Active Hope: Can Pain and Hope Coexist? by Rev. Anthony Makar
Our world is in pain.
The feeling of this is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.
Pain oozes through the words of a report issued October 1st by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This panel, composed of a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.
Closer to home, on October 9th, the Associated Press reported on voter suppression in Georgia. How Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican nominee for governor, has stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations of disproportionately black voters (who are likely to vote for his opponent) because of alleged problems with their voting registration information. This, on top of reduced polling locations, confusion among election workers, outdated voting machines, and, in general, lack of adequate preparation to handle what could be a record turnout for a non-presidential election.
And then came the news, on October 11th, that a new Bloomberg analysis based on U.S. Census Bureau calculations and the distribution of household income has determined that Atlanta has the worst income inequality in the United States. We are the top dog in poverty, despite being the city of Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola and all the extreme wealth. We are also a city teeming with low-paying jobs in the hospitality and retail sector, and the poverty rate sits at 24%.
What’s worst about this is what poverty does to kids. The most vulnerable among us—the kids—are experiencing severe economic hardship, food insecurity, neighborhood violence, and all sorts of other traumas which create unmitigated, long-term toxic stress that will be like a fault-line running through those kids all their lives.
This screams pain.
As religious people who seek to be responsive to the realities of our day—who profess to belong to something larger than our individual egos—one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves is: Can we feel the pain of our world and still have hope?
Or does it make no sense for pain and hope to coexist fully in our hearts?
How we answer this singular, momentous question matters.
If there is no way for the two to co-exist—if they are like matter and anti-matter and never the twain shall meet—then one of two things happens.
One is that the pain devours hope and sends us tumbling into a midnight of despair and kills action in the present. We are stuck. We are paralyzed.
We do nothing as the years count down to 2040 when the predicted food shortages are supposed to happen, or the worsening wildfires, or the mass die-offs of coral reefs.
We do nothing as we enter into a momentous non-presidential election. Cynicism or defeatism keeps our vote from ever reaching the ballot box.
We do nothing as Atlanta’s income inequality chews up lives.
Because the storyteller in our head says, “Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow.”
And we believe it.
Or this happens, if pain and hope can’t co-exist. In this scenario, hope eclipses pain. Our hope becomes disconnected from the common good. It becomes more about the kind of car we aspire to drive, or fashionable clothes for me, or the best schools for our kids, and other forms of self-centered materialism that just feed business as usual.
Or, our hope floats. It floats like a balloon, high above this world, into some other world, and we cope with the suffering down here by continually projecting ourselves into some future afterlife where God shall wipe away all the tears and make everything all better.
Either hope becomes self-centered, or it becomes about some otherworld—and in either case, it has been falsified. It has become unworthy.
How we answer the question about co-existence matters.
And not just for ourselves, but for our children. Just like Michelle Obama says, our children respond to the pain of the world in the same way they see us responding. They bump their heads and look at us for how to respond.
If we are teaching them paralysis, or entitled selfishness, or otherworldly hope, we are solidifying a vicious cycle in the human race.
We are hurrying up the death of all the values we hold dear.
There must be a way for our full feeling of the world’s pain to co-exist with hope, and therefore with hopeful action!
We need to find that way!
And the way takes us into a face-to-face meeting with a long-standing, culturally-honored myth about what it means to be healthy and well-functioning.
The myth is suggested by the last line of practically every fairy tale out there. What is it?
“And they lived happily ever after.”
The happiness myth essentially says that to be a healthy and well-functioning human is to be filled with perpetual joy, fun, peace, contentment, HOPE, and other pleasurable emotions. That that is the natural state for all human beings, and not stress or fear or anxiety or frustration or depression. Entire mental health and pharmacological industries are raised up to eradicate all these negativities, these defects, so as to bring us back to what should be our natural state.
Something is wrong with us when we’re feeling not so good inside.
No wonder it seems that feeling pain for the world and feeling hopeful appear to be like enemies, rather than friends.
And so, from this flows the action plan: to create a healthy, well-functioning life, we must be vigilant in weeding out all our negative thoughts and feelings, and we must put positive ones in their place.
We must tape a permanent smile upon our minds.
We tell our kids, “Don’t cry.” “Don’t be gloomy.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
We tell ourselves, “Chill out!” “Snap out of it!” “Get over it!”
That’s the action plan, based on the happiness myth.
But there’s a fly in the ointment.
Or I should say, multiple flies.
One is suggested by a simple thought experiment. As you listen to me speak, try not to think about eating your favorite food. Try not to focus on the flavors exploding in your mouth as you savor it.
Try not to.
Fact is, our minds have a life of their own. Buddhists call this “monkeymind.” Thoughts of all kinds pop in from nowhere, uncalled for by us. We completely overestimate our powers to control this.
It is also estimated that 80% of these thoughts have some degree of negative content.
There is a reason why the Buddha begins his philosophy with the First Noble Truth of “Life is suffering.”
Thousands of years later, evolutionary biologists can give a scientific explanation backing up the Buddha. As psychiatrist Russ Harris puts it, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger. […] The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and avoid it. The primitive human mind was basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.”
In other words, evolution has tuned our minds towards the negative. Saber-tooth tiger threats are long gone, but these days we can be constantly worried about the other shoe dropping in the form of an IRS audit, or the kid bullied at school, or being diagnosed with some disease.
Evolution has also taught us to be wary of exclusion from the group, because group membership means safety. So today we can be constantly worried about doing something that might get us rejected, or of not fitting in, or of making a fool of ourselves. Our minds are busy comparing ourselves with others. Am I too thin? Too fat? Too tall? Not tall enough?
“Evolution,” says psychiatrist Russ Harris, “has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, to evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.”
And then he says: “No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”
You know how it’s said, we are spiritual beings having a human experience? Well, there’s the human experience right there. Doesn’t really matter what might be going on in the world outside your skin. You could be at Disneyland. But your core human nature is hardwired to suffer!
Core human nature is the cause of monkeymind!
But the happiness myth is so entrenched in culture and in ourselves that we press bravely on, and for every unpleasant thought that pops randomly into our minds and depresses us or frightens us, we see it as our duty to chase it down and wrestle with it and replace it with a smile.
And this just makes us even more miserable. In the active pursuit of happiness, we are creating unhappiness!
Wrestling with each of the unpleasant thoughts steals away time and energy that could actually be devoted to doing something positive; it ends up hurting our self-esteem because we are constantly failing at preventing the unpleasant thoughts and feelings from being in our minds; and our control strategies often assume forms of living that hurt us in the end. I’m talking about hiding from the things that scare us; numbing what we’re feeling through various kinds of addictions; bullying ourselves into feeling differently; and so on.
We just can’t be in perpetual warfare with our natures which evolution has shaped to be, essentially, “don’t get killed” devices.
We will always lose.
It’s time to find a way to win—one that really is possible, and respects the wholeness of our psyches.
Winning means throwing out the myth about what it means to be a healthy and well-functioning human. Winning means getting maladjusted, in a Dr. King sort of way.
We especially have to throw out the myth, because you know what? All the things that are truly worth fighting for—the things that our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles talk about—the things that are truly most meaningful in life—bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant.
If you are not feeling sadness and anxiety and fear these days, you are not living deeply and meaningfully enough!
You are not fulfilling the call of your inherent worth and dignity, enough!
In particular, you do not comprehend what it truly means to be woven into the Interdependent Web of All Existence, which our Seventh Principle talks about.
It means to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying (Thich Nhat Hanh).
It means to hear within ourselves the sounds of the crying of suppressed voters and the crying of children living in poverty.
To be a part of the Interdependent Web of All Existence is not just to feel wonder, or pleasure. It is to feel pain, and dread, and sorrow.
Joy and sorrow are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine (William Blake).
Healthy and well-functioning is NOT about being internally cleansed of painful thoughts and feelings.
Healthy and well-functioning is about knowing that the internal space of your heart and mind will always be cluttered by all sorts of stuff. Knowing this, knowing you are big enough and strong enough to hold it all, and then choosing carefully which thoughts you will feed with your attention and which ones you will simply allow, and let go of, because they aren’t useful.
When you hear about what is projected to happen to our planet by 2040, or when you hear about voter suppression, or when you hear about the toxicity that is the fate of impoverished children, and this thought pops into your mind: “Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow,” tell me, in all fairness, is this a useful thought? Is this the sort of thought you want to invest the precious resource of your attention on?
It’s going to appear in our minds. Human nature is why such terrible thoughts continually arise in our minds. So we can’t waste energy chasing such negative thoughts down, or arguing them away, or whatever.
Just say, “Ah, the storyteller in my head is at it again. He is a hundred thousand years old, and he’s still scanning the environment for saber tooth tigers. OK, he can think what he thinks. But I’m not going to fight it. He shares the same mental space I do. I’m never going to get rid of him as a roommate. So I’ve got to make peace between us. He’s got his perspective, and I’ve got mine. What I’m going to do is this. I’m going to go vote. I’m going to find a way to help. I’m going to get active with my hope.”
Or, you can do this:
Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow
Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow
Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow
Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow
(Sung to “Happy Birthday To You”)
They’re just words. Just because these words appear upon the screen of your mind doesn’t mean they’re true. We know we need to be very careful these days about words we read on screens, because of all the misinformation campaigns out there.
So why are we so naive about the words that appear on the screen inside our heads?
Don’t let these words scare you, steal away your energy to live out your values.
To be a well-functioning, healthy spiritual being having a human experience is to bear the weight of a hundred thousand years of conditioning that pops up constantly in a voice speaking words that make you afraid, that make you constantly unsatisfied, that fill you with unpleasantness—to bear this weight, but to bear it lightly, to hold open a space inside yourself that allows un-useful thoughts to pop in, march around like they own the place, and just let them be, let them run out of steam all on their very own, like the wind-up toys that they are.
What you do is keep your eyes on the prize.
What you do is focus on the useful thoughts that guide you into being a difference-maker.
You know you can honor the pain of the world, and you know that you can yet hope.
The two do not cancel each other out.
The two, together, make you into one precious, whole human being. Joy and woe, woven fine.
And this world needs you.