A DEBATE OVER HOPE
and the balance of optimism and despair
At the height of World War II's darkness, Albert Camus wrote, 'There is no love of life without despair of life.' The absurdity of the world served as the foundation of Camus' thoughts. Not absurdity as dismissal but as liberation. A liberation that leads to action. If we accept the world as unknowable and uncontrollable, we're able to release the fight of trying to know and control it, and free ourselves up to take real action in the world. The contradiction of surrender and action has motivated some of the finest thinkers in our history. I've spent some time this week reading through my favorite authors' thoughts on suffering, surrender, and hope. What emerged was a great debate: is hope necessary and beautiful, or is a willingness to release control into hopelessness the only way to move forward? Or are these in fact the same thing? I invite you into this collection of others' words for your consideration. I invite you to click links, go down a thought path wherever it may take you. And I invite you to come back here and share with me what you've found. Perhaps together we create a new thesis on hope in these times.
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope." She revisited her thoughts on hope in this 2016 article, exploring what possibilities hope might bring in moments of rupture.
There are variations of a famous Buddhist thought around hope and fear: they are sisters, they are opposites, they chase each other's tails. The idea is that we get stuck in hoping things will all be happy and pleasant while at the same time stuck in fearing things won't be all happy and pleasant. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes, "In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put 'Abandon Hope' on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like 'Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.' We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation." One of the foundational Buddhist beliefs is that all life is suffering. It is accepting the inevitable despairs of life that allows us to live in our lives rather than fight against them. HERE she gives us steps for what to do when the going gets rough.
German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm writes "Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes." He argues beautifully for rational faith and humanist radicalism as the antitheses of or antidotes to cynicism.
If you're looking for an exquisitely meandering path to read your way through, I recommend starting with Maria Popova's piece exploring Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves. She is my number one favorite writer for compiling and interpreting others' words. Through her you can trace connections through authors and thinkers throughout the entirety of human history. On our topic she writes, "Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté."
It is our human vulnerability and fragility that allow for hope. It is our ability to fall apart that allows us to put things back together. While we're in this time of collective collapse, may we all find the surrender needed to prepare for what's next. I do *hope* that you'll take some time with the words of these authors, and consider sharing some of your own favorites in the comments below.