beyond hope

At the present moment, it is easy think a lot about hope.

And thoughts about hope tend to fall into predictable cycles, with familiar signposts and landmarks. What gives us hope? What does hope look like? How can we teach it? Our talk has a brittle quality, like spun sugar. We tread lightly, skirt around the edges, surfacing “evidence” for hope like hard won treasures, offered up to our weary and despairing hearts, hardly daring to contemplate the unspoken question: is it too late for hope?  Or, we tread heavy-footed, hoping to stamp out any trace of doubt or fear or concern. We champion traces of “good news” – including our own desires for repair and creativity – and presume hope is fed by being constantly reminded of what is good and true and tender in the world.

Neither the sugar-spun fragility of a hope without fear, or the heavy trod of insisting only on positivity and solutions are right, or ground us where we need to be. Which is standing in the full truth of our present situation, both hopeful and scary, anxious and creative.

Hope itself is generated by potency.  Potency is the expression of lifeforce, efficacy. To be potent. And potency doesn’t care much for context; it only wants expression. And how we relate to potency – our own, others – is what really matters. Where “hope” presumes an essential presence of motivation or forward momentum, potency presents something altogether more complicated. Related to agency, potency refers to the experience of one’s own sense of impact, efficacy, the capacity to enact. As Winnicott observed, the individual’s capacity for concern and care – the basis of ethical care – is based on the infant’s experience of her own ability to act on the mother, for the mother to survive, and for the child to feel her own effects. This is what can give rise to reparation — the desire to repair, to fix, to make good again. So what happens is when this capacity – this experience of potency – is sought through whatever means are available. Blowing up a mountain-top, digging a ditch, dumping a lagoon full of effluent into a river – all of this can be seen as forms of “potency.” I did this! I matter. I am here.

The problem with environmental and social change ideologies is the naïve equation of values, actions and behaviors. When viewed through this lens, it would appear flagrantly obvious that people don’t care much about the environment/human rights/equity, we prefer our comforts and would rather eat our way through the planet than face the reality of limitations and finitude. Theories about this apparent situation are plentiful, from the human avoidance of death and vulnerability, to our primitive brain’s need for short-term gratification. This framework presumes the presence of something (say, greed or apathy) and the absence of something (say, hope or reparation or sense of justice). And it is inherently exhausting; fighting a losing battle to arouse something in people that seems elusive, fragile and potentially not even there at all.

What would happen if we presume the same energies that propel us to continue driving incessantly, buying cheap goods and tossing our waste without a thought into the earth, are the same energies that are mobilized for striving for a more equitable, safe, healthy and vibrant world? What would it look like if we can contain and allow room for the small and the large, the parts of us that want to be safe and secure, as well as feel our own sense of potency and engagement in a larger community? Something bigger than ourselves – yet requiring each of us to be present?

The real story about hope and action is the underside – what no one seems willing to acknowledge, and yet what we know all the same. When our sense of potency is threatened, when we experience ourselves as lacking agency, we will find whatever means to express this. This drive is ruthless and doesn’t necessarily care much about the consequences. I may not be able to inform how my local officials enforce illegal dumping, or the corporate dominance of Main Street, but I can drive my gorgeous SUV with custom plates and fill up my bags with parcels from the mall. I can ensure my children have access to the latest high tech toys, download the latest apps so I can feel tuned in, dialed in. However much we bang on about values, worldviews, beliefs and the like, the quest for potency is profound.

Related to potency and its perceived threat or lack, is anxiety. Anxiety is one of the least understood, yet arguably most significant dimensions of political behavior. Anxiety scarcely makes itself known in any explicit way; we recognize anxiety through the damage it tends to wreak – denial, disavowal, projection, repression, splitting and violence large and small. As Freud discussed, the essence of anxiety is an experience of helplessness on the part of the ego. Anxiety ‘as a signal’ is the response of the ego to the threat of a traumatic situation. Such a threat constitutes a situation of danger. Internal dangers change with the period of life, but they have a common characteristic, namely that they involve separation from, or loss of, a loved object, or a loss of its love. In order to make sense of whether or not it matters to act, or whether or not people care, or if there is hope, we must first come to terms with anxiety and its effects. And anxiety and loss are inextricably linked. We fear to lose what we need to feel coherent, connected, whole. If there is a perception of powerlessness, the anxiety potentially aroused can undermine and negate the forms of action most needed. At the same time, this energy goes somewhere – and that is what matters for us right now.

In answer to the question regarding a basis for hope and action, we must learn to meet anxiety effectively – how to skillfully channel potency in more constructive ways. And to do this requires the recognition that until we allow space for loss – speaking to the psychic recognition of how it feels to lose potency, how it feels to risk inefficacy – we shall spin our circles of a brittle hope, a hope without legs, so to speak. Hope requires an active engagement with the large and small of us – the need for safety and security, the fear of powerlessness, the fear of loss of what we love. Only then can we support what is there inside each of us – the capacity for repair, for creativity in some form or another.





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