Hope (5/8): Ripening the times

Reading time: 8 min.

If you’ve been reading these blogs from the beginning (thank you) then you’ll know I’ve been introducing people who are well-grounded in their hope. So far we’ve looked at three qualities they share in common. All feel involved, or ‘rolled in’, with the life of the world around them; all share a feeling for the world’s vitality and promise, which charges their lives and work; and all are willing to face up to the world as a tragically violent place.

Something else they share is a distinctive way of reading the world around them, particularly when it comes to how change happens. This ‘way of seeing’ is our fourth core condition of conscious hope.

According to opinion polls, most of us feel we have little influence on the course our societies take; the future seems as fixed as it is vexed, a time out of reach. As the writer Dougald Hine has suggested, the future is becoming something to be distracted from, rather than to anticipate. This suits the world’s powerful rather well; an anxious, immobilised public is more easily dispossessed of its destiny.

Underlying the conviction (or really absence of conviction) that we’re stuck with what we get is, I think, an entrenched assumption about how change is made: that unless you have the power to bend the world to your will, then you fail. This power to coerce things into being, or out of being, is our dominant understanding of how history is made. It’s the power of empire, of the kings and queens of history, whose quaint school-history-lesson stories muffle their rapaciously violent overlordship through the ages.

This power to coerce things into being, or out of being, is our dominant understanding of how history is made.

We’re indoctrinated into this model of coercive power from an early age. It drives school’s preoccupation with competition and with grading our worth accordingly (and this only gets worse in academia, I’m told). Corporations are in thrall to it, defining success as dominance, playing their dog-eat-dog games of acquisitions and mergers, measuring themselves by the price of their own shares. The fields of industrial agriculture are regimented by it, their monocrop ranks making a slave of the soil. And then there’s war, the apotheosis of the craving for coercion and control, civilisation’s speciality. The message we’re given to imbibe at every turn is that this is what power is and how it works; end of story.

Those who capture this kind of coercive power for themselves aren’t ‘successful’ in any meaningful sense of the word; they’re just better-placed to play the game of violence in which they’re trapped. But their patriarchal, self-absorbed game dominates. It tries to corral us all and box us in. It can even convince us to play along, and to shrug that this is just what life is and has to be.

Unless, that is, we turn to face it. But isn’t that like staring at a brick wall? The people I’ve been talking with say no: hidden under our dominant assumptions about power is a completely different appreciation of change.

In an earlier blog we met Liz, who works with people without homes. She says she often works with an individual to meet a particular need – perhaps some half-way housing – only to see them homeless again a few weeks later. In Liz’s shoes, having tried and tried and seen no change, I’m guessing that many of us would be wondering whether to give the person up as hopeless; a ‘hard-to-reach case’, as some funders like to say. We might say we’ve ‘hit a brick wall’. So what Liz does next marks, I suspect, a point of divergence, because she tries again. And then again.

Liz is determined but she’s not stubborn, and she’s no fool. It’s not bloody-mindedness, but a stronger feeling for the hidden promise of an apparently hopeless situation that keeps her going where many of us would give up. She can ‘see’ more clearly the vitality in the person who comes to her for support. Her commitment – the expression of her hope – is to hold faith with that vitality, and to bear with its possibilities. She senses that there will be a way through, even if no one can find it yet, because a person is a world entire; possibility abounds. They’re not a brick wall; nor is a society, nor is the earth.

Liz says that the lives of the people she works with can be so disordered that it can take five or six false starts before somebody can even begin to move towards a future better than their present. Sometimes, of course, nothing ever seems to come of it. But sometimes, a person takes a small step forward and this time they hold their new ground.

So, a person is stuck for a long time, and then takes a step forward, right? No. Change has been happening all along, perhaps unnoticed. Each well-grounded effort brings a choice that’s been out of range a little closer, until it’s finally within reach. Each effort has helped to fructify the conditions until the time is ripe for the hoped-for change. Liz knows this; she might not see any manifest signs of it, but she’s aware that it’s happening, she trusts it, and she commits to it. Again, unlike a brick wall, a person is changing all the time; so is a society, so is the earth.

Each well-grounded effort brings a choice that’s been out of range a little closer, until it’s finally within reach.

This kind of change is ‘ecological’, in the sense that it occurs through a system of relationships. It happens under the radar of our dominant understanding of power, which isn’t well equipped to notice it, and its effects reach much further than is generally realised.

To illustrate, let’s go back to the person Liz has been supporting, who now has a home because both of them held faith with the journey to get there. I sometimes hear, ‘Great, but that’s just one person.’ But it isn’t. If moving off the streets is a step towards well-being for the newly-homed person, all the people close to them benefit too. Our whole society is better off when progressively more people have a place to call home, and a healthier society, one that’s more social, tends to benefit other societies too.

So, when one person moves off the streets into a home, the whole world shifts imperceptibly towards health. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that ‘every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe’. By the same principle, each small step that even one person takes towards well-being takes us all with them, just a little way, whether or not we realise it.

Like Liz, we can practise this kind of ecological change. It means noticing vitality that easily gets passed over, finding the elusive promise of the present. It means holding faith that each act of hope helps to ripen the times until the conditions are right for a tangible step forward, even if, in the meantime, it seems we have nothing to show for our work. And it means trusting that every apparently small movement towards health and peace touches everything around it also – it scatters seeds everywhere.

Vitality, ripening, scattering seeds. These are ecological metaphors of relationship and growth, of our future taking its shape in our present. Appreciated in these ecological terms, the world appears more like a forest than a brick wall – always in process, a place of possibilities, which exceed our expectations but not our reach.

I must say now that the ‘brick wall’ of coercive, controlling power is still there too. It’s literally there in Calais, Texas, Palestine, and a hundred thousand other places around the world. Reading the world ecologically doesn’t magic away the violence of the structured injustices that make Liz’s work necessary in the first place. Our ecological re-reading of the world doesn’t change anything by itself, it just redefines (and recovers) our power in it.

Consider Kongosi, whom we met briefly in an earlier blog. She still goes back to the Congo, where she works with a friend from an opposing ethnic group to bring women together. She has no wealth or social position – no access to coercive power and no interest in it – but ‘we have power as mothers’, she tells me. In a country whose sons so often turn into soldiers, the power of a mother counts; the power of mothers, plural, becomes a social and political force. When the women meet, ‘you can feel the hope coming’, she says, and ‘that energises you to keep going’.

‘We have power as mothers.’ In a country whose sons so often turn into soldiers, the power of a mother is a political force.

Kongosi’s work of hope is ‘the power of the powerless’, to borrow a line from the Czech dissident, Vaclav Havel. This kind of power doesn’t ask for champions, but it welcomes participants, inviting everyone. It’s subversive, and it’s patient because it has to be. It doesn’t covet the world, it works with the grain of its vitality. It doesn’t succeed by conquering new territory, but by enriching the ground under our feet. It can be killed, as some of Vaclav Havel’s friends were, and Kongosi’s, but it doesn’t die. And the strongmen of wealth and politics neither notice it at work nor understand its ways. And it is working, all the time.

It’s this ecological power, not the power of dominance, that tends to take a societies forward, even at a global level. Here’s an example from my own field as an activist. In the 1970s, well before my time, a small community of activists resolved to try to end the military use of children. Historically, armed forces and guerrilla groups have routinely sent children to kill and be killed in wars all over the world; children have been so essential to the military that ending their recruitment was said to be impossible, like banging your head on a brick wall.

But the activists were relentless. By 1977 they’d convinced governments to ban recruitment under the age of 15, and by 2000 to ban on all forced recruitment of children under 18. Children could still be recruited with parental permission, but now only from age 16, and they couldn’t be sent to war. (Rather cleverly, the new treaty forbade any states with higher enlistment ages from lowering them.)

Between then and now, the global trend has been towards a ban on all recruitment under the age of 18. Three-quarters of the world’s armies no longer recruit children at all. By shifting the ground under everyone’s feet, bit by bit, over half a century, what was thought impossible has become the global norm. That brick wall is not down yet, but it’s looking shaky. We can’t knock it down because we don’t have that kind of power, but we can erode it until it falls.

The UK, having vigorously opposed these changes at every turn, still sets the lowest standard in the world (yes, the whole world) by recruiting more soldiers at age 16 than any other age. But even the UK’s generals now think the idea of sending adolescent children into war, as their predecessors did without hesitation in the Falklands, Bosnia, and Kosovo, is unthinkable. The same generals still say that a transition to all-adult armed forces is impossible; one day I think they’ll say it’s obvious.

I write more about this in Hope’s work. Here’s a short excerpt:

‘These might be cherrypicked examples of hope’s work were it not for similar stories behind all changes for the common good. Our imperfect but real rights to learn, to be cared for in health, to eat and have a home, to work with dignity, to have a say in how society works, and to love whom we love, were not handed down to us by kings but gradually wrested from them over centuries. That struggle is peppered with violence, but most of the change was made through the patience of history by social movements holding faith with their “impossible” work. Were it not for people of hope confronting the Cold War arms race, we might well all have disappeared in a mushroom cloud by now. Hope’s work and the people behind it have not merely tweaked society for the better here and there, but carried us through.’

Our imperfect but real human rights… were not handed down to us by kings but gradually wrested from them over centuries.

So, hope’s work works. The foreseeable future will likely be much tougher than the present – more violent – and nothing can reverse what’s already lost. And still, as Andrew, a therapist, tells me, extreme despair – the certainty that all is lost – is rarely realistic. Movement towards health remains a possibility, a choice that waits to be made. If, that is, we can find the hidden promise that hides in our violent present.

This is one of the most basic and necessary challenges that our ecological crisis presents us with. The crisis is provoking more of us to reckon not only with carbon emissions, but our relationship with the natural world as a home, in which our species is one participant among many. The crisis is exposing, or actually embarrassing, ‘civilisation’ as a castle in the air, detached and drifting, in want of its ecological ground. Slow but radical shifts in consciousness are working their way through our societies. We’re still almost literally pouring petrol on the earth our home, on all we confusedly know and love… and we might also be learning to live, as if for the first time. Both these things can be true.

But even if change is hope’s purpose, it’s not its point, according to the people I’ve been talking with. In next week’s blog, we’ll look at why.


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