Over the years I’ve had many young people come up to me and ask how I do this environmental work without collapsing in despair. They are acutely aware of how desperate the situation is. They doubt that the rain forest or ocean or jaguar will be salvageable by the time they are able to dedicate their full gifts to the cause. I’ve even had some students ask why they shouldn’t accelerate the destruction and put the Earth out of her misery.
Many friends and colleagues have written about hope. Derrick Jensen, Rebecca Solnit, Paul Hawken, and Wendell Berry have all said interesting, wise things about hope, pessimism, and optimism. I am grateful for their thoughtful contributions. They have informed my thinking on the problem of hope. And it is a problem because of the avalanche of bad news.
I received a letter a couple of weeks ago from a young woman named Jennifer asking me to write a letter about hope to her friend Kyra. Here is her query and my response.
Dear Carolyn Raffensperger,
I’m writing because I have a small favor to ask.
A close friend of mine has a birthday is coming up. She’s very devoted to environmental and social movements. Basically all things that could possibly make the world better. Sometimes, tho, no matter how hard she tries, she feels like things aren’t changing fast enough and that things are headed in a terrible direction. She often asks me, how other people, people who have devoted their life or research to environmental or social topics, deal with this same problem. How do they find hope when sometimes everything seems so hopeless.
This is why, for her birthday, I wanted to do a project where I would ask the people she respects both for their opinions and research into those topics that question. Basically, I want to give her hope.
That’s why I’m writing you. As you are a person who deals with environmental problems I’m was hoping you might write a line or two about how you find hope or cope with the feelings that everything is going downhill and those who care are so few that it seems like nothing will change. That is, if you ever feel that way.
I really appreciate you taking the time to read and consider this. It would mean a lot to both of us if you would write a line or two, but I’ll understand if you can’t.
Dear Kyra, 9/18/09
Jenny asked me to write to you about hope. I don’t know you, but I write to your spirit, the ageless, luminous part of yourself that knows why you have been put on the Earth.
I was put on the planet to serve the Earth and all her beings, especially future generations. I think one of the ways we know our calling is that we can enter the work with all the suffering, with all the losses, with all the craziness, in a way that brings our best gifts to bear. Every single day I wake up knowing that we are screwed and I grin wickedly and say, “I have an idea”. Ideas are my little contribution to the environmental movement, to the Earth and to future generations. I helped bring the precautionary principle to the United States. I coined the term ecological medicine. My recent work has been to create the legal framework to establish the rights of future generations. Imagine a legal guardian for future generations appointed by your governor. Imagine being the first guardian.
I have developed coping strategies for the relentlessly bad news. I don’t take it all in. I can’t really bear to entertain the depths of trouble like the vastness of the plastic continent in the ocean or the death of white pelicans, or the toxic contamination of newborn babies, day in and day out. Yes, I know these facts. And sometimes my grief is overwhelming. But not often.
I suspect most of the sorrow I do take in comes from my personal life — the sufferings of loved ones, my own failings – that kind of thing, rather than the ongoing and terrible environmental catastrophe. I think its because I have developed a world view, and an evolving spiritual life that tempers emotions that swirl around the environmental losses. Both my world view and my spiritual life are predicated on a notion of hope. Not hope as optimism, but hope as defined by Vaclav Havel. Havel said that hope isn’t a belief that everything is going to turn out all right. Hope is the deep orientation of the soul towards what is right. It is like a compass pointing us in the right direction rather than a certainty of the outcome.
I don’t know if anything I do matters in the larger scheme of things. I don’t need to know. I need to set my shoulder to the wheel and put everything I have to the Great Turning. We are at the brink. It is a true crisis. I am given only this one life to dedicate to the cause. I am not given your life, just my little life. I do not know whether I will succeed or whether we will all succeed. That means it is worthy work. If it was easy, if it was a piece of cake, who would care? We don’t know the outcome of our work yet it requires everything we have.
Here’s a little list of what keeps the compass direction of my soul pointed toward hope.
1. My dream life is central. I belong to a dream coop. I listen carefully to my dreams as status reports, as instructions, as symbolic truth. Sometimes I am visited in the dream world by animals, plants or an element, like fire. The dreams are a great comfort.
2. I carve spoons out of branches that fall in my yard. This is a form of prayer. The careful crafting of a spoon stills my mind in such a way that I am more centered. This is only one kind of spiritual practice and I have others, but it gives you an idea of spiritual practices that might anchor hope for you.
3. I try to say many many many more yeses than I say nos. Saying yes as a spiritual practice is a hell of a lot more fun than saying no.
4. I attend to the arts. Poetry and music especially nourish hope. Or if I am grieved over the state of the world, the arts give voice to the particular shadows and assure me that I am not alone.
5. I know that whether the planet and humans survive or thrive is not all up to me. I am just one of the grains of sand that may help initiate a tipping point. Isn’t that wonderful? It isn’t all up to me. Nor is it all up to you. But together? We may give the Earth a sporting chance.
6. Respect the small gesture. Small things add up to big things. Every gallon of fossil fuel not used, or changed light bulb, or local garden, is a gift to the Earth. Each action is one word in the poem of love we offer to all the Beings. Each word is necessary in the poetry of resilience, community, and future generations.
7. Gratitude fortifies hope. Being grateful and expressing it every day helps nourish our souls.
8. Have fun. Hope is so often a desperate business and lacks the spirited play that is essential for vision and imagination. A little trickster play enlivens the work and pinches hope in the butt making it look around to see What is Up.
9. Trust that nothing is wasted. Every person or experience or soul-stirring event is on point. You might not know for 20 years why it is relevant, but it will be.
10. Revel in the mystery. Mystery, like gratitude and fun, flavors hope with an essential ingredient that is beyond words. You know what I mean.
So I end with a question from a Mary Oliver poem: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” Root this wild and precious life in hope. Your gifts are essential for the world. Whatever they are. Whoever you will become. You are on Earth for a reason. That you are here at this time gives me hope. Thank you.