From Hope to Hopelessness
Margaret J. Wheatley © 2002
the world grows ever darker, I've been forcing myself to think about
hope. I watch as the world and the people near me experience increased
grief and suffering. As aggression and violence move into all relationships,
personal and global. As decisions are made from insecurity and fear.
How is it possible to feel hopeful, to look forward to a more positive
future? The Biblical Psalmist wrote that, "without vision the people
perish." Am I perishing?
I don't ask this question calmly. I am struggling to understand how
I might contribute to reversing this descent into fear and sorrow, what
I might do to help restore hope to the future. In the past, it was easier
to believe in my own effectiveness. If I worked hard, with good colleagues
and good ideas, we could make a difference. But now, I sincerely doubt
that. Yet without hope that my labor will produce results, how can I
keep going? If I have no belief that my visions can become real, where
will I find the strength to persevere?
To answer these questions, I've consulted some who have endured dark
times. They have led me on a journey into new questions, one that has
taken me from hope to hopelessness.
My journey began with a little booklet entitled "The Web of Hope." It
lists the signs of despair and hope for Earth's most pressing problems.
Foremost among these is the ecological destruction humans have created.
Yet the only thing the booklet lists as hopeful is that the earth works
to create and maintain the conditions that support life. As the species
of destruction, humans will be kicked off if we don't soon change our
ways. E.O.Wilson, the well-known biologist, comments that humans are
the only major species that, were we to disappear, every other species
would benefit (except pets and houseplants.) The Dalai Lama has been
saying the same thing in many recent teachings.
This didn't make me feel hopeful.
But in the same booklet, I read a quote from Rudolf Bahro that did help:
"When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created
by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure." Could insecurity,
self-doubt, be a good trait? I find it hard to imagine how I can work
for the future without feeling grounded in the belief that my actions
will make a difference. But Bahro offers a new prospect, that feeling
insecure, even groundless, might actually increase my ability to stay
in the work. I've read about groundlessness-especially in Buddhism--and
recently have experienced it quite a bit. I haven't liked it at all,
but as the dying culture turns to mush, could I give up seeking ground
Vaclev Havel helped me become further attracted to insecurity and not-knowing.
"Hope," he states, "is a dimension of the soul. . . an orientation of
the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that
is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
. . .It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but
the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns
Havel seems to be describing not hope, but hopelessness. Being liberated
from results, giving up outcomes, doing what feels right rather than
effective. He helps me recall the Buddhist teaching that hopelessness
is not the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable
partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make
it a happen, then we also introduce fear--fear of failing, fear of loss.
Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating. I've
listened to others describe this state. Unburdened of strong emotions,
they describe the miraculous appearance of clarity and energy.
Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, clarified further the journey
into hopelessness. In a letter to a friend, he advised: "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 no result at all,
if not perhaps results 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. . . .you
gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific
people . . . .In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship
that saves everything."
I know this to be true. I've been working with colleagues in Zimbabwe
as their country descends into violence and starvation by the actions
of a madman dictator. Yet as we exchange emails and occasional visits,
we're learning that joy is still available, not from the circumstances,
but from our relationships. As long as we're together, as long as we
feel others supporting us, we persevere. Some of my best teachers of
this have been young leaders. One in her twenties said:: "How we're
going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith."
Another young Danish woman at the end of a conversation that moved us
all to despair, quietly spoke: "I feel like we're holding hands as we
walk into a deep, dark woods." A Zimbabwean, in her darkest moment wrote:
"In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in
this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place.
I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all ."
Thomas Merton was right: we are consoled and strengthened by being hopeless
together. We don't need specific outcomes. We need each other.
Hopelessness has surprised me with patience. As I abandon the pursuit
of effectiveness, and watch my anxiety fade, patience appears. Two visionary
leaders, Moses and Abraham, both carried promises given to them by their
God, but they had to abandon hope that they would see these in their
lifetime. They led from faith, not hope, from a relationship with something
beyond their comprehension. T.S. Eliot describes this better than anyone.
In the "Four Quartets" he writes :
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are
all in the waiting.
This is how I want to journey through this
time of increasing uncertainty. Groundless, hopeless, insecure, patient,
clear. And together.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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