Hope in the Darkness
After the bustle of feasting and festivities this month, the quiet can be welcome. Sometimes, though, we descend into lethargic torpor, as our indwelling fire burns low and slow. Our minds move to the darkness that surrounds us.
The sun is returning to us, with minutely longer days of light each day. Our gifts to the bonfires of winter solstice have been received, an observance of most premodern and nonmodern peoples. While this observance has pejoratively been called “pagan” by Christian colonizing leaders, it is a ritual important for re-embedding ourselves into the seasonal cycles and deeper circular rhythms of Earth. We watch and wait in the darkness, calling for the return of Light.
The cold and dark of the Northern Hemisphere feeds our introverted mind. We can acknowledge the limit of the sun’s descent, a guide to our own limits and descents. We ponder forms of darkness, fertile forms of darkness but also dangerous forms of darkness.
In the darkness with only the sun’s pale energy, we watch mesmerizing fire, enjoying its warmth and light. Fire is a trickster, however, reminding us it is a dangerous ally. It offers primordial soothing one minute, ferocious and consuming the next. As drought conditions expand, whole towns and forests are consumed. A devouring fire destroys. But it also cleans and purifies. Out of ash, new life can be regenerated.
There is a new day coagulating, a creative process still in the dark…waiting for eventual emergence. We know this process: ancient memories of the primordial soup of Earth…or embodied memories of our latency in the womb.
But we also know the fears of what is under the bed, in the locked closet, growing in dark moon nights, or nursed in an abyss somewhere out of reach. We know the darkness in our own hearts, when we care to make such an admission.
While evil gains strength in darkness, it also exists in plain sight, taking on more “normal” forms. When we take things and people at face value, we can be deeply hurt or harmed. Part of our earthly sojourn is learning to deftly assess sources of healing energies and sources of harmful energies, within our personal and professional circles but at the big scale too.
We can be easily seduced into thought forms that are eloquent and charismatic, but upon closer inspection, are filled with negativity and even further, vengeance. There are hungry beings around who feed, but never become full. They violate life to be fed. They hoard to sate the voracity of unnaturally developed desires. These people are all around us…some still empty and lost. Others are filling their emptiness with dangerous darkness. We see glimpses on the news when they are revealed; others work or live right next to us. Evil typically shows up in common places, with common faces.
Beware. These thought forms are gaining ground in broad daylight, no longer just whispering in the dark. They are preaching certainty of right and wrong, extreme individual rights that poison the social body and Earthbody. They trumpet the hubris of a conquering mindset. They make the toxic appear healthy and normal. They call for chaos, war, outrage, for authoritarian suppression of the many for the few, while appearing protective and supportive. They depend on speech bubbles and lazy thinking that poses as criticality. They are greedy egos feeding on your attentions.
Hope is not a hoping for seductive things, or for things that speak power, greatness or assured answers. This only expands the land of the dead. Many religious texts have warned of this.
Rather, hope is kindled in uncertainty, in watchfulness, in mystery, in questing and questioning, in perceptive sight. Hope is constant learning. Hope is known when it sparks a tender, underground life force. Hope is in the small. As Oxford English Literature professor Tolkien says (via the wizard Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things, everyday deeds or ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love […] and courage.”
We live in a dangerous epochal shift. It is easy to lose our way, to lose our heads, to close up, to distrust, not believing in much. Some eschew hope, saying: it blinds us to the realities of our time; or it builds bland complacency that all will be ok; or it inoculates us to fear and urgency; or overwhelmed, it can prompt denial. But that is not how I understand hope.
Real hope is active, not an idle conjuring of naíve ideas. Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovakian poet and president, has said that hope is part of the spirit, not a conviction, especially that something will turn out well, but the belief that something makes sense, no matter how it turns out. Hope is a state of mind about what we value.
Philosopher Ernest Bloch, in The Principle of Hope, suggests that hope is acting into what is becoming, even when all appears hopeless. It is anticipatory. It is continuing to give with generosity and receiving with gratitude, when all seems lost. Elin Kelsey in Hope Matters, says it is retaining empathy, kindness and compassion in the toughest of circumstances. Continuing to develop our inner selves and our community in tough circumstances is resilience.
Hope is the long view. When we humans have destroyed so much that is tender and beautiful in such a short time, it is tempting to believe we can set a quick course correction. But these dynamics are as powerful as they are self-generating. As Buddhist educator Joanna Macy suggests in Active Hope, we can see our time as three co-evolving stories: the Great Unravelling, the Great Turning, and Business as Usual. The impatience of activists leads them to give up over time, to burn out. They become so used to exercising criticism, that they find it hard to acknowledge small shifts anticipating the Great Turning. Sometimes, they give in to cynicism, no longer believing change is possible. They see only brokenness. They harden to pain and suffering. After decades as an activist, I have seen all of these manifestations.
However, wise hope is holding radical uncertainty. As Tolkien (via Gandalf) says, “Even the wise cannot see all ends.” Suddenly things can begin to change at a rapid pace. Or what begins to happen is completely unforeseen. So, as educator David Orr explains, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up!” We keep our sleeves rolled up…for as long as we can…while taking small breaks for rejuvenation or slight course directions...staying healthy. We continue to choose aliveness, that which feeds life, in all circumstances. As the African proverb goes, “I am, because we are!” It is this vast web of relations that reminds us — we belong, we matter. We are cared for, just as we care, for the human and nonhuman worlds. The life around us constantly nourishes our soul, teaching and showing the way forward if we wish to learn.
This does not mean hard things will not be asked of us. They will, but we need to keep our feet solidly on the ground, the work of our hands within life-giving bounds, and our hearts strong and hopeful in the darkness, while our eyes see, deep and far.