Hope (1/8): Into the life of the world (a)

Reading time: 8 min.

I’ve been sitting down with people who work with hope in some way: activists, refugees, a nurse, chaplains, psychotherapists, people without homes, and community workers. What are they striving for, what motivates them, what in their lives and world has brought them to ‘hope’s work’? In these blogs I’ll be introducing you to some of them.

But I’ve also been listening to people who say they lack hope. This is most of us, according to opinion polls, who see the future as a place to avoid thinking about, even as we drift into it. ‘There is no hope,’ I’ve been told, as a settled fact.

More often, though, I’ve heard people say not that hope has gone, just that it’s getting buried and hard to find, so in these blogs we’ll be digging for it. Our guiding query: how are some people and communities better able than others to live in hope, and act out of it, even as the future becomes harder to face?

Drawing on the conversations I’ve had (and my book, Hope’s work), over the next eight weeks these blogs will explore six characteristics or ‘core conditions’ of well-grounded hope. But let’s start where many of us are, feeling a lack of it.

Maria tells me, ‘No, I don’t have much hope for the world.’ When I ask her why, she recoils in dismay. Her reasons are what you might expect – the heavy litany of global crises, all boiling down to a fundamental defect in society, even humanity itself.

There’s resignation in her tone, though also grief. She seems disappointed with life itself, as if the world has fallen away from a dream we all once shared for our future. But the main thing I notice is how distanced her words are. ‘People don’t understand… people don’t care… people… people…’ It’s as if history has been happening somewhere else, viewed from above, from a safe place.

I ask another friend, Pat, who’s spent her whole life working for peace, why she thinks so many of us feel a lack of hope for the world. ‘It’s been knocked out of us,’ she says – by world events and their afflictions, and by the charade that passes for democracy.

Hope is the courage to face the world, but if it gets knocked out of us then getting away from it all is a natural thing to do – find refuge, look for some comfort. When the well-off lose hope they can insulate themselves from the world in a salubrious suburb. When people in poverty lose hope, there’s no hiding.

And yet I’ve been finding the strongest hopes in those who, by the norms of consumer-capitalism, have less-than-comfortable lives. I’ve heard more bitterness from well-off readers of the Guardian than from the refugees I’ve been listening to, for example, who’ve had to leave everything behind. In the search for hope, the leafy seclusion of suburbia can be a problem.

One thing that marks out the people I’ve talked with, who all work with hope in some way, is that they’re involved in the life of the world around them. They move towards the world, rather than recoil from it. None feels hopeful all the time, none is immune to the grief and bitterness that belong to the honesty of hope’s work. But for them the world isn’t something that happens somewhere else. They’re ‘rolled in’ with it (which is the root meaning of the word ‘involved’). They feel that it has something to do with them.

Let’s hear from three of these people who seem to be strong in hope. As it happens, all three have a story of family to tell, and all have something to say about the difference between involvement in, and distance from, the world around them.

Laura works with asylum-seeking children. On her way to meet me she’s been mulling over the mess we’re making of the world. ‘I think the world might be dying,’ she says. In her tone I recognise my own confusion and fear about the future. I’ve heard this said a lot in the last few years. It’s a hard thing to hear, harder still to say, but it might be true.

It’s a sunny afternoon and we’re sitting on a scrag of grass by the river under the angular steel and glass of City offices. I ask Laura what she does when it seems the world is dying. She says she worries for Arie, her son, now a year old. She’s afraid that his world will be so much harder for him than our has been for us. She cares for Arie alone, loves him completely, and can’t bear to think that the dangerous times we’re drifting into will stifle his life or worse.

Their lives are rolled in with each other and so her commitment as a mother grows; they’ll face the future together.

But Laura’s not about to beat a retreat. She says that knowing the world might be dying deepens her love as a mother. Arie is her proof of life, and she is its witness in him. Their lives are rolled in with each other and so her commitment as a mother grows; they’ll face the future together. A volatile future in prospect frightens her, but doesn’t frighten her away. She enters hope’s work more fully, for Arie’s sake, and for the migrant children she works with and for all those to come, for they will be many.

Bronwyn – not her real name – begins her story with her childhood, as do most of the people I’ve been talking with. In her early years she was ‘deeply affected by learning about war’, particularly the world wars, and in her early twenties she began volunteering for an organisation supporting peace-builders around the world. She’s been campaigning for peace and against war ever since.

‘You know what you have to do.’

Bronwyn’s not naïve about the mess we’re in, nor is she optimistic about our future. So I ask her what it means to be hopeful in a world that might, as Laura says, be dying. By way of answer she switches the metaphor to a sinking ship. It’s the captain’s job to stay, she says – to make sure everyone survives. ‘You either give up or you do what you can,’ she says. Then she pauses to correct herself: ‘You know what you have to do.’ Because the captain’s job is not a breezy shall-I-shan’t-I choice.

No one thinks a captain is stupid to stay with a sinking ship; a captain who saved themselves first would not be worthy of a ship or the trust of its crew. Bronwyn is saying that most of us, were we a ship’s captain, would do the same. And if the world’s a ship, then we’re all ‘rolled in’ with its fate, so whether the ship’s sinking or not our only authentic choice is to stay on board to do hope’s work.

Adrian’s family story is one of utter loss and relentless love. He’s a semi-retired priest and a volunteer chaplain at a house in Yorkshire that offers hospitality and care to people in distress. We sit in its garden in the morning sunshine, and I soon realise I’m listening to someone who draws people to himself as a naturally warm and generous man. But his truth about hope is flint-hard.

He tells me his daughter was hospitalised for a long time with anorexia, and eventually died of it. As he talks about Hilly, I imagine a young woman who inspired love and admiration – thoughtful, energetic, warm-hearted. She always had something to give to the people around her, Adrian says, and now she’s ‘utterly dead’. He keeps remembering her eyelashes.

Many times Hilly showed signs of remission. Each time, her mum and dad would throw themselves behind that possibility with all their hearts. It’s not just like investing everything you have, says Adrian, it’s giving everything that you are: ‘You’ve pinned so much on it that your whole self is involved.’

‘Every bloody time,’ Adrian says, ‘the hopes were dashed, smashed to smithereens… all you’re left with are lots of bits which feel as though they’re useless.’ He opens his arms to the ground, as if those bits are strewn around us in the peace of the garden. When that happens there’s nothing left to hang on to, says Adrian, ‘you’re left wounded and you’re in freefall’.

‘As a parent you have no option; as a parent you cannot but be still somehow hopeful.’

When we imagine the meaning of hope, Adrian wants us to make room for its cycle of ‘earnest inflation and then violent collapse’. And still he wants us to know that if you love, then you must be involved, or it’s not love – there’s no other way – and whatever the outcome, hope ‘is life-giving while it’s there’. Adrian insists: ‘As a parent you have no option; as a parent you cannot but be still somehow hopeful.’ This, for me, is the bottom line.

We may be parents to one or two people, if any, but we’re neighbours to everyone. What Adrian says of the parent’s imperative to hope is true also of us all as neighbours: you have no option but to be involved in the life of the world, even if it might be dying. Especially if it might be dying. Even if, like Hilly’s mum and dad, sometimes all we can do is to turn up – to be there, present.


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