Helena Clayton | Questions about hope



Questions about hope

06 May 2024, Posted by Helena Clayton in Monthly Blog, Uncategorized

I’ve been exploring hope with groups of people at my regular Acts of Love for Tough Times, talking about hope as a form of love that’s necessary for these tough-and-getting-tougher times we’re in. Things like:

• Is there a difference between hope and optimism?
• How can we hope when things feel hopeless?
• Can it be damaging or unhelpful to be hopeful?
• What, exactly, might each of us find to be hopeful about?

(What would be your questions about hope?)

I reckon I have years ahead of me of exploring hope, ‘the thing with feathers’. But as at today, here are a few things.

1. Hope is about the (very) long term

Jonathan Freedland, on his Unholy podcast, remembers a time he was interviewing the Jewish writer and peace activist Amos Oz, about two years before he died.

Jonathan said: ‘You’ve been advocating and campaigning for a 2 state solution re Israel and Palestine for 50 or 60 years. It’s not happened and currently shows no sign of happening. Isn’t it time you tried another idea?’

Oz replied: ‘why are you so impatient’, he said. ‘You come from Europe and the religious wars there took many hundreds of years to be resolved. It’s impatient to think you’re going to get this resolved in your lifetime. It’s almost arrogant to think this will be solved on your own personal timetable’.

So something here about hope and patience, hope as trust.

You might know the quote: ‘societies grow great when old men plant trees under whose shade they will never sit’. So placing hope into an unknown future where the horizon is past where you can possibly see.

What’s your relationship with patience? And what’s your response to what Amos Oz says about waiting many generations to see change?

2. Hope as having no sense at all about whether something might work or have the result you want

Several people write about hope with this lens. That we act in hope not knowing how things will turn out. In fact, with the complete likelihood that they may really not turn out in the way you want it to. Here are three people (with my italics):

• Vaclev Havel says: hope is …’is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out‘. He goes on to say that it’s …’an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed’
• Graham Leicester sees it similarly, that …’hope is active, shaping a future that could go either way‘.
• And Ronan Krznaric: hope recognises ‘the very real possibility of failure yet at the same time holds out the prospect of success despite the odds.

How do you feel when you do something with no sense at all about whether it might be ‘successful’ or work out well?

3. Hope as damaging

It’s not always seen as a Good Thing. It’s Kznaric’s ‘prospect of success’ that Meg Wheatley doesn’t like. She suggests that if we hope and things don’t work out, then we ‘have to deal with the pain of disappointment and despair’.

It’s often said that the price we pay for love is loss. So perhaps the price we pay for hope might be heartbreak. It’s likely that dealing with disappointment and heartbreak is one of the capacities that we will need to learn to get better at.

And not only does Wheatley have no time for optimism, but she has no time for hope either. She see hope in the same way as Krznaric sees optimism – it can breed complacency and inaction. It ambushes us, she says, and gets in the way of us dealing with the reality of things, the hard reality of the world as it is.

Has hoping ever caused you harm or heartbreak? How does that shape your relationship with hope now? What do you hope for that you don’t admit to – even to yourself?

4. Hope is not the same as optimism

Not many people go a bundle on optimism, in the places I go for information. Ronan Krznaric again, who says: …’optimism is generally seen as a naive hope that all will be well, that things will work out ok, that someone will come up with a solution’. And Leicester sees optimism as : …’a blind faith that everything will turn out for the best’. He says: ‘optimism can be best thought of as a cheery disposition to always look on the bright side of things, despite the evidence’.

And when it comes to the climate crisis, if you can agree with the 2022 IPCC report, things are now considered irreversible and we can’t geo-engineer our way out of this. No one is coming for us. So there’s no role for optimism.

So if we let go of optimism, what should we do with hope, then? Are they different enough for hope to be useful?

How do you see the difference? Does it matter to you that they are different? What’s the role of hope and also of optimism in leadership and organisations?

5. Hope is about taking repeated action

So if we let go of hope, how can we do the work that we want to do? What helps us going, if not hope? Many writers agree that hope is found in taking action.

‘We come back again and again. We keep moving forward. This is what we do in place of hope and optimism’, says Wheatley. We do small things, we put the hours in, we repeat something that feels a good thing to do. And keep repeating.

And so for me this now introduces the idea of faith – the need to keep the faith in what you’re doing even though you’ll never know if it made a difference for the future. So the thing is: if it’s making a difference now, that’s enough, that’s all you can aim for.

Hope, says Joanna Macy, is a practice and ‘like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have’.

How much do you persevere? In what, and why? What do you give up on or abandon, or stop because you don’t yet see results?

6. Hope as having belief in someone

Another take on hope is this, from Charles Eisenstein. He says that sometimes, someone might lose their connection with the best parts of themselves, or the best version of themselves. And it is both an act of love, and an act of hope, he says, if we can hold that version of them on their behalf until they’re ready to see it, and reclaim if for themselves.

Who had faith in you, when you had lost it in yourself? Who are you doing that for currently?

For me?

I’m with Meg Wheatley on many things. But I can’t travel as far as she has when it comes to letting go of hope. I get where she’s coming from. Like her I see hope as of no help when it comes to fixing the climate crisis. But unlike her, I do see hope as useful and having a part to play when it comes to other things. I’m with Hetty Einzig who sees it as our responsibility to hold hope in dark times. For example:

How about the hope that in the tough and ugly times that will probably come, we can find ways to allow the best of who we are to come to the fore? How about holding onto the hope that we will be kind to each other and generous with what we have? What about hoping that we can stay connected to joy, art and nature at the same time as we are forced to confront great difficulties? The hope that when I’m next really pissed off by something or someone, I can respond with generosity and big heart? And what about the hope that comes from noticing – and sharing what you notice with others – about what’s positive and good in the future that’s emerging?

Hope is essential. And there is much to hope for, I think. But we also have to put the work in if we want that hope to be realised.

I’ll be reading and thinking about hope for a long time yet, and so I’m sure I’ll write more. In the meantime, I meant it when I asked at the top of this post about what questions you’re holding about hope? Get in touch with me and let me know, and I’ll include them when I next write.

H x

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