Published Articles

Is Hope Necessary?

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Original art with permission from Kat Robertson

Are people telling you to be hopeful, or even optimistic? Many writers and teachers I admire insist that being hopeful is essential to being part of the solution for our beleaguered planet. I want to offer my contrarian encouragement to the hopeless among us, that we can still be of service, even on our bad days. If you are lucky enough to be sustained by hope, consider reading this in support of your hopeless friends.

In the 1980’s, in the environmental studies program at the University of Toronto and York University, I was overwhelmed by all the bad news, and I needed help with coping. The people who helped did not tell me how to feel; they encouraged me to face reality as it is, no matter how grim things seem. It was a long process of disillusionment and learning to live with not knowing. But I did not rely on hope to keep me going.

Four decades later, what keeps me going is my love for the planet and my longing to understand the issues, the science, the politics, the ethics and how we got to this place in human and planetary history. Even on my most hopeless days, I still stay open to solutions, try to minimize my footprint and inspire others to do the same. Because that’s just what love compels me to do. I really have no choice.

If a family member is sick, and there is little hope of recovery, I would want to be by their side and learn all about the disease and treatment options. Why not treat the planet with the same care? While savouring what’s left of wild nature, we restore what’s damaged, we research remedies, and we advocate to regulators and business for more intervention and prevention.

In the face of loss and tragedy, you might seek distractions, numb yourself or hide away for a little while, but you probably have some curiosity about what’s really happening. You probably want to enjoy and share the remaining natural beauty and stay alert to how you can make a difference within your sphere of influence. Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book, Hope in the Dark, offers inspiring stories about how powerful we humans can be in the bleakest moments. She closes one of her essays with, “some day all this may be ruins, but for now it is a place where history is still unfolding. Today is also the day of creation.”

I may not see the fruits of my environmental advocacy in my lifetime, and I’m strangely OK with that. Individual monarch butterflies don’t reach the end of their migration path either, but they keep flying and landing and sipping on flowers. Four generations later, the return is complete.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, discussing the state of the world in a November 2017 podcast (On Being, with Krista Tippett), says hope is irrelevant to him. He says it is more important to him to be focused in the face of tragedy. He says these problems started long before we were born and won’t be fixed in our lifetime, but that is no reason to give up. Responding to a question about how teachers can convey hope to the young about the state of the world, he imagined himself as a young person and said, “Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from, at that age.”

I am grateful to the wise teachers of my youth (including A\J’s own Bob Gibson) for not pushing hope where I felt none. Instead they pushed humour, courage, rationality and mastery of the skills needed to respond to the threats and to disaster wherever it may strike.

Never mind what the dictionary says; hopelessness does not have to lead to despair, apathy or surrender. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, see what might be shining inside yourself.

“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in the hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.”
― Parker J. Palmer


The following article was published in May 1998 in the Canadian Journal of Adlerian Psychology under my birth name, Lisa Dunn

Courage, by Lisa (Dunn) Gordon

“He who loses wealth, loses much;
He who loses a friend, loses more;
He who loses courage, loses all.”

Who am I to write this article about courage? What can I offer that is new or worthwhile? Why should I bother? Those kinds of self-limiting questions are the same familiar ones that can stop any of us from doing scary things. Whenever we dare to speak out, or to stand out, we are rising above our fears and our self-defeating self-talk. We are being courageous.

So I take this risk, to write about courage, a word that comes from the heart (“coeur”-age in French). My hope is to get us talking about fear and courage, and about how much courage it takes to solve social and environmental problems, locally and globally.  I want to en-courage the local heroes and heroines in our community (that’s you) to feel your fear and do it anyway.

Courage is as hard to define as any virtue. Courage may be the ultimate virtue because it comes into play when any of the other virtues are being tested. For instance, charity is a virtue, but we need courage to take that virtue to its highest expression. We usually know what courage looks like when we see it, but the person we judge as courageous may not agree. Courage is a quality we admire greatly in others, but often fail to see in ourselves. The courageous acts we admire most involve service to something outside ourselves – being willing to sacrifice our safety for someone else, or giving ourselves to a cause or a principle. Ultimately, courage is a personal quest, involving the testing of our own values against our own fears.

“In a calm sea, every man is a pilot” John Ray (English Proverb, 1670)

So, what are we made of when the sea is not calm? One of the most terrifying experiences of my life was on rough water far from home, in a gale spiked by tide rips in the pitch black.  My mouth was so dry my tongue stuck to my chattering teeth, and the captain of the boat was as surprised as I to find my numb and clammy hands working the wheel with greater skill than I had ever shown before. Our survival was at stake (or so I imagined), and it was “do or die.” Keep in mind, I am usually a wimpy sea-sick type, with the nick-name “inside-water-woman.” I never knew how much courage I had until I needed it.

There is nothing noble about saving my own skin, but if we extend the idea to the larger issues of survival (nuclear war, ozone holes, deforestation), now there is something to test our courage. But what if we wait until we feel the dry-mouthed fear of death to find the courage and skills to respond? Many civilizations have not heeded the danger signs and their decline is history. We will never know who their heroes were; who grabbed the wheel to try to get the boat to safety. But we are all challenged now, to be pilots in rough water.  Once our fears are so intense as to have dried our tongues, it will be too late.

According to surveys, the scariest thing for most people is public speaking. Death is a close second. It may be a stretch to say that we would rather die than speak up, but the state of the world seems to support that conclusion.

We are silent because we are so scared of ridicule and conflict, while in some countries, we would fear torture and death. The higher the stakes, the more courageous we are judged to be, at least after the fact.  So, while the fear of ridicule seems like a small thing, if it paralyzes us, it enables oppression and destruction just as easily as does the fear of violence.

“The opposite of courage is not fear, but conformity.”  (Rollo May)

Remember that sweet movie: Babe?  We love that little pig because she has the courage to try anything – she masters the skills of a sheepdog, despite all the ridicule, and she faces the big dogs to protect the sheep. The farmer, too, had the courage to face the ridicule of his peers and his wife, and he faced conflict when he fought for the right of his pig to compete at the sheep dog trials. The female sheep dog had the courage to teach the little pig her skills, in spite of her raging mate. They were all courageous enough to see what Babe was capable of, even though it went against centuries of tradition.

The courage to tell the truth about what you see around you is well illustrated in the parable by Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes. A vain emperor required all the latest fashions, and he was assured that only simpletons would be unable to see the new suit he had just bought. Not to be judged simple in the head, all the advisors, ministers and even the emperor were too proud to admit they saw nothing when the tailors said the suit was made of costly jewels and the finest silks. Afraid to lose their jobs, the advisors said, “Ah, what a beautiful suit. Truly magnificent. Worthy of our noble emperor. A great work of art.” In the parade, all the public would not risk being thought simple, and all admired the great suit.  Only a little child could risk declaring “The Emperor has no clothes!” and then all the people awoke from their delusion and collusion. But the emperor was so ashamed that he had been fooled, that he kept marching down the street, pretending that the people were wrong and acting as if he were wearing a wonderful suit.

This story shows how all kinds of lies can be told if enough people collude in a lie, if enough people deny their own senses; all for fear of ridicule. Imagine a world where we weren’t afraid of ridicule, or failure, or any loss of ego? It may evoke images of anarchy and chaos for some, as fear can be a useful tool for social control and self-control. There is a thin line between fearlessness and foolishness, but any great success was preceded by many failures.  If you succeed, you’re a hero; if you don’t, you’re a fool. Joni Mitchell sings this clever line: “Will they shower you with flowers, or shun you when the race is done?”

Rather than measuring the quality of courage by the results, we could focus on the context of the courage. Certainly, the more fear we feel, the more courage we need to act in spite of it.  Fear is very personal, and not scientifically measurable. Everyone is afraid of something, and facing that fear takes courage. If you’re afraid of rejection or afraid of loss, it can take a lot of courage to love someone. If you’re afraid of loneliness, it takes courage to withstand peer pressure at play, or at work. If you’re afraid of poverty, it takes courage to quit a job you don’t believe in.

Not only the context, but also the motivation needs to be examined.  Courage that is motivated by personal enjoyment (e.g. thrill-seeking) or economic gain (e.g. risky investments) is generally not as inspiring as courage that benefits other people (e.g. being a whistle-blower) or promotes a higher principle (e.g. opposing nuclear testing). The motivation to do something that really matters is only the start.  Next comes fear. Then we try for the courage to act.  Sometimes the act is not particularly heroic; it may be only to ask a question, or to answer someone else’s with the truth.

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” Carl Sagan

In the environmental movement, most of us are acting from a fear of the earth being degraded, from a fear of losing our special places, from a fear of poisons sickening us or our children. But we are also acting from passion for the earth and sometimes from such abstract principles as generational equity. Courage is fed by that passion (and sometimes by rage, as in cou-rage), and is sustained by conscience and determination. Without those qualities courage can be hollow and short-lived. Apathy and despair are never far away.

Rosie Quigley of Port Clements, BC, spends a lot of time thinking about how to move people out of apathy. In her leadership of the recent “random acts of kindness” campaign, she was trying to activate the “invisible helping hands of the universe.” She wants people to “get off your butt and go do something.” She is troubled by those “self-absorbed, wallowing, poor-me” types and suggests the cure for despair is to “believe in your heart that you’re really making a difference … Instead of focusing on obstacles, focus on your vision and make a leap of faith.”

Faith and prayer are certainly helpful in making us courageous, especially as we try to focus on our purpose and calm our fears. The most powerful speech I ever gave (judging from the crying in the audience) followed a long period of terror and a short period of intense prayer, pleading to some guiding spirit to use me as the channel for the words that needed to be spoken. This experience leads me to believe that people with deep spiritual convictions may have an easier time of acting courageously, and may be less troubled by doubts. When something is important enough to do, and supported by our faith, we can find the courage.

Of course, fanatics — whether religious or other kinds — have also appeared courageous to some, even while carrying out acts of brutality and butchery. Suffice it to say, examples of “courage” that are motivated by arrogance and bigotry and that lead to destruction and death are beyond the scope of this article. For now, I am more interested in the types of courage shown by the resistance movement in Nazi Europe. At some point, I will have the courage to look at the Hitlers of the world, because tyrants will triumph again if we don’t have the courage to know them, to know the parts of ourselves that are like them, or at least to know the parts of ourselves that are seduced by them.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”    Eleanor Roosevelt

We build monuments to great warriors and give medals for courage in battle, but one brave act is not celebrated: Looking at our own fear. Knowing oneself means knowing all of oneself, including the dark hiding places where we’ve been stuffing scary things since we were born.  There is no point in struggling against fear, so we might as well get to know it. A Buddhist heroine of mine  (Pema Chodron, “When Things Fall Apart”) says “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” She says the trick is to stay with the fear and not to bail out, even when things seem to be falling apart. It’s not easy.

It takes courage to say “yes” when everything around you indicates “no.” In existential terms, courage is about “being” in the face of “non-being.” Jim Bragan, a United Church Minister, told me about an 80 year-old parishioner who said, “it takes courage just to be optimistic about the future and that’s the greatest kind of courage right now.” It takes courage to affirm life in the face of death and disease. Jim also reminded me of Terry Fox, who symbolizes the spirit of courage that doesn’t sit down when there’s a reversal.

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die.” (G. K. Chesterton)

We may not need to be ready for a physical death, but courage means we do risk the loss of face, the loss of ego, and the loss of illusion. Courage is a willingness to be humbled, more than a quest for glory or flowers. We may fail, make mistakes, be wrong about the outcome; but courage makes us willing to risk that when something really matters to us. Something must matter to us more than our fear, or else our lives are being controlled by fear. Once we know what really matters, we may have the secret to our purpose in being here. Once we know our true purpose, courage gets easier. If that purpose is shared by others in the community, all the better. Who are we to be courageous? Indeed, who are we not to be?e automatically liberates others. — Marianne Williamson, in her 1992 book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles