Culture

Optimism isn’t working. Give me Hope

The options of generosity, community, tenderness, integrity and grace can shine through whatever shit-plastered future we’ve already set in train

[caption id="attachment_8773" align="aligncenter" width="830"]Poll-tax-riots-kiss-001 Poll tax riot kiss[/caption]

By Matt Carmichael

Climate catastrophe. Dying oceans. Obscene inequalities. Soil destruction. Breathtaking militarisation. Hollowed out democracy. Widespread eutrophication. Deliberately cracking the bedrock. I blame the optimists. Scientific optimists always think we’re going to find a technological solution tomorrow to whatever catastrophe yesterday’s technology is causing today. Economic optimists always concoct some future benefit that outweighs the damage visited on the innocent now. Political optimists plough on with the same failed philosophies in the touching belief that they’ll work this time. Look on the bright side they say. I am so sick of the bright side. The pregnant present Optimism is a judgement about what the future will be like, and it is usually born of denial. That’s why it is so disastrous. Like the maths of the bookmaker, for every tale of plucky triumph there are thousands of shattered dreams kept quiet. Corporations trumpet their “responsibility” in a couple of restored wetlands whilst wasting untold tracts. Activists burn out because a campaign is lost. Hope is a completely different thing; a spiritual quality that is generally misunderstood. Hope does not depend on circumstances; when we speak of hoping for this, or hoping that the other, we are confusing hope with optimism. Whereas optimism makes the present more palatable by projecting today’s desires onto the future, hope makes the future bearable by perceiving the eternal pregnancy of the present moment. Hope is a state of mind that arises naturally from a disciplined openness to the vast potential of the moment. In every closed mind hope sees, right now, a bud not yet flowered; in every frozen heart hope finds a river of generosity that need not wait another minute to begin thawing. For hope remains stubbornly aware of the subtlety of the shifts in perspective that are needed to realise our better selves. Hope knows that any given Nazi may be one human encounter away from being an Oskar Schindler, any peasant girl just a vision away from becoming Joan of Arc. How the light gets in Hope is utterly realistic. It is neither superstitious nor blind. Its eyes are wide open to all the present possibilities, including the worst, so that in the bleakest situation there is always a glimmer of something we more truly are underneath our fears, something that might give birth to an unimaginable future. Responses to the Paris climate agreement provide an example of how hope and realism go hand in hand. It’s only once you accept that deal was an abysmal failure and a fraud, that you can begin to acknowledge that something magical also happened at that conference. A gang of diplomats from countries no-one used to listen to forced a change of agenda (as well as of pure rhetoric). They beguiled the corporate lobbyists and oligarchical power blocs and planted seeds that could accelerate the end of fossil fuels. That was real progress, and something to build on through both diplomacy and direct action. If you can’t face the painful truth behind Paris’ seductive lies you never catch sight of the glimmer of hope in the painful truth. There is no bright side. There’s only the “crack in everything” that Leonard Cohen sang about, “That’s how the light gets in.” No crystal ball, no control People love to pretend they can see into the future, but in reality there is not the slightest chance of the most gifted futurologist describing what the world will be like when my 2 year old daughter turns 20, let alone 40 or 60. The possibilities range from humanity not making it, via a huge and ongoing reduction in the global human population with all the violence that would entail, to a transforming society dealing chaotically with unprecedented changes by adopting the values of community that allow for plenitude amidst scarcity. As singer Edwyn Collins found himself saying as he emerged from a coma following a massive stroke, “the possibilities are endless”. If the past is not a reliable guide to the future, it never was. Only the tunnel vision of Western knowledge allows us to see the world as if it were so mechanical. In the full spiritual vision embraced by almost everyone who ever lived, every present moment is capable of defying the past. This is the essence of hope. Until we can let go of our control mentality, in which we plan the future and manipulate it into conforming with our expectations, we will never be able to embrace the wild potential of each Now. Until we stop burning our time on Chronos’ altar we cannot let it soar with ancient Greece’s other god of time, Kairos. Choose your attitude There’s a reason why the poor and dispossessed have always clung to their spirituality (apart from the fact that it’s one thing the rich can’t take away). When you have no control over your material circumstances, hope shows you the choices you still have in each present moment. You can choose the attitude you take. You can choose to love those around you rather than withdraw. You can choose courageous defiance over resignation. You can choose to take joy in small pleasures despite everything - and life is full of small pleasures. You can choose to share the little you have rather than hog it. These choices do not make life easy, predictable or long, but they fill it with meaning. They are treasures that neither moth nor rust can destroy. So fuck optimism. Optimism is the final resort of the failed status quo. “Stay positive” they tell you, because if you start believing it might not be alright, you’ll end up questioning the entire house of trick cards. Well it’s not alright, that’s increasingly obvious to anyone who’s paying attention. There is absolutely no reason to be optimistic. The shit is hitting the fan and it’s not going to unhit it. We know with the certainty of physics that more and more shit is going to keep hitting the fan indefinitely. Even the revolutions we need will involve turmoil. What there is, is hope. Because in every present moment throughout whatever shit-plastered future we’ve already set in train, there will be the options of generosity, community, tenderness, integrity and grace. And maybe, just maybe, we will rediscover forms of joy we’ve lost in our wanton pursuit of happiness. --- Matt Carmichael is co-author with Alastair McIntosh of Spiritual Activism out on Green Books.

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