Hope (4/8): Facing tragedy

Reading time: 8 min.

In these blogs we’re exploring six qualities of consciously hopeful people and communities. We’ve looked at the first two so far: involvement in the life of the world, rather than distance from it; and a feeling for the vitality of people and planet, rather than indifference to it. This week’s post is about a third: the readiness to face tragedy.

In last week’s blog I mentioned Basma, a refugee living in Liverpool. Basma begins her story in 2011, in her native Libya, amid the violent chaos precipitated by NATO bombing. She and her two daughters are at home when a militia arrives looking for her husband. They set the house on fire. Basma and her children have to run for their lives through a ‘barrage of bullets’, she says. For weeks they roam from city to city, spending most of their time in the desert.

Eventually Basma and her daughters make their way over the Tunisian border and reach the UK. Back in Libya, Basma’s brother Ahmed, still a boy, joins a militia in the hope of stopping Islamist extremists from taking over the country. It isn’t long before a rival group captures and murders him.

Stricken, Basma vows to pick up Ahmed’s determination to stand up for people who need it. She doesn’t yet know how, but an unexpected act of kindness by a lawyer, when she desperately needs it, inspires her to train as a human rights barrister. From zero, she starts a law degree, paying her way as a cleaner, a waiter, and delivering pizza leaflets. By and by she decides to leave her domineering husband, which means she’s now caring alone for her children. At the time of writing, she’s finishing off her degree and about to start her professional training.

I’ve never met anyone quite so determined to live in hope as Basma. The traumas she’s endured would have defeated many of us, I think, but not her. Why? ‘Through struggle,’ she explains, ‘life becomes imperative, more valuable.’ Basma has come to know what has real worth, that it’s vulnerable, and that it’s therefore always at stake. Her hope doesn’t depend on the absence of suffering, but on the readiness to face it: ‘You have to face the tragedy of the world,’ she says.

‘Through struggle, life becomes imperative, more valuable.’

I live in Oxford, where most visible signs of suffering have been swept to the edges. Much of the town enjoys a culture of wealth, incubating the comfortable view that the world is more or less as it should be. Some of my friends have wondered honestly to me: ‘What tragedy?’ I think of the woman who sits outside the station, begging, the calf of her left leg half-rotten away from both sides. I should get them to put their question to her, but they’ve already walked past her more than once. As have I.

Like Basma, the woman sat begging is not in the place she meant to be. Like Basma, she’s where she is because of violence. People wind up on the streets for many reasons, but the reason they stay there is the economic violence of a society that says it can’t afford to offer them what they need. This is what Basma means when she says we ‘have to face the tragedy of the world’. She wants us to recognise the afflictions of our world, and turn to face the many forms of violence that make it that way.

If violence is, as I think we can understand it to be, the misuse of power, then obviously it includes the physical violence between people and nations, but a lot else as well. Economic injustice, political exclusion, the fantasy of cultural supremacy, and the degradation of the earth, all exemplify violence as the misuse of power. Violence is there every time you or I look upon someone as less important than ourselves, as less than they really are; physical insults are but one of the many ways we violate one another’s dignity as human beings.

Economic injustice, political exclusion, the fantasy of cultural supremacy, and the degradation of the earth, all exemplify violence as the misuse of power.

Violence, as Basma can testify, is a deluge. Even the fact of violence (let alone the sheer viscerality of its afflictions) is overwhelming – it ‘throws a wave over’ us. But our paralysis before violence would be its victory. A society that can’t or won’t face up to violence is still submerged, literally asocial – not a society worthy of the name.

I used to imagine that hope’s work meant looking the tragedy of violence in the eye without flinching. Now that smacks of poetic grandstanding. We can’t look war or poverty in the eye; it has billions of eyes, most of which we’ll never meet. And if we imagine we can face the world’s violence without recoiling, then we haven’t done it yet, however sure we may be that we’re the good guys, the sort who read the right newspapers, who care.

But Basma is still right; if hope’s work is to mean anything at all, we need to turn towards the world as it is. We might not face it as well as we mean to, but we need to mean to, and to cultivate the courage and imagination to do so. If we want to grow in hope, then like Basma we have to be witnesses of the violence in the world around us, including our own part in it. And that is to be disturbed often.

We have to be witnesses of the violence in the world around us, including our own part in it.

In facing up to violence, it’s the work of hope to tend to its effects, to help heal the holes it punches in the world. And it’s also to reckon with its causes – with cultures and structures of power that suppress, dominate, control, and wipe out the world’s vitality. Facing up to violence is a progressive shift in consciousness and attitude. It’s not an on-off switch, it takes a lifetime of hope’s work, but it starts with small, simple choices rooted in a humane commitment to (love of) the life in and around us.

In listening to people who work with hope in some way, I’ve found that all are prepared, like Basma, to face the tragedy of the world, or at least to try. What has surprised me is the emphasis that these conversations have placed on accepting the world as a violent place. I ask Abdul, who works in a community project in Yorkshire, whether he ever feels the worth of his work is wiped out by huge social forces beyond his influence. ‘The world is what it is,’ he says.

Abdul’s answer signifies his acceptance that the world is a place where tragic things happen, that’s all. A lot of activism, including my own, begins as indignation, which is really a refusal to accept that what should not be, is. (The root meaning of indignation is, in fact, non-acceptance, if you go all the way back to the word’s ancient origins.) I’ve come to think of indignation as a well-meant but self-serving ego-response to injustice that’s painful to witness. It says: if only I could gather all my power and throw it at the world, it’ll change into something unpainful, then I can relax and enjoy it. That’s a high road to burnout.

Certainly, hope’s work is all about change, but not before we’ve accepted the world as it is. This is not to justify it, just to recognise its reality, and so know what we’re up against. Powerful interests will laugh at you, lie about you, and try to crush your resistance – and they tend to get their way. There’s no point being indignant about this – violence is how the powerful came by their power and it’s how they intend to keep it.

But the future doesn’t belong to them just yet, because hope, unlike optimism, is a conflict with power, as my conversations with hopeful people have often confirmed. Juliet, for example, has spent most of her working life as a community worker in urban neighbourhoods, and now works with refugees and people seeking asylum, particularly children. When I ask her how this work began, she says she had quickly become frustrated with ‘middle class urban myths’ about poor neighbourhoods – the alienated prejudices that belong to the cultural violence of a society preoccupied with the comforts of material wealth.

Juliet remembers when David Cameron, as prime minister – and a millionaire, by the way – tried to frighten the public into believing that a ‘swarm’ of impoverished migrants (like Basma) were coming their way. Juliet says her ‘anger at how human beings were being treated spilled over’ into action. Her share of the work has been as an advocate for migrant children and their families – people with the least political and social power living in a world made by those with the most.

Abdul grew up in pretty much the only Muslim family in a housing estate on the edge of London. Now he works with people living in the urban fringes of Yorkshire’s cities, particularly in former mining towns. These communities are mostly white, typically very poor, about ‘as far away as you can get from power’, says Abdul. They’re also high on the hit list of far-right groups which, Abdul reminds us, are backed by millionaires who’re unlikely ever to visit Rotherham or to care about its people.

Abdul’s work is to arrange conversations in which people can talk about what matters to them, be heard, and hear each other. The people who come to talk often say the place they once knew as home has been lost. Abdul relates to this; his own home town has changed out of recognition too: ‘That rocks you.’ Some participants blame their loss on immigration; on newcomers who look like strangers, whose ways are foreign. It’s a frequent complaint, which Abdul hears not as a nasty indulgence, but as the cry of people bewildered, who’ve long been treated as if they don’t count. Most of the people he meets are ‘good-hearted, sincere’, he says, but ‘so uncertain of themselves’. The papers shout at them what to believe: Blame immigration! Those papers are backed by millionaires, who’ve disenfranchised our poorest communities far more than Basma or her children ever could.

I ask Abdul what his work is really for. All he wants is that ‘people can sit down together and talk stuff through… how the hell do we share this town with all the crap that’s gone on?’ ‘Even a little chat is brilliant’, he says, because people tend to leave more curious than they arrived, and the ‘far right don’t do so well when people are curious’. ‘We’ve all got to be more curious,’ he adds. He means me, and probably you.

Lisa, whom we briefly met in the last blog, surveys the world with ‘constructive pessimism’, steering a course between the two hiding places that hope’s work has no interest in: cynicism on the one hand, and complacent optimism on the other. She seems able to read the lines of power in the world, like a palm, and knows how precarious our situation is. These are ‘very dangerous times’, she says, ‘things can break down really quickly’.

Like Abdul, Lisa puts her faith in the health and integrity of communities, their ‘weave of relation’; healthy community is her infrastructure of hope. Build it up, she says, and then we can ‘hold strong’, facing down violence and the politics that trades on it. For Lisa, hope is something you do in the present, rather than something you expect for the future: you do what you can to reduce ‘the hurt and harm in the here and now’.

Juliet, Abdul, and Lisa, like all the people of hope I’ve been talking with, are prepared in their own way to do as Basma says we must: face, accept, and confront ‘the tragedy of the world’. They worry just like the rest of us; they know fear and even despair (yes, the hopeful are not beyond despair’s reach) – but the violence of the world no longer cows them into hiding from it, and there’s freedom in that. ‘There’s going to be a lot of struggle,’ says Basma, ‘but we won’t lose our humanity’.

And that ‘struggle’ changes the world; it always has. We’ll look at how in next week’s blog.


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