Some thoughts on hope

Last week I headed to Banff to attend a “Hope Decoded Summit” at The Banff Centre. The summit coincided with my children being gone for spring break, and also with the 27th anniversary of my dad’s death (an event which initiated my own exile from that innocence in which hope — one’s own relationship to hope — is not yet an explicit factor in living), and perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, with a deep loneliness.

I did all the things one needs to do to leave home, even for a short time: packed a bag, emptied the garbage, kissed the kids, and got on the road. I was making pretty good time when, a few kms past Red Deer, I glanced up at a passing truck to see a passenger and driver gesticulating helpfully in the direction of my front driver-side tire. “You have a flat!” they mouthed. A message soundless yet unmistakeable. “Thank you!” I mouthed back.

I pulled to the side of the road and assessed the flatness of my tire, the aptness of the metaphor. I have had lots of practice accepting the less-than-ideal, and I enjoy a good extended metaphor. So I drove to Didsbury, rather cheerfully, and got my tire fixed. It took some time, but I got back on the road again, with an approximately suitable tire–the nearest match available–fitted to my rim. It did the trick. But perhaps the metaphor could have extended itself, thereafter, a bit less: for after the flat tire, there was a train stopped for 40 minutes in/on its tracks, then the reminder that as much as I love the sublime beauty of mountain drives I am also somewhat terrified by them. And, then, almost comically, despite my having stayed at The Banff Centre half a dozen times before, I somehow missed the town of Banff completely, and found myself headed, several hours after the Hope Summit had begun without me, not toward “Hope” at all, but toward Lake Louise.

By the time I arrived in Banff, I felt–pardon the pun–a bit deflated. As much as I had been hoping to make it in time to catch some of the afternoon workshops, by the time I actually made it to the second floor of the Kinnear Centre where the registration table was, the last thing I wanted to do was register for my conference, put a plastic name tag around my neck, and sit in a room with my back to the mountains to “tackle hopelessness,” in the words of the conference registration form. So I made like an artist–there are plenty of them walking around at The Banff Centre–and turned around and went back down to the ground floor.

I have learned enough about myself by now to be quite comfortable changing my mind abruptly. I wasn’t there on behalf of anyone else or for any reason except because I wanted to be: so I was free to change plans. I sat down on an outdoor patio in the sun and ordered a burger and a beer, and tackled those, while facing in the right direction. There’s no way hope is indoors right now, I thought. 15 degrees and sunny in the mountains in late March.

Of course, I sat there thinking about hope, anyway. What is hope? If I had arrived on time, I’m sure I would have found a lot in the conference activities to learn from, think through, be challenged by. Why, tired by the drive and a few small setbacks, did I instead need sun, and food, and that indescribable light that shines through the amber of beer in a pint glass more than I needed anything anyone could have said, however wise or grounded, in one of those breakout sessions?

What do we actually need? It is easy to assume, when the crisis is hopelessness, that what we need is hope. But maybe hope as an abstract idea will always fall short of meeting real needs in a concrete way. Or maybe hope, as an abstraction, is useful as a short-term solution, a stop-gap measure, like a spare tire–something to keep the car on the road until we get where we’re going.

But once we get there, we probably need something more.

My childhood home–which I remember now as something out of an idyll–had a dimmer switch in the living room, a round knob I could reach and use to adjust the lighting. I loved this switch, by the manipulation of which I had the capacity to throw the room into an alluring multiplicity of aspects. I loved how the very same furniture could be dim and shadowy, or brightly illuminated.

I loved being the agent of these quick or slow back-and-forth transformations.

I think, now, that hope has something to do with that dimmer switch. Being comfortable with the full spectrum of possible transformations. Knowing that even in the darkness, there is a switch we can fumble for, find.

Knowing, too, that there is more to the room than can be seen in full light.

I think there are two ways to reach that switch: innocence and courage. We don’t always use it to turn the light on. Sometimes, in attunement with someone else’s darkness, we have to be willing to dim the light.

I think there is a form of despair that looks like hope. It cranks the light as hard as it can. It means well. It wants to help. But it is actually afraid of the dark.

Maybe this is why it can feel so bad when we are sitting in the dark and reach out for help and someone tries to give us abstract hope — when what we need is care, for our darkness to be given a home, for someone to make a place for us and our darkness in the very room where we know there has also been before, and one day will be again, something other than only darkness: hope, light.

Increasingly, I’m convinced the critical choice (i.e. the crisis) we face as a species now is not hope/hopelessness so much as care/carelessness. Hope seems like an individualistic–an essentially private–balm. Care, on the other hand, is inherently relational, reciprocal (even self-care requires a kind of imaginative giver-and-receiver). But we have to be prepared to bump into pain — our own and others’ — because that’s what care will touch when it’s really needed.

Hope — it seems to me — asks to be justified by the circumstances. Care does not: care does not need to be sensible. It is always a gift, unjustified, prodigal.

Rather than justification, care requires motivation: love.

We might have to proceed for some time without hope, about some things. Perhaps indefinitely. We have to care anyway.

To reclaim something we must care for it, take care of it. Whether “it” is our plastic-polluted oceans, our desecrated landscapes, our traumatic injuries, or the ways we have hurt others. Maybe “it” is small for you. Take care of it anyway. As Wendell Berry says, “to fulfill the possible is to enlarge it.” It is a radical choice to take care of one’s own pain, especially if it seems to be ordinary. But maybe this is how we will finally learn to honour the pain in one another, instead of minimizing it.

I think hopelessness is a belief that pain is final: that care cannot be offered, that healing cannot occur where harm has been so deeply sustained. Hopelessness asks that we be willing, sometimes, to wait in the dark knowing that damage has been done, that we are hurt, or that someone else is. Maybe we all are. Hopelessness asks that we not force the light.

But we can offer care, even when things seem hopeless.

Rachel Naomi Remen says this beautifully: “Perhaps our only refuge is in the goodness in each other.”

I keep finding this refuge, over and over again. I am so grateful for those who offer it. Loved ones. Strangers. I keep doing my best at offering it. I think I am getting better at noticing it, even in its minor forms, too.

“You have a flat!”

“Thank you!”

If only we never had to wait in the dark, or on the side of the road, alone. We do. Many do. I do.

Care as an ethic that always, when courage begins to strain, returns to the care of the self as a primary responsibility with repercussions for all other relationships, an ethic that asks us to come home to ourselves not as isolated individuals but as creatures in relationship to other creatures and this earth– such an ethic might do more to help us do our part to reclaim what we have collectively ruined than any of us, alone, might otherwise dare hope.

We can care even in the absence of hope. We can care for ourselves and each other until hope is something we produce just by living, rather than simply a fuel we consume in order to live.

Sometimes it is 15 degrees and sunny in the mountains in March. Make like an artist. Ditch what looks like your responsibility if it isn’t really. Adopt a disguise. Do whatever it takes, really, whatever you can, to take care of this moment, your heart, someone else’s. Admit what you need (literally, admit it: let it in). Throw the world into an alluring multiplicity of aspects. Give everything you can to the work, whatever it is. Let yourself care with all your heart about someone who has been hurt, something that’s been destroyed. There’s no shortage of work: we’ve more than enough to go round.

Notice the hue of the light as it passes through. Care enough to reclaim something. Even if it’s you.

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