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Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen

Beyond Hope

“But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.” (Derrick Jensen, Beyond Hope)

Working on The Nausicaä Project pushed me to think deeper about the notion of hope. In the conclusion of the saga, the heroine spreads a great lie to those around her,  a lie that promises a bright future that will in reality never come. She retains no hope for herself, choosing instead to act and live in the moment, always and forever in the service of life.

Her attitude and actions remind me of a piece by Derrick Jensen titled Beyond Hope, published in Orion Magazine.  An American author and activist, Jensen is known for his searing critiques of mainstream environmentalism’s inability to address the systemic problems inherent to modern civilization. In Beyond Hope, Jensen argues that hope actually serves to numb us from the gravity of the ecological crisis and robs us of our agency to improve the situation. In this, I am reminded of a point Brené Brown makes on her talk on vulnerability, that shielding ourselves from the bad can also numb us from the good. Can aversion to despair blind us from embarking on a path of genuine change? Can hope trap us in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour that continues to harm ourselves, our communities, and the planet?

Jensen makes some good points. I can see instances where hope for a return to glory days or towards a better future can prevent us from living in the moment. If only things could go back to the way they were. I can’t wait until next year when things will be betterI can also envision examples where hope leads to flights of fancy cause us to devalue the people and world that exist in the here and now as we dwell on potential possibilities instead of appreciating what we have. I wrote a bit on the dangers of this form of escapism in my exploration of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

“I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction—the use of any excuse to justify inaction—reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.”

Finally, I also agree with Jensen that hope can be employed to avoid commitment and responsibility, how it can lead to an absolution of personal agency, used to justify thinking that things will turn out well without actually putting in the work to make things better. Jensen argues that we must forge a future through concrete actions instead of relying on vague notions of hope based on unfounded faith. He wants us to act for the present, in the service of the things and people we love, whatever and whoever they may be.

“Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.”

Beyond Hope is a well-written and provocative essay, well worth reading in its entirety. Jensen is a potent polemic who is prepared to dispense with hope entirely, having no use for it. Like the fictional Nausicaä, Jensen can look across the abyss of despair and endure the gaze returned by the darkness. Yet in the end, I find myself unable to fully embrace his argument. His standards are too high, his stance too certain. I am not strong enough, not brave enough, and perhaps most importantly, not honest enough to reject hope in all its forms. Like most people, I still need the small false hopes and the great white lies to get through daily life. The best I can do is to be aware of the pitfalls of hope and harness it as much as possible as a basis for action and change. I do not know if it is enough.

Next Up: A reflective piece from one of 20th century’s greatest writers.

Questions:

  • Do you believe that hope can be harmful?
  • Are there different types of hope that are more positive or negative?

Related Ekostories:

Featured image taken A Full Time Life.

10 Comments

  1. what really works for me in the hope department is this quote by Vaclav Havel:

    “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

    I agree that the kind of melancholic approach to hope where one wishes for a bright future without actually doing anything to get there deserves some of the criticism Jensen heaps upon it. But I think he doesn’t leave enough breathing room for those among us who are very aware of the tremendous challenges we’re facing, but who need some sort of an optimistic vision of the future to give us the emotional energy to work towards it in the present.

    I mean, what’s the alternative — be depressed, angry and bitter at all times? I think anger has its place as a valid energy to create change, but like anything else in this complex physical and spiritual ecosystem we inhabit, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. So yes, I’m angry at times, but I’m also full of hope in and awe of this amazing planet, and yes, humanity. To me, rather than trying to get into the whole dualistic business of proving that a certain thing/emotion is invariably good or bad, I’m more interested in making each thing/emotion as useful, beneficial, and powerful as possible.

    • Sven,

      Yes, I think Jensen is advocating the use of anger and love as the prime source of fuel for action, because I think he is of the opinion that hope and rosy pictures have not gotten the desired results we need to address the magnitude and urgency of the issues we face.

      Personally like you, I don’t think his is a sustainable approach. There is too much injustice, too much suffering, and too much damage in the world for most of us to handle without optimism. The all consuming love and passion he advocates is too intense and exhausting to practice as a way of life.

      Jensen’s like the guy who escapes by sawing off his arm after getting it trapped under a rock, because he is willing to do what needs done. But most of us can only hope for rescue, or work on other less drastic methods of salvation. It seems a little unfair for him to judge us for not being able to do what he does, given what he proposes we do, you know?

      I do think his is a stance that’s worth acknowledging, if only that we should be made aware of the potential pitfalls of denying or downplaying the problems we face. Sometimes despair, he writes, “is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation.” I think it’s important for us to sit within the discomfort and sadness and accept them as part of life as well.

      Thank you for your thoughtful quote and comment.

  2. I have to say that I find that the weirdest conception of hope I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if one has put the word “false” or “unrealistic” before the word “hope” and then pretended as if it was an integral part of the original word, or as if there can be no hopes that are neither false nor unrealistic.

    Hope is not a paralytic, not something that prevents action; on the contrary, it is a necessity of action. Despair is the true paralytic. So is self-deception, which seems to be what is meant by “hope” here. But hope — a belief, not that everything will work out on its own, but that our actions can make it so — is something we must have, or we have no reason to act at all. If we have no hope, then we cannot take any action because we won’t believe that any action of ours will make any difference. If we have no hope, then we cannot take any action because there is no point to anything except lying down and dying.

    We never know for certain. Never. We don’t know when we go to sleep at night if we’re going to wake up in the morning. We don’t know when we put one foot in front of the other that the earth won’t open up and swallow us. We don’t know from moment to moment if we or our loved ones will go on breathing, if any action we attempt will bear fruit, or if the universe will go on existing. We live in an uncertain, indeterminate world.

    What bridges that gap of knowledge, what lets us take action even though we don’t know for certain whether or not it will work? Hope. Or, to use another word that means the same thing, faith.

    In the context of ecology, modern humans certainly do deceive themselves about the magnitude of the problems we face. But that doesn’t make hope a problem. It makes stupid self-deception a problem. Genuine hope is the cure for that, because much of this stupid self-deception arises not from hope but from hopelessness.

    “If we take this action, we can achieve a sustainable society. Or at least, there’s a good chance that we can.”

    THAT, sir, is hope.

    I see nothing wrong with it.

    • Thank you for your eloquent and passionate response!

      
Certainly there are many forms of hope. Jensen speaks of false hopes, I note of hope that is unearned and unjustified. You speak of hope for the purpose of self-deception, along with hope that serves as the basis for action.

      Yet I think Jensen is going for a different point. He seems to argue that hope, as a whole, is overrated. Instead, he believes that love is a more effective call to action, love that is grounded to tangible things and people of the present world. The absence of hope and faith, he claims, does not necessarily lead to despair and nihilism. Inaction in light of the current situation, however, does.

      My own main point of criticism for his view is that for most people, life is too difficult to live without hope, without as you say, the belief that what we do makes a difference. It’s nice that Jensen can do it, but it’s unrealistic for him to suggest that we can embrace his approach to life. And I think he knows it.

      As I write this response, I sense it veering into an exploration on religion, a subject I am wholly unqualified to discuss. How curious!

  3. I can understand both Jensen’s view as well as some of the opinions offered by our fellow bloggers. When I read Jensen’s excerpts in your post…images of ramming whaling boats and monkey wrenching bulldozers came to mind. I have friends who contribute to the more action-based environmental groups simply because they do defend their “loved ones”. What I find even more vexing than any gauzy vision of hope…are all the people who can discern right from wrong and simply do not support their own convictions.

    • I am interested in your last statement. What type of people are you referring to? Are you referring to people who defend violent action with love? If their morality values a whale and a forest more than the livelihood of workers or commodity prices, is there really a contradiction?

  4. Hope is essential to live. It is start no.1 in taking steps.

    While happy self-delusion deliberately shuts door to reality of ugly problems that can use a person’s intervention, I would not consider it hope in the same vein.

    It is a blend of self-delusion, ignorance and hope that some people continue to have babies and raise them in a difficult world that threatens sanity and safety.

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