Joining the fight against today’s disasters
A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Paris with my parents and two youngest sisters. I found the city was even more incredible than what I remembered, and one thing that struck me most was the beauty that survived despite — and in some cases grew from — the painfully incomprehensible attacks of last November.
Writer and historian Rebecca Solnit — who does incredible work around natural disasters — has found that in the middle of natural disaster there is often profound beauty that rises from the pain. For example, in a discussion with Krista Tippett about Hurricane Katrina, she made the following observation:
There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and sort of gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though in some violent gift you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive, you’re deeply in the present, and can let go of past and future, and your personal narrative, in some ways.
Disaster is a heavy and weighted word, but in the past few weeks it feels like we are facing one disaster after another — in Orlando, in the UK, with everything involving Donald Trump, etc. — most of which involves or produces a deep sense of fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of gays, fear of security and jobs, fear of other. And the question for me is how do we move past this fear, to a place described by Solnit that is beyond ourselves, a place of deeper connection and more deeply in the present.
If fear is at the root of these disasters, perhaps one answer is to look at the opposite of fear, which for me, seems to be hope.
Hope: an idea that initially seems soft, abstract, impractical, not super helpful. Perhaps because we equate it with optimism, we consider it a feeling or an emotion, something we either we have or don’t have. But perhaps hope (like love) is actually an action. A decision. Not a feeling but a choice. As Solnit beautifully describes:
Hopefulness, for me, is not optimism, that everything’s going to be fine and we can just sit back. That’s too much like pessimism, which is that everything’s going to suck and we can just sit back.
Hope, for me, just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene. And that we have to let go of the certainty people seem to love more than hope.
Before hearing this, I never appreciated that there might be a difference between hope and optimism. And I definitely never appreciated how much easier it is to not have hope, to sit back and say that everything is predetermined and that it will unfold as it’s supposed to and there’s not much we can do about it. But indeed, hope seems very different than that.
As Solnit goes on to explain:
Hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities… Hope is tough. It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe.
When I look around at the fears / disasters we are facing today — xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — it seems like choosing to be hopeful has indeed never been tougher.
But it also strikes me that humans are capable of profound toughness: one example being the incredible life of Muhammad Ali, one marked by this profound toughness — from fighting in the ring to fighting against Vietnam to fighting for equality and understanding and opportunity for all people. In the words of the champ: Now I’m older and I’m tired — But I’m still fighting. I’m fighting illness, I’m fighting hunger, I’m fighting poverty, and I’m fighting for human dignity.
My prayer, during this Ramadan and beyond, is that we can all join in this fight, that we can abandon the comfort of certainty for the vulnerability of hope, and that we can struggle to overcome the fear and disasters which threaten to divide us further, so that through the pain and sorrow we can achieve “our highest and greatest purpose.”