ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Letting Go of Despair and Hope
I vividly remember the day when I heard George W. Bush announce on my car radio that the United States was invading Iraq. I was screaming into the windshield, calling him names, fool, idiot, no idea what he was doing, how many innocent people would suffer and die because of it. I was beside myself with rage.
And then I settled back into the grief of watching my country do what I have lived long enough to see it do before, the mounting toll death and destruction while politicians argue over whose fault it was and we bury the dead, hand flags to the widows, widowers, and orphans, all the while careful not to look at the thousands of veterans crippled and maimed and traumatized, or at what we’ve done to millions of people in far away lands that most citizens of this country cannot locate on a map.
By the time evening came, rage and grief had given way to despair that wisdom is possible in this country, that anything I might do would matter in a society so hell-bent on its own destruction.
A few days later, Nora showed me a statement by the feminist spiritual activist, Starhawk, who wrote that in such times we must resist the temptation “to indulge in despair.” I stared at the page, humbled by the pairing of the words, indulgence and despair, having done just that.
Some years before, I was writing fiction and visiting my mother in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, when one day we decided to go to the swimming pool outside of town. We walked to the bus stop in the center of town. The time printed on the schedule came and went, but not the bus. We talked. The sun rose in the sky, a beautiful day.We stepped into the shade. She sensed my impatience, looked at me and smiled, a little shrug, “It’s all right,” she said, “there’s always another bus.”
Maybe. And maybe not. Either way, there is something in the act of waiting that reminds me of despair, waiting for a bus that may never come, instead of setting out on foot or going home to spend the day in some other way. There is something in despair that is a holding out, a refusing to let go, to accept that things are what they are, which the Buddhists tell us is where suffering begins.
Despair is in the waiting, a state of mind with life suspended until further notice, held hostage by the illusion that I know what is going to happen, handing myself over to something I both believe must come to pass and fear it never will and so it continues to occupy my mind.
The bus was nowhere to be seen, but my mother was right there beside me, my mother who would be dead and gone fifteen years later, and there was the street and the people passing by, smells of the town, of dirt and cooking oil and roasting meat and fruit and vegetables in the market, the sight of a donkey laden with firewood, slowly making its way up the hill, a small boy following close behind. Birds and their songs. The crisp dryness of high desert air.
But the bus was not here.
There is no bus.
After I give a presentation on some aspect of privilege and oppression, there is almost always someone who asks, “But what can I do?” There is something in the ‘but’ and the urgent tone of voice that gives me pause, sensing the real question is not the one being asked. I used to struggle over what to say. But I’m better with it now, in part because I realize that the question is less about action than fending off despair, escaping the pain of being aware of so much injustice and unnecessary suffering in the world. It can be a kind of code for wanting a way to walk away believing this will all work itself out whether we do anything or not.
As the philosopher, George Yancy, put it, the rush to find a solution can be a way to remove ourselves from the present where we are involved in the world that produces injustice and suffering and into the future where we are not. It is a way to escape having to sit with the reality of how things are and will likely remain for a long time, longer than we will live to see, and what that reality has to do with us.
The alternative is what Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, calls ‘nailing yourself to the present.’ There is no quick fix for their sadness and pain, nor for mine. There is only nailing ourselves to the present which is, strangely, beyond the reach of any hope of fixing in the here and now, which is where we are.
I had thought hope is what keeps us from despair, but I’m beginning to think it’s not. They are so closely coupled that we cannot have one without the other. I hope the bus will come soon, not only gives myself over to waiting for something that exists only in my mind, but does so with a particular dedication, chin up, eyes scanning the street corner around which I hope it will come. Any minute now. All the while I am oblivious to the world going on around me, there being nothing else for me now but a bus that isn’t here.
To not indulge in despair, or in hope, is to not indulge in being anywhere but here, nailed to the present, to things as they really are, there is no bus. From that place, it is clear what my choices are and what I must do now, will do now, including standing here with my mother until a bus may come or we decide to do something else. Either way, not waiting in this moment, I leave hope behind, it being capable only of producing still more hope that is just this close to the edge of despair. To choose without hope for change, but in the very act of change, as Gandhi put it, becoming the change we want to see in the world. To stop waiting, to set myself in motion without the luxury of knowing what is coming next, including the illusion in my mind that is called, on the one hand, hope, and on the other, despair.
I write books. I give speeches and workshops and take part in conversations. How does hope figure into that? What is it that I hope to do? With what effect?
The truth is that I hope for nothing at all. Ask me what I think I’m doing and what effect I think it has, and I can tell you right away. I let people hear a heterosexual white cisgender man without disabilities stand up in public and play a part in breaking the silence around privilege and oppression. I write novels about the human condition. I think out loud about what trouble we are in and who we are in relation to it and what the experience is like for me. That is what I do. I have no way of knowing what difference it makes except by what I see in people’s faces and what they say or write to me. But that does not tell me what it really matters if I speak or write, or don’t.
It does not matter what I hope will happen. It only matters what I do.
To give up hope is not to give up on the possibility of change. It is to accept that things right now are the way they are. As I drove down the road, screaming at the president, I was, to say the least, having a moment of non-acceptance, which is why it turned so quickly to despair. I wanted him to be different from the man he had shown himself to be. I was furious that he had been chosen to be president. I wanted a government that was not so quick to resort to violence. And I responded to all of that as if personally betrayed.
I had hoped for something better.
To give up hope is not to accept things as they are, but to accept the fact that they are as they are. All my ranting against the status quo just wears me out before plunging me into despair. How much better it is to see reality as it is and then go on to consider what to do about it.
I am anything but indifferent to the way things are. I feel sadness and grief and compassion and fear, not to mention anger, recalling James Baldwin’s observation that the only way to avoid feeling angry is not to know what’s going on.
But it is one thing to be angry at injustice and unnecessary suffering and another to indulge in a kind of despairing resentment that things turned out this way to begin with. As if there was some kind of deal with God who should now apologize and set things right and I’ll be damned if I’m moving another inch until it’s done. Because all the while I’m waiting, I cannot be of any use.
It is like never letting go of all the ways our parents fell short or did harm, and we think children deserve better so we hold out and hold on as if it were possible to turn back the clock and redo childhood, find someone who will give that love we were denied. Or hold our parents accountable, make them pay, as if it was possible to tally up and make it come out right.
The alternative is to accept that things were as they were and cannot be changed into what they were not, that should and shouldn’t have no meaning once it’s done, because in fact it was and is. The only question that matters now is where to go from here, what to make of it, how to repair the damage that was done knowing it will never be as it might have been except in looking back through a kind of longing anchored by hope on one end and despair on the other.
Acceptance brings us fully into life by nailing ourselves to the present, the only time and place where anything is possible. We cannot afford to wait for our lives to rewrite themselves, or for the world to change on its own because it should have been otherwise and owes us something better than it’s turned out to be so far.
Instead of waiting, we keep going with what is to be done. When I spoke in Pennsylvania about men’s violence some years ago, an elderly man came up to thank me afterward. He used a pair of canes to walk and spoke with difficulty, as if he’d had a stroke. He was about to leave when he leaned in and looked into my face and said, his voice low and earnest, “You keep going.” And as he turned to walk away, I said after him, “You keep going, too.” He paused before turning to look at me, his face full of thought, gathering intention behind the words, a nod. “I think I will.”
I will never forget that moment, the stillness in the air as if no one else was in the hall, the look on his face as he made up his mind yet again as he must have so many times before. It was a look of clarity and calm, of acceptance not only without hope and despair, but without fear, a condition that a Quaker friend of mine once said was a way of defining faith.
Faith, she said, is not a belief in something, that if I do this then that will happen, or that something beyond my control will come to pass. Faith is a state of being unafraid inside ourselves. Jesus said again and again, What are you afraid of? Be not afraid, as if it were that simple, which, I am beginning to think, it may be.
There is so much to fear if we allow it—from the destruction of the planet to being alone when we die. And there is also the fear that I can sense beneath hope and despair.
I once heard Mary Daley say that courage is not something we have, some quality of character. Instead, courage is what happens in the moment when we act even though we are afraid. And perhaps that is what my Quaker friend was telling me about faith, that it isn’t something we have, but something that happens inside of us. Which means, I imagine, that we can step into it when we need it most.
And it is not simply that faith is the absence of fear, but that fear, also, is an absence of faith. When we are afraid, we may become the fear, and when we are not, we are the faith, doing what needs to be done.
I will always be afraid of one thing or another, but I can also practice being aware of the difference between moments of fear and moments of faith. And that, I think, may be all that it takes, not to achieve some permanent state of fearlessness, but to keep before me my ongoing ability to choose to make a difference whether I am afraid or not.
My mother came to me once in the years after she died, visiting me in a dream. It was one of those recurring anxiety dreams where I am lost and confused, unable to get where I’m supposed to be, don’t have what I need for what I’m supposed to do. Except in this particular dream I suddenly sensed her presence nearby as I was standing in a courtyard beside a low building of adobe, as in Mexico, stairs leading to a patio and then the walkway going on from there around a corner. I looked for her, but she was nowhere to be found. And then I stopped, standing on the stairs, and her voice came from somewhere that was both far away and right beside me, speaking just a single word because nothing more was needed. Faith.
And where is faith to be found? For this I take counsel from the writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde. “When I dare to be powerful,” she wrote, “to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The challenge that I see is to find a way to live in that space between accepting the fact that the world is as it is and refusing to accept that it should remain so, a space where there is room for neither hope nor despair, only faith, and where there is much to be done.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read, “Fight, Flight, and Roxie’s Way.”
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala, 2000.
George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Temple University Press, 2013.