Friday, April 19, 2019
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That Damned Bitch Hope…

I am beginning to get a different take on the old clichés concerning the desirability of hope. It all began for me with Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis’ epitaph, “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.” Of course its appearance on his tomb gives it perhaps an ironic, unintended meaning, not unlike the mocking inscription on the base of Ozymandias’ statue in Shelly’s famous sonnet. Of course, Kazantzakis wrote his famous epigram while still alive and kicking.

To inscribe it on a tomb of the dead might imply that only the dead author is finally truly beyond fear and hope and hence free. Perhaps because of these evolutionarily developed gifts to our autonomic nervous system, the living can never get beyond fear and hope and be truly free. I did a Google search to see if there were any quotes concerning hope that were less than laudatory. Outside of some sobering Buddhist references, I found none.  Being the resourceful Liberal Arts graduate that I am, I was again thrown back upon my own internal resource—memory.

“Pandora had a jar which she was not to open under any circumstance. Impelled by her natural curiosity, Pandora opened the box-jar, and all evil contained escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the lid, but the whole contents of the jar had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, which was Hope. Pandora was deeply saddened by what she had done, and was afraid that she would have to face Zeus' wrath, since she had failed her duty. However, Zeus did not punish her. One day, Pandora heard a voice calling from within the jar. The voice pleaded that Pandora must open the jar a second time. Pandora did so, and she fixed her earlier mistake by giving mankind the greatest gift of all: Hope.”'s_box

Note: Why did Pandora’s box contain hope as the sole beneficial entity along with all those plagues?  Greek myths have interpretations and hidden meanings that are often ambivalent and not always as clear-cut as later commentators would have us believe.

Derrick Jensen has given us a new, challenging saying: “The death of hope is the beginning of action.”

“The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope.

You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would—how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of 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.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”

I have been struggling for some time with the concept of the potential collapse of our civilization and ecocide—the extinction of all life on our planet.  It causes me no end of cognitive dissonance—a struggle with all the 73 years of civilizing conditioning my personality has undergone.  On top of this, I have been unsuccessfully attempting to dialogue with likeminded individuals with whom I am attempting to present these disturbing ideas.

Ernest Becker relates that the idea of personal death is the last thing humans want to accept or realistically face.  The Denial of Death (the title of one of his last books) is what drives much of our culture, our politics and nearly all of our great (sic) organized mass religions. If we as human beings cannot face our own personal death, how (in Hell) then can we possibly face the death of not only the human species but indeed the impending death of all life on the planet.  I am not discounting my failure in communication, but I also think that a lot of the resistance to the presentation of these ideas may stem from our endemic refusal to even consider the idea that we may be facing the last generation of species Homo Sapiens on this soon to be barren planet.

In the 1951 movie classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, humanity is unified by the invasion of a seemingly omnipotent, extraterrestrial force that gives Mankind an ultimatum: either learn to live in peace or face extinction.  Unfortunately humanity has at present no real or metaphorical Klaatu/Carpenter/savior to force our noses into the impending consequences of the stinking mess with which we have soiled our nest. Gort, Mr. Carpenter’s automaton sidekick and omnipotent cosmic cop is not here to stop the earth in its orbit or render our power supplies impotent by way of an undeniable warning.  Actually, for those with eyes to see, we are receiving far more dramatic signals from an even more ominous entity the Goddess, Gaia herself.

Unfortunately, unlike the public in 1951, today’s world’s population is now nearly totally anesthetized to these potent warnings She is sending us in the form of hurricanes, record heat waves, the melting of our polar icecaps, and perhaps even earthquakes.  Even in the most technologically advanced country on the planet, where there should be at least some modicum of science reflected in the commercial and political discourse, the Climate Change deniers still hold the veto power over any effective reduction of the deadly 350 ppm carbon contaminants in our atmosphere. Even our president seems to be acting like the helpless pawn of the energy industries that are driving us, pedal to the metal, toward the cliff.

One of the most pervasive images of hope ever presented to doomed men and women was the one emblazoned over the gate of Auschwitz concentration camp.  The slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “freedom through work” could only be described as an evocation of humanity’s eternal drive for hope in even the direst circumstances. A better motto would have been a citation from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon All Hope Yea Who Enter Here.” Of course such a motto would have inspired instant revolution and riot. What condemned the Jews and other “inferiors” the Nazis destroyed was not their despair but their hope. At every stage of their destruction it seemed to be in these unfortunates’ best interest to hope for the best and go along. To quote again from Derrick Jensen:

“Would you rather get an ID card or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to go to a ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?

Every step of the way, it was in their rational best interest to not resist. But I’ll tell you something really interesting: The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along.”

Finally I leave you with these three: Faith, Hope and Love. To reframe St. Paul’s fine Corinthian aphorism: Where there is Faith, without evidence, without experience, and without the inference of reason, it shall be proven false. Where there is Hope it shall finally be revealed as the great delusion used by religious and political hypocrites to keep order and suppress the masses with promises of Pie In The Sky. The only one that remains and ultimately redeems us is Love.

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