“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 better. I 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.
- Do you believe that hope can be harmful?
- Are there different types of hope that are more positive or negative?
- Nausicaä Vol. 7-2: The Crypt
- Nausicaä Vol. 6-1: The Place Dreamed
- Escape to Happiness and Insanity: Gilliam’s Brazil
- The Power of Vulnerability, by Brené Brown
Featured image taken A Full Time Life.