A Case for Wise Hope in Dark Times

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A Case for Wise Hope in Dark Times.

As we move deeper into the various political and environmental crises upon us, it may be difficult not to yield to despair. In this exceptional Contemplation by Design Keynote, Roshi Joan Halifax makes the case for 'wise hope'  and reminds us that hope is an imperative to action in the midst of uncertainty. This excerpt from the The Strange and Necessary Case for Hope is rare medicine for our dark times.


Wise Hope

“I have often been troubled by the notion of hope. It just did not seem very Buddhist to hope. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once said that life is “like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.” That certainly brings conventional hope up short! But some time ago, in part because of the work of social critic Rebecca Solnit and her powerful book Hope in the Dark, I am opening to another view of hope—what I am calling “wise hope.”

As Buddhists, we know that ordinary hope is based in desire, wanting an outcome that could well be different from what might actually happen. To make matters worse, not getting what we hoped for is often experienced as a misfortune. If we look deeply, we realize that anyone who is conventionally hopeful has an expectation that always hovers in the background, the shadow of fear that one’s wishes will not be fulfilled. Ordinary hope then is a form of suffering. This kind of hope is a nemesis and a partner with fear.”

Hope Is Not Optimism

“We might ask then: what more specifically is hope? Let’s begin by saying what hope is not: hope is not the belief that everything will turn out well. People die. Populations die out. Civilizations die. Planets die. Stars die. Recalling the words of Suzuki Roshi, the boat is going to sink! If we look, we see the evidence of suffering, of injustice, of futility, of desolation, of harm, of ending all around us, and even within us. But we have to understand that hope is not a story based on optimism, that everything will be ok. Optimists imagine that everything will turn out positively. I consider this point of view dangerous; being an optimist means one doesn’t have to bother; one doesn’t have to act. Also, if things don’t turn out well, cynicism or futility often follow. Hope of course is also opposed to the narrative that everything is getting worse, the position that pessimists take. Pessimists take refuge in depressive apathy or apathy driven by cynicism. And, as we might expect, both optimists and pessimists are excused from engagement.

So, what is it to be hopeful and not optimistic? The American novelist Barbara Kingsolver explains it this way: “I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful.  I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic.  Here’s how I would describe it.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be alright; I don’t think it’ll be that bad. The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ … Hope is… a mode of resistance… a gift I can try to cultivate.””

Both Not Knowing and Meaning

“If we look at hope through the lens of Buddhism, we discover that wise hope is born of radical uncertainty, rooted in the unknown and the unknowable. How could we ever know what is really going to happen?! My good friend, the cultural historian William DeBuys, once remarked to me that he places his faith, such as it is, in surprise. Wise hope requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually surprised. In fact, wise hope comes alive through the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, of surprise, and this is the space in which we can engage. This is what socially engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy calls “active hope,” the engaged expression of wise hope.

It’s when we discern courageously, and at the same time realize we don’t know what will happen that wise hope comes alive; in the midst of improbability and possibility is where the imperative to act rises up. Wise hope is not seeing things unrealistically but rather seeing things as they are, including the truth of impermanence…as well as the truth of suffering—both its existence and the possibility of its transformation, for better or for worse.

Through another Buddhist lens, we can see that hope reflects the understanding that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can really know beforehand. I am recalling the poet Gary Snyder reading the work of the 9th century Chinese poet Han Shan, who fled from the civil servant’s life and took refuge in the mountains, scratching his poems on rocks, bamboo bark, trees, and the walls of houses in neighboring villages. Of course, Han Shan never knew that a 1000 years later, a young guy in a fire watch tower in the Cascade Mountains of the United States of America would read his poetry and inspire what we now know as the environmental movement of deep ecology, a way of seeing our interconnected relationship to the natural world.

Truly, we cannot know what will unfold from our actions now or in the future; yet we can trust that things will change; they always do. But our vows, our actions, how we live, what we care about, what we care for, and how we care really do matter all the same. Rebecca Solnit reminds us that history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Yet often we become paralyzed by the belief that there is nothing to hope for—that our patient’s cancer diagnosis is a one-way street with no exit, that our political situation is beyond repair, that there is no way out of our climate crisis. Guishan thought that there was no fire left in the hearth. We might feel that nothing makes sense anymore, or that we have no power and there’s no reason to act; that the fire is dead.

In response to the notion of hope and hopelessness, the Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu reminds us that we are not victims of fate or of a higher power; from this perspective, we can say that hope opens us to a wider horizon and to deeper and unexpected possibilities. We can recall that Guishan’s life opened to a boundless horizon when his teacher Baizhang showed him the glowing ember.”

Showing Up

“I often say that there should be just two words over the door of our Zen temple in Santa Fe: Show up! One might ask why would I want these words over the door of our temple, when despair, defeatism, cynicism, skepticism, and the apathy of forgetting are fed by the corroding effect of conventional hopelessness. Yes, suffering is present. We cannot deny it. There are 67.3 million refugees in the world today; only eleven countries are free from conflict; climate change is turning forests into deserts. Japan’s population is declining. Suicide rates for children are up. Many feel no connection to religion or spirituality, and countless people are deeply alienated and take refuge in their digital devices. We also see that economic injustice is driving people into greater and greater poverty. Racism and sexism remain rampant. Our medical system is deeply challenged. Globalization and neoliberalism are putting the planet at great risk.

The peacemaker Daniel Berrigan once remarked “One cannot level one's moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something; and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.” Berrigan understood that wise hope doesn’t mean denying the realities that we are confronted with today. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now. Seven hundred years ago, in Japan, Zen Master Keizan wrote: “Do not find fault with the present.”. He invites us to see it, not flee it!

Returning to the difference between hope and optimism and why hope makes sense in our fraught world, the Czech statesman Václav Havel said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” For many, it feels like an imperative to march for peace, to work for the ending of nuclear proliferation, to put pressure on the US government to re-sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It makes sense to shelter the homeless, including those fleeing from war and climate devastation; it makes sense to support compassion and care in medicine in spite of the increasing presence of technology that stands between patients and clinicians. It makes sense to sit with dying people, take care of our elders, feed the hungry, love and educate our children. In truth, we can’t know how things will turn out, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And at the same time, something deep inside us affirms what is good and right to do. So we move forward in our day and sit at the bedside of the dying grandmother or teach that third grade class of kids from the poor neighborhood. We bear witness to the young man who wants to take his life. We hold our CEO’s and politicians accountable. Baizhang plunged the fire tongs into the dead ashes. And Barbara Kingsolver put potatoes in her root cellar.

It is exactly at this point of not knowing where our vows come alive… in the midst of seeming futility or meaninglessness. Maybe you know the story told by the great natural scientist Loren Eiseley of the man who is walking down the beach and sees another man tossing starfish back into the sea. The first man says to the second man: Why bother, too many starfish; won’t make any difference. One version of the story has the second man saying, “Well, it made a difference to that one,” as he tosses another starfish back into the ocean.

There is a story told about Dutch-born activist A.J. Muste. Near the end of his long life, during the Vietnam War, Muste stood in front of the White House every night, holding a single lit candle. Often he was alone. One evening, a reporter interviewed him as he stood in the rain. “Mr. Muste,” the reporter said, “do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?” Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.” 

The Talmud states: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

The American Zen teacher Peter Levitt reflected on this sentiment when he wrote that “many people think that a mitzvah, a good deed, is something special. The teaching is that it is not; it is an obligation. We are obliged to do mitzvahs. We don't do them because we are special, or particularly good people. We do them because that is what a human being does as an expression of what a human being is. So, yes; we are not obliged to complete the work, but we ARE obliged to undertake it in a way that helps the world to realize its wholeness, from the very beginning. It is part of the joy of being alive.”

Our vows and wise hope are what Zen Master Dogen means when he admonishes us to “give life to life,” even if it’s just one starfish at a time, one dying person at a time, one refugee at a time, one man in front of our nation’s capital with a single candle in his hand.”

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