"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 the future of our world looks bleak, and I have been pondering what view of the circumstances might be most helpful and “right.”
Needless to say, there is much which is abhorrent, distressing, and nerve-wracking in current events. Our dying planet, the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the rise of authoritarianism and the assault on democracy, the breakdown of social norms and the rise of hate crimes, and the prevalence of Orwellian doublespeak are at the top of my personal list.
Adding to the horror of it all, the wide arc of human history reveals that these kinds of events are normative rather than aberrational. War is ubiquitous. Genocide is a uniquely human and not infrequent occurrence. Social inequity, oppression, and the corrupt exercise of power are pervasive. Civilizations rise and fall.
It seems oddly comforting to me to recognize that the proliferating miseries in present day reality reflect basic aspects of human nature (albeit not the entirety of human nature!). In the context that there have been five major extinctions in the history of life on earth, it is somehow easier to accept that it is in the nature of things to fall apart. Apparently, where we find ourselves is nothing less the human predicament.
The Buddha had deep insight into the flaws that beset human beings. He identified the primary roots of human difficulties as our tendencies toward hatred, greed and delusion (the “three poisons”). Even a moment’s reflection while watching the evening news will reveal that the entire gamut of ills in today’s world can be directly traced to one or more of these basic causes. Beyond these motivations, collective human behavior calls to mind the instinctual behavior of lemmings [i], blindly following the crowd of its fellow creatures as they careen off a cliff.
For many complex reasons, it is challenging for human beings to find rational and coordinated responses in the face of existential threats. As a result, as Deepak Chopra puts it, humanity seems to be sleepwalking to extinction. (And analogously, as Liz Cheney says in her recent book, America seems to be sleepwalking to dictatorship).
Though undoubtedly there are people who may indeed be sleepwalking— in denial or otherwise blind to the gravity of the situations we are facing— a good many others (myself included) are not oblivious but rather stymied by the complexity of the problems. In my psychotherapy practice, many people report that current events are having an adverse impact on their mental health. There doesn’t seem to be anything to be done to ameliorate their angst. So where to go from here? What is a wise view? What is humanity’s best hope?
In what follows, I offer a few of my reflections.
Wisdom premise #1: Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The causes and conditions of the predicaments identified in the opening section of this Newsletter are complex. I think the first step in addressing what’s so is being able to discern what we can change and what we cannot.
My contemplation starts from a place of recognition that none of us has the power to change the world, much less the power to save it. Truth be told, there is no “the world”! Each of us lives in a somewhat different one. The only power we have is our power within our own sphere of influence; within our own world of lived experience. What will unfold in the future depends upon how we relate to what is happening now and to the creative intelligence we bring to our experience.
In my inquiry around The Serenity Prayer, I have found it valuable to reflect on what is personally most difficult for me to accept, what possible outcomes I find most frightening. Although there are endless variations to the nightmare scenarios people can and do imagine, the potential to experience “hell realms” seems to be programmed into the human psyche.
Although we may not be able to change the outcome, what we can take responsibility for is how we relate to what is happening. We can focus on our subjective reality and endeavor to be the change we want to see in the world. We can look for ways to lean more heavily into what we can change. We can cultivate a ground of being of acceptance, equanimity and compassion.
Wisdom premise #2: It is whatever you happen to think it is.
This wisdom premise is a bumper sticker version of what the Buddha taught: mind is the forerunner of all things.
Realities are not independent of our thoughts; they are the outcomes of them.
I hold to the view that there is transformational power in what we believe. I do not mean this in the magical sense of the Peter Pan story, in which Tinkerbell could be kept alive through sincere belief and the clapping of hands. Rather, beliefs are important in part because they are a foundation upon which our life experience is constructed. Our beliefs define for us what sort of a universe we live in; what makes sense, or doesn’t; where meaning is to be found.
Wisdom Premise #3: “We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”
As I ponder our current day predicaments, my thoughts center around the importance of negativity, both conscious and unconscious, and the need to transform it. As a psychologist, I have had abundant opportunities to see how the world of lived human experience is shaped by our tendencies, individually and collectively, to project and/or act out our pain. This is perhaps most abundantly clear in the example 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. Transforming negativity wherever we can is a meaningful action each of us can aspire to.
Wisdom Premise #4: It hasn’t happened yet.
When I feel depressed about the news I hear on TV or on-line, I try to remind myself (and others) that however bleak things may look – however bleak things may be— 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.
For me, personally, responding to the complex predicaments in our world comes down to finding a way to make hope real for myself. This involves the search to find and articulate an optimistic point of view that acknowledges the truth of what is without imposing prematurely pessimistic conclusions.
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.”