By Jim Miller
The era of hope is over. We are done with the messianic rhetoric about the arc of history bending toward justice and the false notion that, despite all signs pointing to the contrary, we were making real progress toward the grand goals of addressing the deep inequities in our society or moving toward a more sustainable future and becoming more just. We weren’t.
We bought hope and got polite neoliberalism with some padding on its sharp edges, and the delusion that we were better than we are.
Now the gloves are off and the wolves’ teeth are bared. There is no pretty bullshit to mask the fact that the future is grim and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Being responsible and respectable won’t save us; neither will looking to make a deal with the devil.
We are fucked, totally fucked, and hope won’t come to the rescue.
Indeed, it might even hurt us in the long run. Hope might just lull us into the kind of wishful stupor that could stop us from accurately reading the landscape and responding effectively.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just talking about other people talking about hope–I count myself as a common offender. There is much about the progressive philosophical tradition that upholds what Ernst Bloch calls “anticipatory consciousness” that has and will continue to inform my thinking. A belief in moral progress is an essential component of liberal and/or revolutionary thought. I may even still use the word “hope” in future missives.
But such hope holds some dangers. Expectation is the enemy of the present moment. Hope for something else, somewhere else, is an escape from both the horror and the wonder of the right now.
In Buddhist thought, the notion is that one abandons hope to more fully occupy the present moment. One feels the pain or joy of every instant rather than always running away into the not-yet.
But perhaps, in the dark days to come, there are more pragmatic lessons to learn as well. Speaking of the perils of hope, Buddhist thinker Jack Kornfield recounts an interesting story:
Thomas Merton once advised a young activist, “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 the 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.” By aligning our dedication with our highest intention, we chart the course of our whole being. Then no matter how hard the voyage and how big the setbacks, we know where we are headed.
In other words, you do what’s right without any expectation of outcome. It’s your just action in the moment that matters, not what follows or what people think of you later.
Environmental activist Derrick Jensen tackles this very issue himself in his fantastic essay “Beyond Hope” where he argues that the proper response to despair is not hope but love because “if you love, you act to defend your beloved . . . You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.”
With this abandonment of false hope, Jensen observes, comes the death of one’s “socially constructed self” which gives way to a transformed you that knows “we are really fucked,” but also knows that “life is still really good.” You die to be reborn:
And who is left when ‘that you’ dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase — not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.
When you give up on hope — when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive — you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?
But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.
And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.
In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.
So perhaps, as we prepare to head into the Trump era and the multitude of assaults to come, it’s time to abandon hope in favor of fierce love. In that spirit, I will fight for my family, my brothers and sisters in the struggle against a host of injustices, my students, my neighbors, the oceans and forests and other wild spaces and animals in peril. And the struggle will not be for an idea or an abstract future but for all the people, places, and things I adore.
Happy New Year, Dear Reader