Reflections on Hope and Optimism: Through A Glass Darkly
Hope is not an appetite for this or that concocted future It is the present seeking itself, the present-- unlearning the past, agnostic of the future-- breathing, in its chains, like the sea”. ...Richard Schiffman
I know I am not alone in feeling that our world is in a grim state, and I have been inquiring deeply about what view of the situation might be most helpful and “right”– for me, personally, and for us, collectively. This inquiry leads in many interesting directions.
The most fundamental question I ask myself is to what extent the world is objectively “grim” and to what extent “grim” is a projection of my (our) subjective feelings about it. While it is not possible to parse ‘objective’ from ‘subjective’ in any absolute sense, I know that views are very important in determining what comes to pass. This is a truth well worth contemplating. Whatever “the world” may ultimately be, “man’s mind mirrors a universe that mirrors man’s mind”[i]. Reality is a lived experience which is continually constructed and re-constructed in each mind-moment, and, as the Buddha reminds us, the mind is the forerunner of all things. Pessimism likely has consequences.
The basic wisdom premise is: “we do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are”. It is not hard to find many ways that our world is shaped by our tendencies, individually and collectively, to project and/or act out our pain. The archetypal example is that of war, in which disowned aspects of ourselves get assigned to external enemies “others” whom we then attempt to vanquish. This is the general blueprint for human life: truly a theater of the mind. For this reason, it is essential to be as aware as possible of the psychological “shadow” of what is unconscious in us and how it gets expressed.
So I have no problem owning that personal pain makes me/us see the events happening in the world through a pessimistic lens. The phrase “through a glass darkly” perfectly describes this feeling-driven, imperfect vision of reality. Although there is much which is abhorrent, distressing, nerve-wracking — even surreal— in current events, following the general prescription of Buddhist practice, we are wise to begin with inquiry about the reactive disturbances we find within.
Although I am not given to panic and doom-scrolling, I notice that even a few minutes of the evening news is sufficient to stir me into an agitated state. The most salient component of my agita is my despair over the fact that human beings seem incapable of rational and coordinated actions in the face of existential threat. To be sure, there is an underlying sadness and grief about the death and destruction of mother earth, but my emotional energy goes more to my exasperation over conspiracy theories and a sense of powerlessness and despair over the malignant narcissism and paranoia at work in the body politic. The phrase that often occurs to me is that the inmates seem to be running the asylum. The craziness of it all is crazy making!
As I recognize that craziness seems to be my core concern, it is not lost on me that craziness has always been my core concern— a carryover from the family I came from. Then, as now, my response has always been to look for a wise and positive frame in which to view whatever situation I was encountering.
A balanced perspective about human suffering seems essential. So I remind myself that the crises and problems facing humanity at this time reflect nothing less than human nature itself. It seems oddly helpful to recognize that the wide arc of human history reveals the pervasiveness of social inequity, oppression, and the corrupt exercise of power, not to mention the rise and fall of civilizations. War is ubiquitous, genocide a uniquely human and not infrequent occurrence. The Buddha hit the nail on the head in identifying the causes of this suffering as greed, ill-will, and ignorance. Where we find ourselves is the human predicament.
So where to go from here? In writing this reflection, my thoughts come full circle back to the subject of negativity and the need to transform it. But how?
While none of us has the power to “save the world”, each of us does have the power to look for and cultivate an open and optimistic point of view that acknowledges the truth of what is without imposing prematurely pessimistic conclusions. However bleak things may look at any given moment, we can try to remind ourselves (and others) that this is not “the way it turned out” but rather a perception at a particular point in time and from a particular point of view. Our challenge is finding balance in the face of monumental uncertainty. Finding our own individual ways to embrace this challenge is the best way for each of us to contribute to the wise and compassionate changes that our world is most in need of.
I am heartened by the words of the poet Vaclev Havel, who said that “hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”. In this way, I am definitely hopeful.
[i] Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack In The Cosmic Egg.