According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, hope is “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” In other words, hope is faith-based belief. Derrick Jensen’s article in the May/June 2006 issue of Orion includes his own definition, which mirrors the dictionary’s: “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”
Hope, in these words, is a case of wishful thinking. In that light, I feel we should abandon hope and move on to action.
Now, I don’t think most people are willing to abandon hope, even though the typical definition suggests we should. But it’s my view that we should redefine hope so that the word can be used as a basis for action.
I view hope as an intensely personal issue: Just as economic collapse happens one person at a time, so, too, must hope happen one person at a time.
My own view of hope? Its the left-brained product of love, analogous to democracy being the product of freedom, or liberty. Patrick Henry didn’t say, “Give me democracy or give me death.” Like the rest of the founding fathers, Henry knew that freedom was primary to democracy; without the guiding light of freedom, or liberty, democracy breaks up on the shoals.
Love keeps our left brain in check — that’s the message of the world’s religions. But our right-brained love creates the foundation for hope: love for nature, love for our children and grandchildren, love for each other. Without love to light the way, hope breaks up on the shoals.
My personal view of hope moves beyond the domain of wishful thinking. But that’s not easy. I recognize the difficulty of the task, considering we’re immersed in the ultimate “wishful thinking, something-for-nothing” culture. How else to explain books such as The Secret, which proclaims that happy thoughts will generate happy results, including personal wealth?
How else to explain the prevalence and widespread acceptance of casino gambling? And if TV and movie theaters are to be believed, we don’t just accept casinos, we worship at their altar. Not so long ago, gambling was frowned upon because, instead of adhering to a culture of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, it reflected the expectation that a person could get something for nothing. But in the ultimate something-for-nothing society, gambling has gone mainstream as an unquestioned good thing.
I believe otherwise in concluding that hope is not wishful thinking.
One other thing hope is not: Hope is not a consumer product. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart and check out with a super-sized carton of hope. Hey, given the demise of cheap oil, there’s unlikely to be a Wal-Mart — or any other large institution, for that matter — to walk into or out of within a few years. Even if Wal-Mart, the federal government, or other behemoths somehow find a way to survive, we’re going to have to generate our own hope, one person at a time.
When I’m not playing social critic, I’m a conservation biologist. I admit conservation biology is a value-laden enterprise, hampered by — and perhaps assisted by — bridges between the left and right brain. The greatest value of the Earth is, always has been, and always will be, that it simply exists. Not that it is useful. But that it is. Perhaps that makes me an artist trapped in a scientific pursuit. But, at least for me, it allows hope to emerge from the tonic of wildness, thereby providing context for this most insignificant of lives. It allows hope to flicker. And if there is a flicker of hope, I believe we must treat it like a beacon. Hope is flickering everywhere, if we know where to look.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” said Emily Dickinson. Her other poems indicate that she was not restricting her thoughts to birds: Dickinson found hope throughout the glory and wonder of nature.
My friend and colleague, the planner Vern Swaback, is fond of saying he finds hope in “a person’s dedicated life.” I cannot improve upon Vern’s comment, but I can offer a few other personal examples.
In my former life as a professor, I found hope in the poems of the teenage girls at the juvenile detention facility where I taught stewardship through poetry. And in that life, I saw hope flickering every day in the eyes — and therefore in the minds and in the hearts — of the students with whom I was fortunate to work on a daily basis.
Hope has become different and in many ways more challenging within the last year. I’ve transitioned out of the industrial economy and into a new home in a rural area more than 200 miles from my former, comfortable life of service. Now I find hope in the call of the sandhill cranes out my door, in the wilderness adjacent to my new home, and in the adventuresome spirit of the seven-year-old boy with whom I share property. Hope is helping reintroduce otters to the nearby river, substitute teaching at the local K-12 school, and eating potluck dinners with my politically disparate neighbors.
For all of us in this time of transition, hope must include self-proclaimed liberals and self-proclaimed conservatives participating in the same conversation, discussing our common future. Hope must become our humility overcoming our hubris in the face of long odds. These steps will require enormous amounts of courage, compassion, and creativity. Let’s hope we come up with them quickly. And then let’s act to ensure we do.