Letting Go of Hope

Our hopes rise, and should, as Bush’s poll numbers fall. But whatever the polls, this is going to remain an exceptionally difficult political time for a good while to come. In this context, Margaret Wheatley offers a powerful reflection on working as hard as we can for immediate outcomes, and then letting go. The outcomes matter, and matter tremendously. But so does the process, where we can take heart from the value and appropriateness of our work and from the communities we build. It’s no accident that those who’ve devoted their entire lives to creating a more humane world or who have experienced the worst forms of oppression often share this outlook. “When I was younger,” says an 87-year-old activist friend of mine who fought in the Spanish Civil War, “I acted because I hoped to achieve a certain something. Now I’m path oriented. I act to get in contact with the best part of who I am. I do the work whether we win or lose.”

If we let go of consequences too much, we can delude ourselves into thinking that critical life-and-death outcomes don’t matter. Particular results can be hugely consequential. But the problem with resting our commitment on whether or not we prevail in a certain situation is that we never know when or how history will turn. “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose,” wrote the radical journalist I.F. Stone, “because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing – for the sheer fun and joy of it – to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”
– Paul Loeb

As the world grows ever darker, I’ve been forcing myself to think about hope. I watch as the world and the people near me experience increased grief and suffering. As aggression and violence move into all relationships, personal and global. As decisions are made from insecurity and fear. How is it possible to feel hopeful, to look forward to a more positive future? The Biblical Psalmist wrote that, “without vision the people perish.” Am I perishing?

I don’t ask this question calmly. I am struggling to understand how I might contribute to reversing this descent into fear and sorrow, to help restore hope to the future. In the past, it was easier to believe in my own effectiveness. If I worked hard, with good colleagues and good ideas, we could make a difference. Now, I sincerely doubt that. Yet without hope that my labor will produce results, how can I keep going? If I have no belief that my visions can become real, where will I find the strength to persevere?

To answer these questions, I’ve consulted some who have endured dark times. They have led me on a journey into new questions, one that has taken me from hope to hopelessness.

My journey began with a little booklet entitled “The Web of Hope.” It lists the signs of despair and hope for Earth’s most pressing problems. Foremost among these is the ecological destruction humans have created. Yet the only thing the booklet lists as hopeful is that the earth works to create and maintain the conditions that support life. As the species of destruction, humans will be kicked off if we don’t soon change our ways. E.O. Wilson, the well-known biologist, comments that humans are the only major species that, were we to disappear, every other species would benefit (except pets and houseplants.) The Dalai Lama has been saying the same thing in many recent teachings. This didn’t make me feel hopeful.

But in the same booklet, I read a quote from East German dissident Rudolf Bahro that did help: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Could insecurity, self-doubt, be a good trait? I find it hard to imagine how I can work for the future without feeling grounded in the belief that my actions will make a difference. But Bahro offers a new prospect, that feeling insecure, even groundless, might actually increase my ability to stay in the work. I’ve read about groundlessness – especially in Buddhism – and recently have experienced it quite a bit. I haven’t liked it at all, but as the dying culture turns to mush, could I give up seeking ground to stand on?

Vaclav Havel helped me become further attracted to insecurity and not-knowing: “Hope,” he states, “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Havel seems to be describing not hope, but hopelessness. Being liberated from results, giving up outcomes, doing what feels right rather than effective. He helps me recall the Buddhist teaching that hopelessness is not the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear – fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating. I’ve listened to others describe this state. Unburdened of strong emotions, they describe the miraculous appearance of clarity and energy.

Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, clarified further the journey into hopelessness. In a letter to a friend, he advised: “Do not depend on the hope of results … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself … you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people… In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

I know this to be true. I’ve been working with colleagues in Zimbabwe as their country descends into violence and starvation by the actions of a madman dictator. Yet as we exchange emails and occasional visits, we’re learning that joy is still available, not from the circumstances, but from our relationships. As long as we’re together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we persevere. Some of my best teachers of this have been young leaders. One in her twenties said: “How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.” Another young Danish woman at the end of a conversation that moved us all to despair, quietly spoke: “I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.” A Zimbabwean, in her darkest moment, wrote: “In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of lovingkindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.”

Thomas Merton was right: We are consoled and strengthened by being hopeless together. We don’t need specific outcomes. We need each other.

Hopelessness has surprised me with patience. As I abandon the pursuit of effectiveness, and watch my anxiety fade, patience appears. Two visionary leaders, Moses and Abraham, both carried promises given to them by their God, but they had to abandon hope that they would see these in their lifetime. They led from faith, not hope, from a relationship with something beyond their comprehension.

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From The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb (Basic Books 2004, $15.95, www.theimpossible.org). Margaret Wheatley speaks, writes and consults around the world about new ways to organize. Her books include Turning Toward Each Other (Berrett-Koehler, 2002), Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 2001), and A Simpler Way (with Myron Kellner-Rogers, Berrett-Koehler, 2001). See www.margaretwheatley.com.