Hope (3/8): A place of promise

Reading time: 8 min.

‘Hope is something you make every day’. This is Basma, and the first thing she tells me about hope. When a militia came to burn down her home in Libya, she and her daughters ran for their lives under a barrage of bullets. Now Basma lives in Liverpool as a refugee, caring alone for her children, working odd jobs, studying human rights. I ask her the difference between real hope and false, and she says, ‘You have to face the tragedy of the world.’

This is hope’s test – can it face up to the world as a tragic place? We’ll come back to the question itself next week, and to Basma. This week’s blog is about what enables hopeful people to face ‘the tragedy of the world’ and not be left defeated.

In my conversations with people well-grounded in their hope, I’ve been finding that they share a fervent feeling for the vitality in the world around them. They can still look out into the world as a place of promise, even after all the harm we’ve done. This feeling for vitality is the second of six ‘core conditions’ of hope covered in these blogs.

Celia’s been an activist since her schooldays in Italy. She says she’s always felt hopeful, despite the baked-in injustices that she’s been railing against for years, because ‘life is beautiful’. About ten years ago a massive earthquake levelled her house, burying her in bricks; she was presumed dead. In the darkness under the rubble hope was all she had left, she tells me. I ask why hope stayed with her. Because above her in the light of day, she answers, she knew that ‘life is beautiful’.

As a nurse in palliative care, Joe has cared for many people who are dying. Accompanying his patients towards their death has drawn him closer to ‘what makes life worth living and death worth dying and the present worth being in’. Every moment of our aliveness carries worth, Joe says, even when – especially when – death waits around the corner.

Joe and Celia know that the world is a tragic place, but also that it’s not merely tragic. Hannah, a community worker, puts it perfectly: even ‘in a broken world, things aren’t fully broken’. If hope had a slogan, this might well be it.

And since the world is far from ‘fully broken’, it’s still a place of promise. To know this is to deny despair its dominion. The more that the worth of life becomes intimately embraced, the more that hope becomes an imperative, because once you find what has real worth, you can’t just shrug its meaning off.

(Knowing the world as a place of promise reveals something else that matters, too: the violence that hope is up against. Only through a feeling for the vitality of the life in and around us can we recognise its violation as the grievous insult it is; we can only grieve for what we first have loved.)

‘In a broken world, things aren’t fully broken.’

Basma, Celia, Joe, and Hannah speak of the life in and around them as if it’s a gift of rare value. It’s the kind of gift you can feel the weight of in your hands, and they want you and me to hold it too. But they also want us to understand that it takes work. Finding delight in the world is something you do, rather than presume.

I ask Bronwyn, whom we met in the first blog, what kept her hopes alive as a teenager when she’d come home from school to find her family fighting. She says she’d climb onto the roof and look at the night sky. Lisa, a peace activist and community worker, says her childhood housing estate was right next to the woods; spending time there would bring her life back into focus. When I ask her what nourishes her in her work now, she says she’s ‘absolutely sustained by nature’.

The reason that the vitality of the world is not lost on Bronwyn or Lisa is that they pay attention to it – Bronwyn clambers onto the roof, Lisa slips into the woods. They’re on the move. They’re searching for solace in the vitality the world around them, which their hope needs absolutely. It’s as if they’re training themselves to meet the world as a place of vitality.

Once we’re poised to know the world as a promising place, the park down the road is not just green stuff to soften the concrete places we call home, but a teeming home of its own, wheeling through the seasons with the earth. We’ll know that behind the stranger’s face is a whole world, with landscapes and histories as rich as our own. And the earth itself, our expansive home, is still an undiscovered country aching with being. But only if we’re paying attention.

The philosopher Simone Weil wrote that paying attention is the essential practice of love. As I’ve listened to people of hope, the meaning of this truth has been unfolding in unexpected ways. Helen, for example, who’s an arts psychotherapist, says we need to ‘receive’ the worth of the world around us. Simply paying attention to the vitality of the world might not be enough; we need to ‘make a home for it’ within ourselves, she says.

Before Hannah worked with people without homes, she was an academic in advanced physics and maths. Like many other physicists, Hannah’s ‘mind was blown’ by the ‘beauty of the universe’, she says, whose filigree intricacies she’s been ‘absorbing’ ever since. It’s an awe-inspiring, deeply humbling realisation that we’re each part of that beauty ourselves; Hannah testifies to it in the homeless people she works with: ‘It isn’t just in me, it’s in them.’ This matters completely to Hannah. Without her feeling for the worth of the world around her, she ‘couldn’t do the job I do and see the suffering I see’. Knowing the world as a place of tragedy and also of delight makes her share of hope’s work possible.

We need to ‘receive’ the worth of the world around us, ‘making a home for it’ within ourselves.

‘Paying attention’ to the vitality of the world, ‘receiving’ it into one’s being, becoming porous enough to ‘absorb’ it, the frontier between self and world begins to blur. Celia wonders whether there’s a border there at all. She holds her hand in front of herself as if it were a wall, a frontier between herself and her world, and says her self doesn’t stop there. She is the nature around her, she says: ‘I need to care for myself not because I’m [especially] important, but because it’s the closest bit of nature to myself.’ Hannah echoes this: even as she absorbs the ‘beauty I see in the universe’, she knows that it’s also absorbing her.

We’re taking a metaphysical turn here! It might seem abstract and aesthetic, but such intimate identification with the life of the world has vital significance for hope. Consider children, who often have a deep feeling for the world’s vitality and are equally alive to its violation. Many younger children are shocked and distressed to find out that grown-ups want to destroy wild places or keep refugees at the border, and astounded when all their parents do is wring their hands or shrug. At the Extinction Rebellion in London this month, Rafi, aged nine, told the BBC, ‘We’re here because we want the world to still be alive when we die.’ Millions of children like Rafi identify closely with their living world and know that it deserves their love. Its violation feels close, not distant, and they reel with it, mourning the losses as few adults know how. Take away Rafi’s feeling for the living world and what’s left of Rafi’s hope? Nothing.

It’s a desperate shame, but not an accident, that our capitalist-consumer culture tries to educate our early sensitivity out of us. When school, for example, becomes a forcing house that directs the energy of youth towards the servitude of economic power, the space for learning through wonder, enquiry, and play is lost. By our teenage years, most of us know every high street logo but can’t tell our native trees apart. Drift along for a few more years and as adults we’re back to thinking of trees as pretty green stuff and strangers as threats to keep at bay. These are exactly the conditions in which war, poverty and ecocide proceed unquestioned.

This existential swindle is bound to leave us rather hollow, as when someone says they no longer know what their life is about, or what society is for. The pursuit of happiness is reduced to diversionary pleasures; consider the retail therapy and sugary entertainment that dominate our social culture. As Martin, a psychotherapist, puts it to me, we’ve been conned into craving some ‘sublime and uninterrupted happiness’, and what we get is a ‘vortex of disillusionment and dissatisfaction’.

We’ve been conned into craving some ‘sublime and uninterrupted happiness’…

The political consequences are serious. The less that a society knows what it’s about, the more easily led it becomes. Without a common feeling for what we really love and need, the strongmen and their media-baron outriders have little trouble convincing us that they’re the answer we lack. Society is purged of faces that don’t fit while the corporate wreckers are welcomed in. What Bronwyn says of the evangelical church of her teenage years is just as true of strongman politics: ‘The problem is that it solves all your problems.’

Which is why recovering a feeling for the vitality of the world – and the delight it gives, and the grief that surges when it’s violated, and the life-affirming ways of being that it leads into – can be a radicalising experience. Insofar as consumer-capitalist culture tends to anaesthetise and domesticate, so a passion for the vitality in every person, in life-giving social relations, in even the smallest of participants of our teeming earth, leads towards rebellion. To listen out for every note of all this music is to be made wild again.

Then, when the strongman figure (played by people of whatever gender) curries contempt for the stranger seeking refuge in Calais, or sneers at the trees burning in the Amazon as I write, we do have something to set against the petty smallness of his world. But here’s the rub. Our ‘no’ to him, his violence, and his domesticated worldview, is made possible only by a deeply felt ‘yes’ to the life of one another and the earth.

Basma sent me a few translated lines of Mahmoud Darwish, the people’s poet of Palestine. Here they are as she sent them to me:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living
the aroma of bread at dawn
a woman’s opinion of men
the works of Aeschylus
the beginnings of love
grass on a stone
mothers who live on a flute’s sigh
and the invaders’ fear of memories

We have on this earth what makes life worth living
the waning days of dawn
a woman leaving forty in full blossom
the hour of sunlight in prison
a cloud resembling a pack of creatures
the applause of a people for those who face their end with a smile
and the tyrants’ fear of songs.


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