Feeling Hopeless? Embrace It. And then take action.

Source: The New York Times / www.nytimes.com / By Eric Utne /

I attended a program several years ago at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that was part of an exhibition called “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.” The event was a celebration and reunion for some local countercultural civil rights and antiwar activists from the late ’60s and ’70s. One of the speakers, a young Native American man, caught my attention when he said: “You baby boomers have forgotten who you are. It’s time to step back up and finish what you started.”

Clay Hickson
Clay Hickson

His challenge stayed with me for days afterward and his words linger still: “Finish what you started.”

Like most baby boomers, I’ve been a hope junkie most of my life. I rejected the Vietnam War and materialistic values, and worked for peace, civil rights and environmental protections. I believed that we were living at the dawn of a new age and that the world was getting more democratic, just and free through the power of love. In 1984 I started a magazine in the belief that I could help make the world “a little greener, and a little kinder,” as I often said in my editor’s note.

But at some point, boomers lost their way, becoming more concerned with making a living than changing the world. We bought into a system that we knew was wrong.

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide protests set off by the police killing of George Floyd in my hometown Minneapolis, things are looking more hopeless by the day.

Hopelessness, however, is not such a bad thing.

There’s no particular moment when I gave up hope; it’s been a gradual, inexorable process. Perhaps it started when I realized that most environmental organizations were not asking whether the techno-industrial system — which D.H. Lawrence aptly described as “the Mammon of mechanized greed” — was worth fixing or what the alternatives might be. Few were pointing out that climate chaos, species extinction, mass migration and global conflict are inevitable consequences of the techno-industrial system itself. Instead, they were working to jury-rig the system with heroic life-support interventions meant to prolong a deadly and dying way of life.

Not long after Donald Trump’s election, I realized that if Hillary Clinton, or even Bernie Sanders, had been elected, we’d still be rushing headlong over a cliff. That was another moment in which I lost hope.

Once I’d given up, despair sometimes overtook me and I could not locate myself. Long-denied, painful feelings insisted on being noticed. I searched for something, anything, with which to distract and busy myself — a goal, some direction, the promise of a worthy accomplishment (or at least a diverting amusement), anything to avoid the dissonance between my lifelong propensity toward optimism and my growing sense of despair.

The eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has described what she calls “despair and empowerment work”: “Just as grief work is a process by which bereaved persons unblock their numbed energies by acknowledging and grieving the loss of a loved one, so do we all need to unblock our feelings of despair about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.”

The direct-action climate group Extinction Rebellion has echoed this sentiment with its central message, “Hope dies, action begins.”

The hippie back-to-the-land movement, combined with grass roots political organizing, really was the way to go. We need to regroup. We need a hyperlocal Green New Deal. We need to come together in diverse, intimate, place-based communities. And we need to segue now from the techno-industrial market economy to its sequel — much smaller-scale, less energy-intensive, more localized communities that prize food growing, knowledge sharing, inclusiveness and convivial neighborliness. We need to learn from cultures around the world that are still living as stewards of the larger, biotic community. This is the only kind of a society that might survive the rocky climacteric that already is upon us.

Do I have hope now? If hope means the expectation that someone (a new president) or something (geoengineering or some other techno-fix) is going to save us, then no. I’m hopeless, or rather “hope-free.”

Instead I subscribe to Vaclav Havel’s version of hope: “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Some 25 years ago, a Tibetan friend told me his spiritual practice involved pondering death every day. This struck me as somewhat morbid at the time, but not so anymore. Now I, too, live with the thought of death daily. I’m not sanguine about the prospects for life on earth. I think we may even be on a path toward rapid economic collapse, climate chaos, social unrest, famine and near-term human extinction.
This is the strange gift of Covid-19 and the protests in the streets — they’ve got much of the world thinking about death every day. Life gets more precious when you live with the presence of death.

Giving up hope, and facing my imminent demise, has been a kind of liberation. I’m now more alert for ways to love my loved ones, and everyone else, with as much grace and beauty as I can. I’m noticing the needs that arise around me, through direct requests from my family and friends, and from complete strangers. I’m working daily and remotely with a group of neighbors in rural Wisconsin to stop the expansion of a frac sand mine, reading and talking with friends and family about racism and white privilege, planting oak and apple trees, and mentoring a young friend who is starting an online dance collective.
I don’t know if any of these efforts are going anywhere, and I most certainly won’t live to see the full maturation of the seeds I’m sowing. But I’m planting them anyway, because each action brings me joy and feels like the right thing to do.

When some young people say “OK, Boomer,” I can’t blame them. We old ones know better, or at least we should. But what young people may not understand is that we were a hopeful generation. That hope, in some cases, blinded us. But many of us are starting to see the world differently now, and we are ready to join you on the barricades.

I’m deep in the “don’t know” phase about what’s next in life. But I feel strangely calm, more curious and interested than anxious. I find myself paying attention to synchronicities, to song fragments and random comments that move me and to my memories and dreams. I’m listening for what is needed and wanted, and what is mine to do. And I know that the joy and sense of purpose I feel now would not be possible without first experiencing hopelessness.

Instead of being a “feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy,” as George Bernard Shaw put it, I want to go out the old Viking way, wielding a splendid torch and singing my death song.

“Bring it on,” I’ll shout. “Bring it on. Today is a very good day to die.”