feel trapped in our personal lives, unable to see a good way forward. Vaclav Havel was a Czech writer, philosopher, dissident, and finally the president of independent Czechoslovakia. During the communist regime he was under constant surveillance, and spent many years in prison. Like Nelson Mandela, his story has a happy ending of sorts, but neither Havel nor Mandela had any certainty, during their long years in prison, that they would ever be released and that their countries would move in a new direction. And of course, plenty of dissidents died in prison, or became broken by the circumstances.

It might seem flippant to ‘smell the roses’ when so much is happening in the world which concerns us deeply. And yet, what will riding along on the wave of despair achieve? There is a deep strength in cultivating meaning in our personal lives by being present, and authentic. It’s not about having our head in the sand, or never allowing ourselves to feel dismay or grief. But in our small, personal way, there is a lot of good we can achieve in the world. A friend of mine told me how she made an effort to smile at a Muslim woman at a café, to show her she was welcome here. A knitting club might decide to knit scarves for asylum seekers, and visit them in the detention centre to have a cup of tea with them and hand over their new scarves. A busy father might take out the bins of his elderly neighbour, and pick up milk and bread for him on the way home from work. Political activism has its place, but so do the many small and beautiful gestures which strengthen our communities and give us hope.

Sometimes, during meditation, I allow myself to feel dismay at what is happening in my country and in the world, to sit with these feelings rather than rushing around like mad trying to ignore them. I also make a conscious effort to be present in my body, to feel my breath, and to hear the morning chorus of birds outside. Our lives are complex, but we can cultivate meaning in our lives by being present, being compassionate, and by living with hope.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three small acts of kindness which are meaningful to you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try switching off the media for a day and practising these or similar gestures instead. Do it slowly, with presence, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane