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Abandon All Hope!

It isn’t a popular stance to take, but let’s face it: we all know, no matter the sort or degree of denial we incline toward, things on this planet are going to hell in a hand basket. And rather swiftly, at that. Readers of CounterPunch aside, an awful lot of us have our heads buried deep in the sand where this reality can be kept in check, less of a constant and threatening presence. But unconscious awareness exists and its influence cannot be overestimated. As is often the case, those things we wish not to know, those from which we turn firmly away, are in fact the very things that drive and direct us. Think of the little man behind the curtain, pulling the strings.

Fear is rampant now, as well it might be. There are many good reasons to be afraid. Our survival, as individuals and as a species, is very much in question. I have been relieved to see this fact bleeding into the mainstream press over the last couple of years. It is not, of course, that I welcome this acknowledgement for its content, but rather because it is so palpably known to all of us, the proverbial elephant.

Telling the truth, clearly one of the most common casualties of our time, is also the initial and most fundamental element of creating change. Which is precisely why there is such great investment in keeping it from us. Clearly defining the problem, of necessity, precedes crafting an appropriate response. And so, to paraphrase Orwell, telling the truth is an inherently revolutionary act.

For me, telling the truth in this era leads to dealing ruthlessly with specious hope. Hope is widely held as sacrosanct, something without which we cannot carry on. Deny hope and you deny life. Disparaging hope will make you a pariah, but…what do we do when the reality we face is overwhelmingly without legitimate cause for hope? Human beings cover the range from inspirational and transcendent, wise, brilliantly creative fonts of compassion and love to breathtakingly selfish, violent, vicious, unable to conceive of or care about the consequences of our actions and unspeakably arrogant. Where is hope, really, when all indications are that the latter forces in human nature are far outdistancing the former? When the ball is not just teetering on the brink, but actually hurtling down the other side?

How then, does hope impact our ability to deal with our current situation?

This is where we need to look more closely at fear. Hope arrays itself against that which we fear. For instance, we hope that with great effort and commitment, we will be able to join together and stop the death of our planet. We hope that with enough outrage and noise, we will force the kind of training, regulation and oversight of our police such that they will not be so inclined to shoot and kill unarmed and innocent people of color. The alternatives are grim and almost unthinkable. But do most thoughtful people believe—really believe—in the human capacity to make the huge changes required? I think not.   Hope, fueled by small victories (like an indictment here or a judgment against an oil company there) along with the fear of massive defeats, becomes our shield against utter despair. A talisman to ward off the truth because the truth is much too hard to bear. To deeply know, to take in and hold in one’s heart. The great sorrow of the waste of the gorgeous potential, of the glory and goodness of human nature.

Denial—a form of fearing and avoiding the truth—has widely documented benefits. It keeps us from cracking up, giving up. It stands between us and the unbearable. Getting up in the morning with no job to go to and bills to pay is hard enough when it remains conceivable to harbor hope that today will be the day when something changes. Without that hope, the choice to get up can look plain dumb, a zero sum game. And that may be the juncture where we find ourselves personally (in some cases), locally, nationally, globally, as a species.

But the underlying knowledge continues to work on us whether we are aware of it or not. One way to fend off the fear is to do something. To act. The Israeli government, though it abuses its power without restraint or shame, undoubtedly feels fear and is motivated by a sort of fear of to the murderous, racist and illegal overreach which has become its hallmark. Many kids growing up in the midst of the chaotic mess which they are about to inherit are clearly terrified, and some of them apparently see a way to ‘fix’ things by fighting for order and structure. ISIS and Boko Haram offer the security and passionate purpose of gang membership writ large in a world where nothing makes sense, truth is on holiday and the powers that be are clearly bankrupt. Tribal membership has always beckoned to those seeking the safety that seems to accompany belonging. Shooting up a college campus or a Planned Parenthood office? The proffered reasons tend to be largely incoherent, but I’d wager that most of the shooters are desperately afraid of the utter lack of control they experience in regard to their lives and the future of their world. Terror? The word may just as well describe the state of mind of the perpetrators–whether they be APA hacks overseeing US torture methodology, lunatics affirming their commitment to the sanctity of life with long guns, IDF soldiers bulldozing homes and people indiscriminately, suicide bombers deploying on the streets of big cities, police conducting business as usual—as it describes the effect their actions have on the victims, on the rest of us.

Of course the impulse to action also arises from deep consciousness, from extraordinary love and integrity. I feel immense and daily gratitude to all those who are out on the frontlines—marching, suspending themselves from bridges, broadcasting the truth, feeding hungry children. We experience more authentic hope when we are moving from the highest human instincts; this is, for some, a very successful way to live with the status quo. To act to change it in a positive way.

But I would suggest that we are currently being challenged to consider how to go forward in a world with very little real hope for the concrete, on-the-ground changes many of us work so hard for. To find a way to come to terms with the probability that all our efforts will not achieve long-term security and comfort for any but the 1%, will not result in economic or racial justice or equality, will not stop the ice sheets from melting or the radioactive Fukushima-spiked water flowing into the sea. These are hard things to say, to hear. But if they are true, how then do we make beauty from the mess? How do we live from and draw upon the great brilliance and nobility of heart which is our human inheritance, even as the world where we live dissolves tempestuously around us?

Then the questions periscope a bit and become more pointed: how do we avoid responding to the things we fear with our own version of fear? Without ever surrendering our own understanding of what is correct, how do we allow that the tiger of fear has almost everyone’s tail, and that much of what we find frightening itself arises from fear? How do we stop the endless blaming and ‘othering?’ Like it or not, we are all in this together.

According to Hindu cosmology, the universe cycles infinitely through creation (Lord Brahma), life (Lord Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). Each phase is essential to the manifestation of reality, just as exhalation is necessary to inhalation. We must empty out our lungs before we fill them again. Destruction of what is must occur before new life can be created. If we are now in Shiva’s arms, it would be pointless, as well as counter-evolutionary, to try to stop his dance. As pawns used to create, sustain and now destroy, we have too often strayed into thinking that we control the narrative, and then, too clever by half, we have unwittingly written the story of our own demise with brilliant inventions like the internal combustion engine and nuclear fission.

So I offer a controversial notion for consideration: abandon all hope that we can make things ‘right’ and give up the fear of what happens next. Do what you need to do in this time, make the contribution that you are called to make, but contemplate a shift in the vantage from which you view world events. Let’s not let hope keep us from (paradoxically) realizing and living the most extraordinary aspects of our birthright as human beings. From a fearless assessment of where we stand (or fall) can flow a liberating boldness, permission to live without attachment to outcomes. When we let go of hoping for a desired end and thus the fear which accompanies any threat to it, we are freed from the constraints of attempting to control something which is no longer in our hands. It then becomes possible to aspire to and build a way of living which embodies the very best and brightest of our human capacities, regardless of the endgame. What, after all, do you think this experiment is about? Domination, power and ‘civilization?’ Or love, beauty and compassion?   We may not be able to enforce love or compassion, but we can bring them to each breath we take, to our meeting with the fear and the fire that is raging all around.

Is this idea simplistic? Of course. It is a direction, not a prescription. Is it realistic? Who knows? For some, especially those in the crosshairs, it may be a luxury too dear. But consider the alternative.

Letting ourselves know and speak the multiplicity of truth, facing the future without the shield of unrealistic expectation and still, choosing to live in this fearful time from love and joy instead of reaction: this, in my view, remains worth hoping for. Better yet, forget the hope; why not just do it?

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Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.  

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