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‘This leads us, probably, to as good a definition of the beloved community as we can hope for: common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.’Wendell Berry, in ‘Writer and region’
This final post weaves together the six strands of conscious hopefulness that this blog series has been exploring and wonders how to hold them well. Here they all are, summarised as queries:
- Alive to the world. How present are we to the life around us, as its witnesses rather than mere spectators, knowing that it makes a claim on how we might live?
- A feeling for promise. When the talk is all doom, how familiar are we with the world as a place of vitality, generous in delight, striving to flourish?
- Facing tragedy. When tempted to hide from the world as a tragic place, how ready are we to reckon with the violence that makes it so, be it physical, economic, cultural, ecological, or any other kind?
- Power in flux. When the structures of power seem like a brick wall, how attentive are we to a world in process, more like a forest, an ecology in which the power of every participant counts?
- Committing. In a time of loss, when the prospect of tomorrow is hard to face, how determined are we nonetheless to living for what has worth today, to holding faith with it?
- Solidarity. When the challenges ahead seem overwhelming, how open are we to holding hope in common, accompanying one another in the work, assuming our own share while trusting others to play theirs?
It’s really striking to me that these marks of hopefulness are also marks of health, where health means conditions that tend towards wholeness. The personal health of good character and the social health of good community seem especially important here.
Just as striking is the promise of movement. All these core conditions of hopefulness can be practised. We’re no more condemned to hopelessness than we’re guaranteed hopefulness – by conscious effort we can move towards hope.
This, I think, invites a flurry of vivifying queries to dwell on. How can we stay alive to the life of the world around us? What kind of practices deepen a feeling of the world as a place of promise? What do we need to face up to the world as a place of tragedy? If we tend to see power as a brick wall, what has made us that way? What makes it possible to make our lives about what really matters, without wandering so far from home that we no longer remember where it is? And what does it really mean to share this work – to assume our part while trusting others to assume theirs?
All these questions are worth asking, one by one, as individuals on a personal journey. But this blog series has been exploring hope as a common, creative endeavour in response to a shared predicament. That invites, I think, more than a journey of personal development, but some kind of fellowship doing some kind of work in some kind of place.
A hopeful place, as understood here, would be alive to the world, inspired by its promise and willing to face its tragedy. It would have a feeling for what matters most and a real commitment to it. It would accept the limits of its power, knowing that its work still counts. And it would be a centre of solidarity: both inwardly, in cultivating the integrity of a genuine community; and outwardly, in reaching for alliances with others.
But such a fellowship would not expect to embody hopefulness to some fantastical standard of pristine perfection, either ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ accordingly. It would be enough to be growing, rough-edged, towards the conditions that make for hope – that’s all. It would not be fit for saints alone, but for anyone to choose – a place within reach of our imagination and ideally also of a bicycle.
In an earlier blog I mentioned Holy Rood House, based in the buildings and grounds of an old convent in Yorkshire, that offers hospitality to people in distress. There’s counselling for those who want it, an art room, and abundant gardens. Guests can join or avoid the daily gatherings for prayer. Typically, they stay a few days, experience some healing (literally ‘movement towards wholeness’) and rejoin their world a little stronger.
Holy Rood tries to be a space of health – one that tends towards wholeness. The community’s first commitment is to preserve a space of health where every person is accepted as who they are, and then to stretch out its vision to embrace the health of relationships at every level from the personal to the ecological.
It also tries to be a space of hope. It supports guests to face their ‘tragedy’ and, as a place of health it becomes a place of promise. It certainly reads the world as in flux, rather than locked – the community has witnessed guests move, often against expectation, in the way of better health.
Jeanette, a volunteer chaplain, tells me that many guests have experienced the Christian church as a site of judgement – one ruled over by a ‘punitive god’. Through prayers, Holy Rood renews its commitment daily to the Christian story as one of healing, enacted humanely, in love. I ask Jeanette whether love is ‘enough’ in our violent world. ‘It’s what we have,’ she replies.
Another home of hope sits on the shallow banks of London’s Lea Valley, on the site of the council’s old plant nursery. OrganicLea is a market garden spread across 12 acres, managed by a workers cooperative and anyone else who wants to take part. It works with the ecology of the land and the community around it to produce good food, bypassing the Monsantos and Tescos of the industrial agricultural system. And it works with local people to start food-growing projects in its urbanised, economically-deprived neighbourhood.
Sunniva, one of the farmers, explains that OrganicLea is trying to ‘be a space where people come to connect with nature and each other … and create something beautiful and useful’. It’s a project of inspiration but also purpose, she says. The farm is a haven, particularly for people for whom ‘our economic system doesn’t work’ – Sunniva mentions the asylum-seekers who come to be involved, and people without jobs, and people with dementia or who’ve been waiting for months for formal mental health support. It’s also a haven for nature. The surrounding forest ‘flows through’ the farm, as Sunniva puts it. It’s normal to stop and wonder at the two almond trees in blossom at the moment, she says, or to get excited that a newt has been found in the compost heap.
Like Holy Rood, everyone at OrganicLea is learning to devote their mind, heart and body to health – of the soil, each other, their locality, society, and the wide earth. I ask Sunniva whether she’d describe her farm community as a hopeful one. ‘Definitely,’ she says. In what way? ‘Because we believe it’s worth bothering trying to do something different, even on a small scale.’
Both places give a sense, I think, of the ‘hopeful’. Each is sustained through fellowship, the ancient meaning of which is ‘the people you throw your lot in with’. Each has its shared, prophetic story – prophetic because it asks its listeners where their loyalties lie – what their hearts really belong to. Each embodies its story and principles in shared meals, music, and other rituals of communing (literally ‘holding things together’).
Both offer refuge, for cultivating health and hopefulness and recovering a feeling of soul through the experience of genuine belonging. But they’re not hiding holes; their communities are involved in the world, turned to face its less-than-healthy, less-than-hopeful forces. ‘We’re not running away to hide on a hill,’ says Sunniva, ‘we’re embedded in urban London, we’re not separate from it.’ These places exist within and in tension with an apparently less-hopeful society, where the work tends inwardly to the fellowship and also reaches outward into the world around.
The characteristics of a hopeful place, then, are also those of a community: common experience, common effort, and common ground, willingly chosen, as the farmer and writer Wendell Berry understands the word. His term is actually the ‘beloved community’, a biblically-inspired byword for peace that peppered the sermons of Martin Luther King as the political destination of all social action. To my mind, places of hopeful fellowship participate in the same movement of the spirit, each in their way according to who they are and where they find themselves. In a modest way, they are republics of hope: centres where the core conditions of conscious hopefulness come together as (in another phrase of Berry’s) a ‘hearable wholeness’.
Holy Rood House and OrganicLea are extraordinary only in the sense that they’re not the norm. What they do, while certainly skilled, needs no extraordinary power. They fall well within reach of our collective wit and means; we can make them, join them, enjoy them, and make them again.
And while unusual, they’re far from rare. Some local community centres, surrounded by shopping malls and traffic jams, have become centres of radically hopeful practices, for example. Not all, but some. So have some small faith communities, pushing through the cracks of otherwise ossifying religious institutions. Some schools, too, are devoted to becoming flourishing communities of real learning, where children’s choices matter, and which slough off the forcing-house culture that mainstream education has become.
These many mini republics of hope are organised in mutual solidarity. OrganicLea participates in the Land Workers’ Alliance, for example, which confronts the normalisation of ecologically violent and socially destructive food production in the UK. The Alliance is part of a global resistance movement, La Vía Campesina – ‘The Way of the Land Worker’ – representing 200 million people whose livelihoods are threatened by the big agribusinesses and the governments that abet them.
If you’re up for a brief visualisation, imagine one of those photos taken from space of the earth at night, showing all our burning lights strung out across the land, like a god’s-eye map of modernity. Let’s turn off all the lights for a moment to make way for a different kind of picture. Now imagine that our local republics of hope are tiny agglomerations of light. Add in all those small ecological farms, centres for mental health, community halls where communing actually happens, humane institutions of learning, and so on and on, up and down the land. Then add the solidarity connections between them as lines of light like roads or, more precisely, like a lattice of fungal mycelia throughout our social soil.
If you feel any hope yourself, then add yourself as a little dot of light, even a faint, flickering one if that’s how you feel. If it feels right, add your family and friends. The people walking by on the street, unless you can honestly regard them as completely hopeless, have their place too. Add the earth and all its life as conspiring with us (literally ‘breathing with us’) in hope’s work. Now take a step back to regard the whole map, our collective geography of hopefulness, as a bright work indeed.
And are our social movements also republics of hope? They’re not places in the usual sense – they move! But when Occupy, Extinction Rebellion, and Black Lives Matter arrive in the public square of our Babylon, they pitch their tents and stay, as pop-up republics that bend towards hope. The authorities prefer our intentionally momentary protest marches. They don’t like us making our ‘common ground, willingly chosen’ in the road, airports, or shopping malls, right in the spiritually empty centre of a socially and ecologically violent economic system.
Indeed, that system can leave us with hope ‘knocked out of us’, as Pat, a lifelong peace activist, puts it. If I lack a feeling for a stranger or a tree as a promising being worthy of love, then something unhealthy has happened to me. If I am too numb to be disturbed by their violation, or too afraid to resist it in even a small way, then I am, I think, not well as a person. If a whole society has succumbed to the life-denying miasma that smothers the vital worth of strangers and trees, its members are bound to be left weak in hope.
In such degrading conditions, a feeling for the world as a promising place and the readiness to face up to its tragedy need a social ecology that nourishes the spirit and character on which hopefulness depends. Which is why we need our local republics of hope. And we need them also as intimations of an imaginable society of hope. For the same reason, any act at all that leans towards health, as the integrity (or dignity) of relationships from the personal to the social to the ecological, helps to build the conditions of a society more capable of hope. Acts of health become acts of hope.
The forces that can knock hope out of us are repressive. Their toxic power is to make us less than we mean to be and confine us in a domesticated state. It is to leave us ‘well-adjusted to injustice’, as Cornel West puts it, in thrall to our cloned, corporate high streets and the hard-hearted headlines of newspapers owned by billionaires. Hopefulness breaks out; it’s a way of becoming free. But a genuinely hopeful freedom is also a searching journey towards a ‘right relationship’ with self and world. Which is to say, a hopeful freedom is a wild freedom, and acts of hope are wild acts. By wild, I don’t mean the reckless indulgence of every passing desire, which is found nowhere in the natural world. I mean the wildness of being alive to the world in and around us, finding ourselves in love with what is worthy of love, looking for a home in what Mary Oliver has called the ‘family of things’. I suspect that here our health waits to be found – and our hope.
DG, October 2019 to March 2020.
Before all else, warm thanks are due to everyone who’s been willing to share some of their stories with me: Abdul, Adrian, Andrew, Basma, Ben, Bronwyn, Celia, Chris, Clare, Feryal, Hannah, Helen, Helen again, Jeanette, Jo, Joe, Jon, Juliet, Kongosi, Laura (and Arie), Lisa, Liz, Lyndsay, Maria, Martin, Pat, Sahdya, Sunniva, Susan, and Vron. I’ve changed some names on request. Although I tried to include everyone’s story here, I couldn’t quite manage it this – so there are more stories still to write about.
Thanks also to Jane Fisher, who first suggested that I interview people who work with hope in some way. Special thanks, once again, go to Sunniva Taylor for her thoughtful feedback on early drafts of these blogs. Somewhat mysterious thanks are reserved for wherever hope comes from (I feel sure it’s ‘coming from’ somewhere). And finally, thank you for reading – feedback of any kind is welcome via the contact page.
The phrase ‘hearable wholeness’ is quoted from Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘A poem of difficult hope’. The ‘family of things’ is borrowed from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Wild Geese’. The notion of events ‘making a claim’ on how we live is borrowed from Kimberley Curtis, Our sense of the real: Aesthetic experience and Arendtian politics. Cornel West is quoted from Hope on a tightrope.
Photos: Holy Rood House, OrganicLea, NASA, Sustainable Food Trust.
In earlier posts, Simone Weil is cited from Sian Miles, Simone Weil: An anthology; Alfred North Whitehead from Process and reality; Vaclav Havel from his essay, ‘The power of the powerless’; and Rainer Maria Rilke from ‘The Duino Elegies’.
Etymological references throughout are mostly from the wonderful Etymology Online.
I’ve put some more resources for hopefulness on the Explore more page.
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