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The Meaning of Hope
December 25, 2007

I'm combining the last two commentaries of the year into one holiday offering, with the expectation I will need to be increasingly brief or intermittent or offhand in the new year if I'm to honor an upcoming deadline for the next novel.

However, as it is the holidays, I find myself reflecting a great deal on the subject of hope. The birth of Christ, and solstice celebrations in general, have always attempted to warm and brighten the coldest, darkest nights of the year with a sense of promise.

I was helped along this path recently by happening on an article by bay area writer Rebecca Solnit, whose essay "Hope at Midnight," written as she revisited her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities for a revised edition, deals specifically with a number of events throughout the world that should give us cause for optimism.

But it wasn't just this litany of encouraging events that I found most engaging in Ms. Solnit's essay. First and foremost, I was stopped in my tracks by the following sentence:
What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressive is the utter selfishness of misery, its shallow, stuck, inward gaze.
Having suffered such a depression after my wife's death, I immediately felt a jolt of recognition at this characterization. I sometimes look back at the year following Terri's passing and wonder how anyone could have suffered my presence (and I lost more than one friend during that time).

And yet, upon reflection, I also realized that depression can be something other than a onetime reaction to events. It can become a chronic response, induced by a dispositional inclination to anxiety and grief, triggered by a particularly profound reversal in one's life, and further entrenched by additional setbacks until loss and grief and despair seem unavoidable, intrinsic, the only viable reaction to the world.

This can be not just personal, but cultural, as when an entire society, victimized for decades or even centuries, cannot summon the will to overturn its oppressive overseers, or even confront them. Corruption is seen as the price of doing business, dishonesty becomes the only viable form of sincerity, and life becomes a tightrope routine of taking advantage of one's luck while trying not to set one's expectations too high. To call such broader societal afflictions selfish seems at first glance unjust, a sort of blaming the victim. And yet, again on further reflection, I began to see the link that tied these things together--a deeper, more active understanding of hope.

Not surprisingly, I was aided in this Ms. Solnit herself, who noted:
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." His forgotten next sentence is, "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."
I took away from this the notion that what hope we may possess lies not in the wishing, but in the determination. And Rebecca provides numerous examples of just such determination, from Eastern Europe to Latin America to South Africa to India. Hope then does not lie in a wish that things will or even must get better, on the basis of some vague notion of history or progress or God's redemptive plan. It comes from a refusal to despair, even when despair seems a viable if not the only logical response to one's circumstances.

But on what is such an activist hope based? Is it just a defiant, perhaps even merely stubborn refusal to be cowed by the powerful, the greedy, the corrupt? Wouldn't that then also reflect a certain level of selfishness, as though it's one's pride that's on the line, one's sense of oneself among others, or perhaps only, yes, an inward gaze to the pit of one's own conscience, in which one determines what he can live with in himself, and what he cannot. This might well be courageous. But is it unselfish?

To find my way out of this paradox, I remembered two of my favorite quotations from Pëma Chödron's When Things Fall Apart (the one book that provided me real guidance in the aftermath of my wife's death):
To give up fear, one must also surrender hope.
Things become much simpler when one realizes there is no escape.
At first glance, especially to a western intellect, these thoughts might seem the very distillation of a steel-eyed despair, or nihilism. But I found incredible solace and resolve in them. They crystallized the Buddhist concept of impermanence so clearly for me that I found my world view changed.

Chödron's concept of fear as the dark underbelly of hope proceeds from the notion that all our mental projections into the future are illusion. Hope, for example, is the investment in a future that is in some way promising, fulfilling, worthwhile. And the fear that such a rewarding future may not come to pass is proportional to the depth of one's investment in the illusory tomorrow. And so a subtle but palpable anxiety results, in which we trick ourselves into believing we're being optimistic when in truth we're merely afraid that something other than what we hope for will come to pass.

This is where the second quote is instructional. Only by embracing the concept of our mortality, the inescapable reality of our immanent death, can we free ourselves from the distorting illusions that purport to sustain us, when in truth we are their slaves, clinging to them out of fear.

A different kind of hope emerges out of such clarity and fearlessness. It is not based on a desire for a shinier city on the hill. It is rooted in the compassion that arises when one relinquishes the ego's hold on one's behavior, when one sees through the illusions of vanity and stops seeking immunity from life's travails. This kind of hope is a kind of devotion. It sees ourselves in our true light, and will settle for nothing less than our true dignity, welfare, justice. This committed hope is the child of love, the love that results from intuiting the essential sameness of all living creatures, an intuition that arises once one gives up thinking he can outsmart death. And it is this commitment to others that leads the way out of the selfishness of despair.

It may be this insight that led St. Paul to deem charity as the greater virtue over faith or hope. And yet I increasingly have come to see all virtues as sharing a common territory of selflessness, that courage and love and hope and honesty all require a relinquishing of vanity and the fear of suffering, fear of shame, fear of annihilation. And it is especially at this time of year that I circle back to that understanding, that to live well is to be brave, to be kind, to be honest. That insight guides me through the short cold days and the long dark nights of winter. It reminds me there is no hope unless I overcome my vanity and fear and reach out honestly to others in a spirit of love.

Happy holidays. Best wishes in the coming year.

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