Building the world we want to see
November 14, 2016
Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.
That's from a commencement speech called "Applied Hope," by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'm struck by his assertion that the person who is living in hope is working hard toward creating a better future. It's easy to imagine that hope is a passive stance, but that's clearly not how Lovins sees it. (You can find the whole speech online if you are so inclined. A friend sent it to me a few days ago and there's much in it that moves me.) Lovins writes:
The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it -- tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”
That last sentence really gets to me. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Despair is often convincing, and almost everyone has reasons for despair at least some of the time. Maybe your despair is personal: your own grief or illness, or a loved one who is sick or suffering, or an injustice in your personal sphere that brings you to tears. Maybe your despair is on a bigger scale: Brexit, the American Presidential election, the realities of hatred and xenophobia. I do not deny anyone's reasons for despair. To paraphrase Hamilton's George Washington, "despair is easy, young man: hoping is harder."
I wrote a d'var Torah last month called Be strong and open your heart that explored the question of hope from a spiritual perspective. I wrote, "hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now." Hope for a better world may seem especially inaccessible to some of us right now. But our spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate hope, and to be galvanized thereby to act toward making that hope a reality. That's the work at hand. That's always the work at hand.
Returning again to Lovins' commencement address:
So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”
This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you -- relax and keep on going.”
I'm not sure I agree with the "don't let it bother you" part. Our world is badly broken, and that absolutely should bother us. But we shouldn't allow it to paralyze us. And what I take from his Michael C. Muhammad quote is the assurance that if the world is not redeemed, then our work is not yet done. If there is still injustice in the world, then our work is not yet done. If there is still bigotry in the world, then our work is not yet done. If xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, rape culture, and hatred of the Other still plague us, then our work is not yet done. Friends, I have news for you: our work is not yet done.
Lovins -- like the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (who I quoted in that d'var Torah I mentioned earlier) asks us to imagine the world as it does not yet exist -- to look beyond what is to what could be. Lovins writes, "Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope." I want to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, where no one is at risk of sexual assault, where religious freedom is guaranteed and celebrated, where diversities of all kinds are valued.
Each of us will have her own list of the things that feel most important about the vision of a world redeemed. What matters is that we have the vision -- that we cultivate the vision. This will take work on our parts. We have to dream of the world we need, even when doing so feels vulnerable or scary. We have to imagine the world as we most want it to be, as our hearts ache for it to be. Dream big, and fix those dreams in the forefront of your vision. And then figure out how to take one small step in the direction of those dreams, and another, and another. That's the only way we'll get there. And that's the work we're here in this life to do: to love and to dream, to hope and to build.