Hope (7/8): Who’s with us?

Reading time: 9 min.

In last week’s blog we found that people of hope, unlike those who are simply optimistic, don’t depend on a future in which all the brokenness of the world gets fixed. For as long as the life around them deserves love, they’ll stand with it and walk with it – they do the work of hope whatever its outcome may be.

To stand with and walk with, and to be stood with and walked with, is the meaning of solidarity, which is the sixth and last core condition of grounded hopefulness we’re covering in this blog series. It’s been with us from the beginning. Last week we found it in Joe, a nurse, flanneling the body of a dying patient; and in Jo, an activist, confronting the companies that plunder the earth and trammel its people.

Jo and Joe, and everyone else whose stories appear in these blogs, ‘just want to nurture what’s human’, as Lyndsay, an activist, puts it. That’s a ‘rebellion’, says Lyndsay, when our culture tends to treat people and the earth as less than they really are.

To ‘nurture what’s human’ is a rebellion when culture tends to treat people and the earth as less than they really are.

Similar language of solidarity runs through all the conversations I’ve been having with people who work with hope in some way. Helen says her work as a therapist is to ‘accompany’ a person in an apparently hopeless situation until the conditions are ripe for hope to take root. Martin, also a psychotherapist, says that he works with very depressed people as ‘a transitional holder of their hope’, trying to ‘champion their psyche’ until they’re ready to hold hope for themselves again. Jeanette and Susan, chaplains at a pastoral care centre for people in distress, both say their work is to ‘journey with’ their guests. The house itself, says Jeanette, is ‘a safe space to be held, to be accepted’ – so it’s a centre of solidarity, part of hope’s infrastructure.

By solidarity here, we don’t mean charity. Solidarity’s metaphor of standing-with, or walking-with, looks little like the hierarchical relations seen in liberal charity: of noble giver and hapless receiver. Charity of this kind asks of the giver only what they can conveniently dispense – it doesn’t really cost anything. In trusting to the overbearing power of the giver, whose righteous intent goes unquestioned, liberal charity tends to be oblivious to the receiver’s power and potential. And while professing to reverse harm, it typically leaves intact the conditions of injustice that cause that harm, and it can even reinforce them.

The same, ‘standing-over’ dynamic shapes public policy too; it’s there in the colonial mentality of most overseas ‘aid’, for example. The academic, Laleh Khalili, aptly warns that liberal charitability is easily ‘co-opted by the colonial project, providing a “softer”, more acceptable patina to relations of domination’. Even the ruinous invasion of Iraq was presented as an act of charity, by which a righteous military alliance would rescue a presumably helpless people, as if the war had nothing to do with Western attachment to power and control.

Liberal charitability can easily provide a ‘softer, more acceptable patina to relations of domination’.

The bounden faithfulness of solidarity, on the other hand, takes more heart. It costs. Unlike charity, the power of solidarity runs through and between everyone involved. As Helen says of her therapeutic practice, to accompany somebody in solidarity is a mutual experience; it is to hold hope in common as a shared endeavour.

The same goes for work towards social change. Chris, a peace activist, says that the ‘antidote’ to hopelessness in his own work is the ‘community’ of people who hold the hope of peace in common. Usually, though not always, I feel the same way: that even when I’m working alone, the community of my colleagues is with me, so my solitude does not become my isolation, and I’m less likely to get stuck with the delusion that hope’s work is my own, private burden. Without this community of hope, the work would become a wound; people get ‘fed up, disenchanted, worn away’, says Chris.

Celia found her own community of hope early on, as a teenager, when it began to turn her life around. Rather unusually (but not quite so rare in Celia’s Italy as in Britain), she would spend her evenings in the town square reading anarchism and debating revolution with her schoolmates. This early fellowship charged her passions and brought her to a new way of reading the world. Her newfound outlook was idealistic, but it was also freer, wilder, vivifying, and closer to the life of the world around her. She says, laughing at herself, that it was like ‘falling in love’. ‘Sometimes it just goes back to a couple of people,’ Celia says of certain chance encounters that can open up your world.

When hope is held in common it grows stronger and more durable. I ask Jeanette, a white South African, what meaning hope could possibly have under her country’s apartheid regime, which for decades showed no promise of ending. ‘There was hope during apartheid,’ she insists, and goes on to speak with admiration, even envy, of the resilience and inspiration that black Africans found (and still find) in their communities of resistance. ‘African people have a spiritual understanding, ubuntu: I am facing this [tragedy/crisis/violence] and you are facing this, and we are facing this together.’

‘I am facing this and you are facing this and we are facing this together.’

In their own ways, Chris, Celia, and Jeanette are pointing to the community of hope as a source of sustenance, inspiration, and political potency. Like the other people I’ve been listening to for these blogs, they seem to have moved out of the narrow frame of liberal charity, and towards the altogether distinctive commitment of solidarity or ubuntu. It’s as if they’ve stopped asking, ‘How do I myself make a difference that I can count as my own?’ and started to wonder instead, ‘Where can we find each other in the work of hope?’ The first query is paralysing, assuming as it does that hope’s worth hangs on the choices of the isolated person. The second trusts instead in an uncertain journey alongside others. It’s less heroic, not so attached to an outcome, and much more alive with possibility.

That shared journey – our wildly diverse, but ultimately gathered, ubuntu – is prodigious. Look around, and it’s clear that life-affirming hopes are the work of many millions of people doing quite ordinary things. Sure, history remembers heroes, but history is made by us motley lot – by the sum of our myriad forgotten acts. Here’s another extract from Hope’s work:

‘Not all of us are willing to break into nuclear bases before dawn, but those who are will be needing breakfast – the people who cook it for them take their own place in the ecology of hope that makes all its work possible. The hands that cut the fence and the hands that chop the onions could belong to anyone, as might the hands of a harried mum or dad who somehow still find the time to play with their children, and hands that plant trees or dress wounds, and musicians’ hands, whose work restores us for tomorrow. All hands can take a little of the work, at any age and in any place, and so participate in the generosity of hope’s ecology. It will not always feel like it, said the activist Joyce Pickard, but to be part of the work is a privilege; we just need to know what share of hope’s work is our own to hold.’

The solidarity of hope’s work also reaches through time; it’s passed down the generations. The anti-apartheid movement obviously stood in solidarity with people oppressed by the structured racism of that time; less obvious is that also stood in solidarity with South Africans being born today into a constitutionally anti-racist society. And our own work in hope today already reaches our unborn descendants (yes, already). In hope’s work we walk in solidarity with our ancestors and descendants. Seen in this way, humane hope might just have been the most powerful force of history, even through all our violence.

But we’re in a little danger of implying that hope is the preserve of the elevated communities of interest we call social movements. Juliet, who’s always worked with people pushed to the margins of society, would want us to think again. Having lived for a long time in some of the poorest neighbourhoods of London and Birmingham, she’s grown tired of middle-class people who pity these communities, or fear them as no-go areas, passing right over the inventive energy that she’s found there. We should be looking for their strengths, she says, which are many.

Juliet isn’t encouraging us to romanticise poverty either; economic injustice cheats its victims out of many things, one of which can be hope (for to be deprived is to be cheated). But she wants us to know that hopes abide, sometimes thrive, in the communities she’s come to know as home. (Whereas hopes can easily suffocate in the comfortable conditions of leafier neighbourhoods, designed as they are to insulate their residents from the lives of others.) So the solidarity of hope is not only expressed through social movements; it’s also there in the community centres of Lambeth and Small Heath.

But it’s also worth remembering that the many Lambeths and Small Heaths of yesteryear, here and across the world, are exactly where history’s most significant social movements burst out from. The movements that have bequeathed us all the most have been led by working people, people of colour, women, colonised peoples, and countless other groups who’d been pushed into the shadows and written off by the powerful as politically incapable. At their most successful, these movements have reached across the borders that divide land, class, gender, race, and so on, to forge ties of solidarity beyond their own group, growing in potency as they have done so. It’s rare, on the other hand, to find movements made up of middle-class white people, working in isolation, doing anything other than damage.

So we need to imagine communities of hope widely, because hope is widely carried. Very widely, for there’s an elephant in the room carrying us all on its back: the earth.

If we imagine that the earth has no part in our struggle for hope, it may be because our self-styled ‘civilisation’ does all it can to domesticate the natural world as a de-wilded place. To our corporations it’s an inert resource, prone for plunder to meet unmoderated desires for energy and wealth. At zoos, nature is commodified for public consumption; caged-up animals are made to parade as exotic artefacts, or to perform tricks on demand like some kooky cabaret. Most of the time, the earth is nothing more than the backdrop for our human drama – consider the municipal lollipop trees that prettify our shopping malls, for example. Sometimes, we treat the earth as a passive object of liberal charity – something we ought to be rescuing. But rarely do we recognise the earth as an ally, doing its level best to rescue us.

Which is what it is. As every organism, every species, works hard for its own natural place, it builds the conditions for all others, including us, to find our own. Hence the ‘survival of the fittest’ – not ‘most powerful’ but ‘most fitting’. Survival is not a race to dominate, but the mutuality of life continuously co-creating a teeming home for itself. By folding us into that home, the earth is trying hard to save us every day. In the face of all our violence against it, we have to hope it might yet succeed.

Jo sent me this excerpt from the Ninth Duino Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing left outside us to see?
What, if not transformation,
is your deepest purpose?

The life of the earth really does ‘arise in us’, according to some of the people I’ve been talking with. Helen says that a ‘deep faith’ in one’s own psyche is really an encounter with the earth as we find it within us. Another Helen, who works with people in distress in Yorkshire, talks about the human body and the earth as if they know each other like sisters or brothers. She says that by listening to our bodies we recover our own nature: the practice frees us from a ‘logical, critical, anxious’ frame of mind towards a ‘deep knowing’ or feeling of belonging. ‘Something within shows the way to go’ and it’s a creative process – an improvisation – to follow where it leads.

We’re getting metaphysical again – I can’t help it! But let’s come back to where we started, with hope as the everyday practice of accompaniment, mutuality, solidarity, belonging. These are all by-words for love, where love is not so much a feeling but a commitment to one another and to the earth, made real through how we live. And all are also by-words for being loved. This blog post has had several characters already, but please bear with me for one more: Bronwyn, whom you might remember from the first blog.

As I mentioned then, Bronwyn was deeply affected as a child when she learnt about war. She later found a passion for peace, as a campaigner, but before then her sense of hope came from her evangelical Christian beliefs. Her religion helped her to cope with the oppressive daily life of an abusive family, but with a little more maturity she began to doubt her church’s rigid, facile certainties. Eventually she lost her faith completely, and her hope with it.

I didn’t mention in the first blog that Bronwyn’s father suddenly disappeared and she thought he’d died. He hadn’t, but he wasn’t coming back – he’d left his family for an affair he’d kept secret for a long time, and he’s been gone ever since. By this point, let down by both her church and her family, Bronwyn had lost the sources of love that she’d longed to trust in. Her hope had dwindled to almost nothing.

She says that her uncle turned to her then and said something that changed her life: ‘You’re my daughter now.’ This new experience of ‘love and acceptance’, says Bronwyn – the simple but rather rare solidarity of love – was ‘absolutely crucial’ in enabling her to hold faith with hope, for herself and for the world. Today, if Bronwyn’s work for peace expresses her love for the world, it’s made possible by the experience of love around her.

In this blog I’ve been describing solidarity as the sixth and last core condition of conscious hope. Speaking personally, I find it the toughest of all hope’s demands. And I’m sure I’m not alone – I think it’s fair to say that few of us could claim honestly that our lives exemplify the ‘standing with’ others that is solidarity, and equally few of us feel that many others are really standing with us. Who’s really walking with us, and whom are we really walking with, are pretty tough questions.

What I understand from Bronwyn and the many other hopeful people I’ve been meeting, is that hope’s work can falter quickly without a feeling of being loved – by other people, by the earth, and, for some, by a loving God (and not all of our Gods are loving). It seems that a want of hope is especially closely related to another, very common lack: of the love by oneself of oneself.

You, me, and everyone on earth deserves to be loved well, but when we miss out on that, hope struggles to get off the ground at all. To recover hope together, we’ll need to love more, and to love better.


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