Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hope, hopelessness and faith

The trouble with hope is that it is so easy to do and so easy to dash. We hear people say that they hope so and so will get well or will get that scholarship he or she needs to attend college or get the job he or she has applied for. There is rarely a second step in this kind of hope. And, those to whom we pay this lip service hope can through circumstances or poor conduct very easily dash our hopes.

In the political world, we often place hope in the leaders we elect. We hope they will do the right thing, enact the right policies, appoint the right people. While there may be a second step in this process--that is, pressuring our political leaders to do what we want them to do--there is little a modern voter can do when arrayed against the money and lobbyists of the corporate world.

We often hear people say that it is impossible to live without hope, by which they mean hope for something better than the current set of problems we face. There may be something to this. To believe that an unbearable present will only be followed by an unbearable future is truly debilitating. But in a world of constant change we can be virtually certain that the status quo will falter at some point.

For those involved in issues of sustainability, peak oil, climate change, and relocalization it might be better to feel a certain hopelessness in our situation. For hope implies dependence on forces outside ourselves. Once we abandon that hope, we can get down to the tasks at hand, the tasks that need to be done--for which we need to ask no politician or government official permission--tasks that we can get started on today. In this way hopelessness concerning the current political and economic arrangements becomes an ally.

So, what we really need is not hope. Hope can be the enemy of action. Hope can be a drug that maroons us in cafes in long, satisfying conversations that never lead anywhere but back to the cafe the next night. In hope's place I nominate faith. Not religious faith, but what George Santayana calls "animal faith." The great American psychologist James Hillman describes it in his book "Inter Views" in this way:
[Animal faith] is faith in the world: that it is there, that it won't give way underfoot when you take the next step, that you just know which way to turn and how to proceed. It's the faith your hands have and your feet have.....the cat jumps on the tree and starts climbing. The tree is not an object of faith to which the cat gives assent. It is a tree in an ecological field belonging to the cat's climbing. The cat has an animal faith in the tree and it loves the tree, loves itself, loves jumping and climbing--no self-examination there, no introspection about belief.

Hope is part and parcel of our pathology, Hillman writes in "Suicide and the Soul." But faith, animal faith, is commitment to the moment, commitment to putting one foot in front of the other, to getting up in the morning and making breakfast. The day will bring what the day will bring. We do not need to "hope" for anything.

And, as we go through the day, our faith can grow. This is not a faith based on belief, but rather on experience, the experience we gain with each small act and the competence that grows in us as a result of those acts. Our faith can also grow as a result of the trust we build with others as we work with them for mutual goals.

So, as we look to the year ahead let us not "hope" for a better year to come. We will almost surely be disappointed and only rarely pleased as we sit on the sidelines watching. Rather let us focus on putting our "animal" faith to work on the tasks at hand and let our engagement be the joy of the new year.


sv koho said...

Kurt: nicely expressed sentiment. So many times when I have had conversations with folks about the current deep recession and energy scarcity going forward I have heard comments to the effect that "If I believed what you believe, I would lose all hope." I usually react with dismay because I certainly haven't lost my hope except perhaps the forlorn hope that our political leaders will act in the interest of all their constituents for the greater good of society. I realize that that what I have is faith as you do that we can live a satisfying life even as our profligate society unravels.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

You have done a very nice job of describing real religious faith, a faith that is evidence of a mature spirituality. The "religious faith" that is defined primarily by the creeds that one assents to is an impostor for real religious faith, and is the hallmark of spiritual immaturity.

You are absolutely correct, we desperately need faith to see us through the years ahead.