Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Despair as an Invitation to Vision and Honest Hope
A few weeks ago at our small rural Friends Meeting, I spoke on the theme of the fading dream of humanity living gently on the earth. A dear friend had requested that we sing “I Dreamed a Dream” - an iconic song of innocent hope. When we got to the line, “The dream fades...”, I thought of our present dilemma, caught under the towering tsunami of climate change. The songwriter moves from fading dream to present vision, but my heart did not. After we settled into worship, I spoke about this feeling, recounting a brief history of climate change public opinion and politics since the wake-up occasioned by “An Inconvenient Truth.” I noted that many, including some sitting in our lovely meeting house, have gone back to sleep, and, given the present alignment of Congress and a weak Executive, the window for ordinary political action has closed.
The Meeting had recently supported my civil disobedience and arrest at the White House over the tarsands pipeline. I acknowledged this, and called for folks to join me. I did not speak from a place of helplessness, but owned my sadness, and the sense that this Woodstock era song felt dated. Feeling pulled into the maw of despair, I fumbled a bit to recall words from another time, when I spoke of the need for “honest hope.” But in the end the power of the song, still ringing in my heart, took over, and I heard my last words as I sat down, that sustainable life on earth was a “fading dream.”
I have been speaking in churches for almost a decade now, and learned from my early experiences in the pulpit that people need hope even more than they need to face the facts of our present predicament. So I tend to end all my messages on a hopeful tone, which for me, consists in a deep faith in our Creator, a faith that extends beyond the present universe into the depths of Her power to create anew, no matter how badly we may fail as stewards in this one. But this time I did not end on a note of hope.
If matters had been left there, with the words “fading dream” still reverberating as we closed meeting, I would have failed in my role as a faith leader in my community. Fortunately, traditional Quakers do not have ministers who control the liturgy and the pulpit. So, at the end of Meeting, two Friends rose to speak. One recounted recently hearing the Dalai Lama speak, who reaffirmed hope even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. As a teacher of religious studies at a Quaker secondary school, he added that hope is the wellspring of all religions. The second simply affirmed George Fox's statement, to look for that of God in everyone. So the collective ministry of the Meeting ministered to the congregants' need for hope.
Though I have clerked two Quaker meetings and served many years as clerk of Ministry and Nurture for yearly meeting, I have been eldered more than once for being too despairing. After all, it is our task to wait silently until we clearly hear the voice of God prompting us to speak. Given God's infinite potency, God's speech is not a message of despair. We may despair before the vision of God in the Whirlwind, or the Tsunami of Climate Change, but God within these powers and visions works thus to awaken us. What I want to acknowledge is that despair is a sign of honest awakening from the torpor of apathy and denial. If love is the first motion, then awakening to the recognition of our sin – being cut off from God and Her Creation - is the beginning of the motion back. Fox, in his journal passage prior to the famous quote on that of God in everyone, spoke of his prolonged experience of the Ocean of Darkness that leads to the Ocean of Light, if we have the courage to cross it.
So I reaffirm the need to face the facts of the present human and planetary condition, not to deny or gloss over them. If we really take in the depth and scope of our predicament, we may well despair. I also reaffirm that a practice such as Joanna Macy's despair and empowerment is critical in keeping our hope honest. We need to go into our despair, not avoid it, which only leads to a deadening, quickly becoming apathy. Into it and through it, either with the help of a trainer like Joanna in the context of group wisdom, or through a well-grounded personal spiritual practice. On the other side of despair, one frequently experiences a heightened sense of creativity and energy to deal with our dilemmas. If we block negative emotion, we close down the full range of response that unlocks our innate evolutionary creativity, opening the door to honest hope.
But is “honest hope” a non-sequitur? In the sense that hope is boundless, yes. And if we interpret honest hope to be a synonym for rational odds, then we're not talking about hope. On the other hand, innocent, untested hope has blind faith that our “unnegotiable” way of life, our capitalist religion, will save us, even in the face of a climate catastrophe whose parameters are being set more deeply every day. Hope for this world is always incomplete, ultimately a lie. The ultimate hope is in the Lord, the Creator, wherein dwells the possibility of the Phoenix Universe beyond this one. And that is where my ministry, even as it traverses the Ocean of Darkness that dominates our present world, needs to rest.
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