What is the Nature of the Hope that Can Trump Despair in the New Year? by Carol P. Christ


carol-christ“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” These words posted on the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno have an eerie resonance in our time. 

Marie Cartier recently posted a blog on children and hunger with facts so devastating I could not finish reading it. Earlier in the month Jassy Watson wrote about her deep feelings of grief on hearing Luisah Teish’s “Prayer for Disappearing Species.” Grief, despair, and sadness about the injustices in our world can be overwhelming.

A friend of mine has recently fallen into a deep depression. When I try to talk her out of it, she repeats that they are threatening to cut down the last remaining old growth forest in her home state of Oregon and that she can no longer eat fish because radioactivity released in the Fukishima nuclear plant disaster is reaching the seacoast of Oregon.

When I tell my friend she should not dwell only on these things and that she must remember that the world is still a beautiful place, she responds, “I do not want to give up my feelings. I know I must find a way to acknowledge my sadness and make a place for joy, but I don’t know how to do it.”

I have been in the grip of deep grief about the planet myself, not once but many times. But this happens less frequently than it used to.  When I think about the differences between how I once felt and how I feel now, I think the difference is that I have come to terms with and accepted the likelihood that “the world as we know it” is “going to hell in a handbasket”—as I put it.

I believe that the most likely conclusion of the choices human beings are making on planet earth today is massive environmental destruction leading to great suffering and probable extinction for human and many other species on planet earth. This is what I believe, but I also remind myself that I cannot know for sure. The earth and its species including human beings may have resources of resistance and survival, transformation and adaptation,that I do not know about and cannot imagine.

When I began to accept that the world I know and love (where spring follows winter, where birds sing, and where there is hope that injustice can be rectified) may not exist in the very near future, I had an astonishing insight. The death of the world I know and love will not mean the death of our planet or the end of the evolution of the universe.

Thinking about the disappearance of species and the death of human beings from starvation often feels too much to bear. None of this should be happening. Still, it can be strangely comforting to remind myself that the world I love is not the only possible world. There have been other worlds on this very planet—the time when the first cells were formed, the time of the dinosaurs, and many others. Evolution will continue on planet earth for several billion more years, and when our sun burns out, other suns will most likely still be shining in the universe.

This insight was followed by another. The reason for hope is not the conviction that we will be able to save the world we love. The reason for hope—and the reason to keep trying to save our world—is the deep knowing that it is right to try. Even if we cannot save the world we love for all time, we can savor the gift of life, and we can continue to try to create a world in which the gift of life is shared widely today and tomorrow.

I have written many times that we must learn to love a life that ends in death. I was speaking about accepting that each one of us will surely die. I do not fear death. Overcoming this fear has opened me to a greater and more clear-sighted love for life.

Can we learn to love life while accepting that the world we love may be dying? Can we continue to work to improve the conditions of life for individuals and species knowing that the world as we love it may not survive? Do we have any other choice?

For me the hope that can trump despair in our time begins in gratitude for a life that has been given to us, a life that has come down to us through the generations, and through billions of years of the evolutionary process on our planet.

Let us bless the Source of Life.

Let us bless the Source of Life, and the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.

Let us turn back from despair.

Let us embrace the gift of life and share it with as many others as possible in the new year.

Carol P. Christ  learned to be grateful for the gift of life in Crete on the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete she leads through Ariadne Institute.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. She wishes you great joy in the new year.

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Categories: Death and Dying, Earth-based spirituality, Ecofeminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Grief, Healing

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27 replies

  1. Carol, your insights speak true wisdom. The tragedy of one broken heart, one maimed kitten, one shattered shell on the littoral from boots that should be removed before walking there – a squillion deaths, whole species and tribes extinguished – my own heart weeps that I can do so little. But I too have come to understand that what I can do is also possible for everyone to do. The fact that they choose not to is not mine to change. My “little” won’t alter the facts – we’re on our way out – but like you, my own losses, and the loss of so much of our beautiful earth, have taught me to accept my choice of daily joy or daily despair. Like the Stoics, I choose joy and acceptance. It is a conscious choice, and only I can make it, no matter how the world that I live shrinks in front of my eyes. I shall pass your words on, seasons blessings to you, Zoé

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    • Zoe, Christina from the yew-day, here! I so agree with what both you and Carol are saying about acceptance and choosing joy. Despair sometimes takes me by surprise and I have to struggle back to a joyful spot where I can LIVE. I was just trying to get Carol’s point across to my partner and a friend last night. The “earth” is going to evolve into some new form with creatures that our minds cannot fathom. My life and the earth that I love will surely end. Acceptance is a blessing. I continue to do the every day small things that make life lovely. I continue to act in a way that, I hope, allows the people around me have comfort and joy. Bright Blessings from the Long Island of New York.

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  2. Zoe, I really like the way you put it. It is a conscious choice to focus on joy, gratitude, and sharing rather than to despair! Thanks for that.

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    • I think the conscious choice to choose life or death is why I put the Dante quote up–the point being “don’t let yourself enter into despair as there is no hope and no exit there.”

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  3. Needed that reminder Carol – my sentiments. Blessings for the New Year, may it be filled with love, joy, & hope xx

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  4. This says it all. “The reason for hope—and the reason to keep trying to save our world—is the deep knowing that it is right to try.” Thank you!

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  5. Two things I would add: first, the planet is also at work in engaging itself. Humanity is not alone in its evolving eco-awareness. Secondly, enlightenment experiences suggest that we have a loving existence beyond this biological life. But I agree, accepting the fact that eventually we must let go of life in this world and all of our achievements in it, is entirely liberating.

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  6. “Hope” is all we need to own and the source of this life, as Carol has shared, is a natural cycle that has been there since the first breath was taken by Mother Earth.

    “From small things big things grow” sung Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly – Australian singers (A fabulous verse and the song is about Indigenous land rights) and for me it is a beautiful hopeful song.
    I do small things on a local level. I do the very best I can. The ripple effect often creates a big wave down the river. Sometimes it makes big splashes – oh dear! The joy of life and living.

    So glad I made a small decision a month ago and joined this list and have sent every evening since, gifting to myself the time to read these discourses – what joy, inspiration and hope has grown inside of me as a result. As I read what so many of you amazing women and men are creating in your own small- BIG way in your lives and communities, we are all blessed indeed.

    Much joy and blessings to you Carol and all others on the list for 2014. Tess Elliott

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  7. Dear Carol,
    Your post leads me to comment on a book by Margaret Wheatley, “So Far FromHome, Lost and Found in Our Brave New World”. In it, the author surprisingly urges the reader to give up hope, and with it fear when it comes to our efforts to make this a better world. Her book is directed towards those of us who consider ourselves to be change agents. Her thesis is that if we divorce ourselves from outcomes, then we can continue to do our good work without falling into despair. She asserts that the world as we know it emerged from a multitude of causes, and cannot be easily fixed. She urges each of us forge ahead with insight and compassion, doing our work because it needs to be done, not because we expect it to actually change things.

    I do not completely accept her viewpoint, and have not put hope behind me, however, after reading this book, I can see that for years, I have been doing exactly what she has suggested. I have taken pride in my work as a midwife, and I have always done my best for each of my clients. Despite my best efforts, things have not always worked out as I had planned. Over the years, I have had to accept the fact that I have done what I can do, and leave it at that. If I had not nurtured this attitude, I would have been crushed by the inhumane reality of OBGYN practice in the U. S.

    Has maternity care significantly changed secondary to my efforts over 30 years of practice? No not much. For the most part, the same battles are being fought now that were in progress when I graduated from midwifery school in 1980. My solace has been my work, and the way I have done it over the years. Incidentally, I have been able to help a lot of families along the way. I have changed many outcomes for the better. More children are alive and well because of my efforts. It is the little victories that make a difference over time. If we all do our best to do the things we know are right, then maybe a side benefit of our work will be the “little victory”, it is these small things that may help a new world to eventually emerge. The enemy is the sense of futility and ultimate fatigue that one inevitably gets when what we do is tied to outcomes. It is impossible to see major changes on an individual basis. However, thousands of midwives, working together for many years, have actually altered the way maternity care is practiced a little bit. It is like drops of water falling on a stone. Eventually the rock will wear away. If we keep doing our good work with integrity, insight and compassion, eventually something different
    may emerge.

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    • Hi Wendy, I think I agree with Margaret Wheatley, at least as you present her work. I think the key point is to give up “hope” if hope means that you expect to have concrete victories that actually change the world or turn it back from its course of disaster. Things really do seem to be getting worse in so many big ways, and better in some small ways–there is this blog site for example, while the war in Afghanistan is not going to end, the environment is being protected by no one, climate change is occurring and no one with any power wants to do anythng about i, I could go on. Anyway, if we add up the pluses and the minuses as rationally as we can, there is not much reason to hope that we can save the world. There is always that unknown and things could change, so fixating on no hope is also not a good idea. It is good to hear your thoughts. Carol

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  8. Thanks for this post, Carol. It speaks to my condition, our condition.

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  9. Carol- I appreciate the depth of your insights, the reminder to do what we can and enjoy the whole. Best wishes for 2014. MEH

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  10. Thank you for this beautiful, passionate blog. I’m so grateful for your perspective here, both about individual death and the death of life on the planet as we know it. You express things I have been feeling myself, but hadn’t yet put into words. I will treasure this one.

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  11. Carol,

    I believe that those of us — like yourself — who have been “big picture people” have a more difficult time giving up hope. I know that’s been true for me. And I know that recently I released my big hopes for the world with a very quiet sigh and breathed easier for the first time in a long time. I found joy in life again — in a big way. This all sounds like what you wrote about in your post. For me, this happened on an emotional level.

    But intellectually I’m having a lot of trouble with your post. I know from repeated experiences that I need to get rid of expectations (especially unrealistic expectations) before I can move on in my life. And amazingly, when I rid myself of these expectations, usually the desired outcome materializes. But I also know that I cannot, will not, give up hope.

    It seems to me that we all need hope, maybe a ratcheted-back sort of hope, one free of too much specific imagery. But I think we all need an openness to the future, otherwise we can’t move forward. We need imaginative responses to what is happening in our world. And we need a way to consciously participate in what’s occurring today in order to transform our society. And I would call all of these kinds of hope (the last one is Ernst Bloch’s definition from “The Principle of Hope.”)

    My daughter — who is 32 — was born into what I called during her teen years “the jaded generation” (the disillusioned generation with a dollop of cynicism — and for me, a member of the JFK generation of idealism, those years were hard because of this). My joy is that she’s become an artist (a painter), since creativity — by definition — involves a process of the imagination that overcomes such lethargy and cynicism. It involves viewing the world from a perspective that is different from the norm in order to generate something new and valuable. And that’s why I love FAR. So often it entices me to become creative in my thinking. Like this response, which had me digging through my mind for why I loved Ernst Bloch so much when I was a graduate student in the 1970s.

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    • Of course we need openness to the future, as I said above, we cannot know the future (especially not in a process world). The future could be better than you or I can imagine or allow ourselves to imagine. If so, we will rejoice. On the other hand the expectation that the future will be as we hope or want it to be is a recipe for anger, grief, and disappointment. Let us hope for reasons to rejoice in the New Year.

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  12. Oh, Carol, thank you. You know, I have often wondered why the Dalai Lama laughs so easily. I think now I know. May the new year bring us all joy and laughter.

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    • Mary Ann, I had to think about what you meant, but I think you must mean that he is detached from expectations and thus can enjoy what is and what comes to him. Yes, I think this is the reason.

      And perhaps that sheds light on the above discussions about giving up hope. What needs to be given up perhaps is not hope but the expectation that what one hopes for will be achieved or given.

      I found on a personal level that when I gave up expecting that I should have x or y (true love as in a loving partner being big) I also gave up hoping that I would have x or y, so I guess hope is not one thing but many.

      Hope does or can have a lot of those buttons and hooks that Oxana talked about “attached” to it.

      I am also wondering if Wendy and Nancy’s statements that they do not want to give up hope means that they don’t want to give up caring and trying to make the world better. If Buddhist detachment means giving up caring and trying, then I am not a Buddhist. If on the other hand detachment frees you to love more, care more, and try more, I am all for it.

      Wish Oxana would chime in here.

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  13. Carol, I have recently realized that there is no reason to despair, we must be very brave, this is no time to sit upon our hands and fear things. Time is a necklace of pearls strung together, we call them moments. All of them are ours yet none are. We ride them, souls in this human form, awakening and called on to love. Thank you for this reassurance that even in apparent death, life soars. Happy 2014, may we all love more.

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  14. Thank you for this gorgeous post. You (and all the lovely commenters) have provided me with a different perspective on hope. I tend to associate hope with attachment, and faith with detachment, yet I can see their sisterhood here when we allow to be unencumbered by our expectations. Really beautiful. Blessings!

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  15. This is lovely and needed. Thank you.

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  16. This was just what I needed to hear right now.

    I have been struggling with this concept of hope lately in regards to many things in my life as well as the life of this great Mother we all live upon.

    Many years ago I was given a dream in which I saw a tiny man seated on a tall stool. When I asked him who he was and what he wanted he told me his name was Hope and that he wanted me to know that he was there to help. Since then I have wondered and formed many ideas about the meaning of this dream. After reading your piece and all the comments I’m now thinking that hope , no matter how small it is, can still help us get through some pretty frustrating times if we can just change the way we see it. It is not something that has to be BIG in our lives. It might just be that tiny feeling of joy we get knowing that the moment we are in right now is what is most important. I do think it is not so much giving up hope as it is redefining it. I can remember the feeling I had in this dream of surprise at what Hope looked like. Just a tiny man sitting there. Nothing special, not even what one could call a good looking man. But he was there and willing to help. In my mind hope is not something that guarantees us the outcome we want but something that just sits with us, keeping us company while we wait to see if all our work will be fruitful or if we will need to start over again or even find a new garden to plant our seeds in.

    Many times we have to change the way we have come to understand what a word means in order for it to make sense to us. For me that is what I am doing with this word hope. I still have hope but it just doesn’t mean what it use to. It is becoming something that sits with me while I wait. The outcome is not what’s important anymore. The fact that I have done what I feel is right is what really matters. And I have Hope that I will continue to do that as long as I’m here on this Earth.

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  17. Carrie —

    I love your dream and your interpretation of it. Hope is something/someone wiling to help by keeping us company while we wait to see what happens to our effort. I like that definition a lot. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  18. Hello Women! Sisters just discovered. I found you today, I found ‘hope’! I have been so deeply disturbed by what has happened in Fukushima. I live in Vancouver, B.C. and watch as the plumes of air and ocean tides bring the radiation from this disaster straight to our shores. My home, the home where my four children and grand children live. I do despair. I have no courage to encourage my daughters to become mothers. I fear for my children and my unborn grand children. The crazy thing is that my own daughters and sons do not despair. They have hope, or denial, to keep on living here. I keep dreaming of gathering them all up and fleeing to Chile or Brazil…but there are huge risks in that as well. So I remain here, in the rain, and wait for the news of the efforts at the # 4 reactor. But HA …here is the moment, today i found you and as I write, my daughter calls me to her room to show me the cat, in her arms but straight out, pressing her paws into my daughters chest, looking her in the eye…and my daughter turns and smiles with such joy, in this moment.
    I love and I am happy.
    I will look forward to reading about you, and your conversations.
    With deep gratitude
    Patricia

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  19. Such beautiful thoughts from you Carol and from everyone here. Once again I am amazed at the synchronicity of things, having recently arrived at a new emotional place myself around the destruction of our beautiful planet as we know it. Your words express perfectly my new found feelings and sense of peace.

    The Goddess (as I like to think of the great oneness, the source from which we come) is infinite in Her wisdom. So many things seem so horrible right now but who am I to be able to understand the movement and the reasons for it all. The world will do what the world will do. I can only live each day as fully connected to source as I can, in gratitude for the gift of life, however flawed this world might be.

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  20. I recently found a fascinating short article — with bibliography and exercises — that deals with this topic, “Cultivating a Visionary Imagination” (at http://spiritualityhealth.com/blog/celia-alario/cultivating-visionary-imagination#sthash.h6HL7rjT.dpuf). Celia Alario, a writer for Spirituality and Health, begins with an anecdote about a staff retreat for an environmental organization. A facilitator led the group through a visioning process, where each person was to envision the biodiversity hotspot which they were tasked to protect as it might appear decades from now. Surprisingly, the younger staff members envisioned devastation, while the older folks imagined a more hopeful future. As a result, Alario couldn’t help but wonder what possibilities, solutions and opportunities the team might be missing in the absence of a more visionary imagination. Her suggested reading included Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities and Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in without Going Crazy. And her exercises included dedicating a puppet to be the cynical voice of defeat in order to give (silly) voice to all those l limiting (though arguably fact-based) thoughts and let them have their time in the spotlight. She ends by asking, “Why not might make more space for a return to the imaginative vision of what is possible, despite the evidence and against the odds?” I guess that’s my question, too.

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    • Thanks , Nancy. I went to the site and left a comment. I love the idea that we can create our future with our thoughts or imagination. After all, everything that is was once a thought. Today I am feeling hopeful. Just the titles of those two books got my imagination stirring.

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