Part 2: Demystifying Hope, Overcoming Despair
Part 2 of my essay written for this year’s high school graduating class.
As you go out into the world of post-secondary education in preparation for your adult lives, if you can hold to a single principle as a student, it would be this: “We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.” Hand in hand with that must come the vital principle of compassion—not just for ourselves but for everything living on this Earth. I have no doubt that most of your generation already understands this. Again, Hedges puts it clearly: “…the measure of a civilization is its compassion…” And compassion is precisely what our current political and economic system has excised from our vocabulary.
It’s no surprise to me that history is another casualty of public education. Again, if you’re part of the ruling elite, the last thing you want is the populace well educated about the failures of past civilizations. Why? Because typically, they’re the same failings that are being enacted in the present, as a result of the same kinds of elitist, limited thinking. Among your list of required reading I would add Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which analyzes the fall of civilizations throughout history. He also cites examples of societies who managed to hold off disaster through enlightened thinking. What’s perhaps most striking about his book is the common denominator he identifies in every collapse—once a civilization goes too far beyond the limitations of its environment, the result is inevitable.
But in the final analysis, I fear we put far too many expectations upon our youth. After all, you are each only one person. To ask that you be the ones to change the world is ridiculous and unfair. What kind of parent would dump oil on the carpets, punch holes in the wall, smash the windows, pour carcinogens into the lawn, and then give the house to their children as an inheritance? This is where I feel a sense of shame. For this and other reasons I chose not to have children. It’s a decision that has caused me no small amount of grief, knowing I have no legacy in this world. But as I often say to Anne, I felt that if I did bring children into this world we’ve made, I’d have to apologize to them every single day of my life.
This is where a crucial distinction must be made as we pursue a world built upon compassionate values. The fact is, sometimes we will lose, as Bertrand Russell makes clear. We try and try again but sometimes we still lose. There will be forces out there greater than we are. This is why we must do what we do, not for any attachment to outcome, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. In other words, we stand on our integrity, not our successes or lack thereof. Because in the end, despite our efforts, the wheel will turn again—often within our own lifetimes—and we may come to feel our efforts have been wasted.
My father taught me this lesson. He worked for the BC Forest Service, as it was originally known, eventually becoming the chief decision-maker for an entire forest district. Being a conscientious man, when he found that a logging company wasn’t fulfilling its reforestation obligations, he suspended their cutting permits in that district. What came next was a shock. The company contacted his superiors in Victoria, complaining bitterly, threatening job losses, etc. These superiors then contacted my father and threatened him with dismissal if he didn’t sign off on the company’s cutting permits. Just like that, after 30 years of diligent service. Fortunately they also offered him an escape clause: he could resign his position and transfer to another district with a demotion and a cut in pay. Rather than sign the permits, he chose this option.
Yet even he recently lamented to me that he felt his entire career may have been wasted. For once, I had to take the role of the mentor, as he had so generously done for me. I reminded him that it was not a waste because no matter what the outcome, he stood for what was right. He stood on his integrity. And that has value in this world, no matter what anyone says.
We must be brutally honest with ourselves. Now is not the time for comforting but false illusions about the world. That only feeds into the cloud of denial that prevents action. This is what I mean by ‘tough love.’ Nor is it just ‘being negative.’ As I write in another poem, The Thin Ones, “All must try, but some will fail.” That’s reality. Failure and despair will come. But does that mean we give up?
In a recent documentary on The Lord of the Rings, one of the major themes noted in the story was persistence in the face of despair. As one commentator pointed out, the fatal flaw of despair—a feeling I grapple with daily—is that it assumes we know the future. And of course, no one knows what will happen in the future. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s background history to The Lord of the Rings, we learn that the Elvish race has been fighting a war for centuries, a war they feel certain they will lose. In fact, they are preparing to abandon Middle Earth for the Grey Havens. But then, something completely unexpected happens—a lowly hobbit named Frodo comes along. Through great struggle and despair Frodo manages with the aid of Gandalf, Aragorn, Sam, Merry and Pippin—among other unexpected allies—to destroy the One Ring, the symbol of ultimate power that threatens to destroy Middle Earth.
That’s why I urge you to feed your spirit on great stories like Tolkien’s, like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, because they tap into mythologies that have been with us for thousands of years. They give us strength and insight. This too is something that is often forgotten in our civilization’s rush to fill the spiritual void with mere entertainment. Mythology and its themes are part of our collective consciousness, as psychologist Carl Jung explained. I highly recommend that you add to your growing reading list The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. In beautifully clear and simple terms it explains these age-old themes and why they continue to resonate with us today.
So in conclusion (“At last!” I can hear you saying), I say again: “Banish hope / from your lexicon. / Say instead: Action / or no action.” Whether you win or lose is not the point. That you stand up for what’s right and true even when it seems all around you are selling out—now that’s an achievement to be proud of. And judging by your actions so far, we’re already proud of you—damn proud.
If at least some of these books aren’t in your political science curriculum, demand to know why not.
• George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004
• Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, 2005
• Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Nation Books, 2009
• Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1988, also available as a PBS TV video or on YouTube. A must-read or must-see.
• Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, 1989. An indispensable text for progressives. Kropotkin counters the Social Darwinist view, which holds that competition and dominance, or “nature red in tooth and claw,” as TH Huxley put it, is the fundamental urge in human society. This notion has gained much traction with industrial capitalists, for obvious reasons. Kropotkin’s research reveals that cooperation may even be a greater factor in evolution.
• Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (or, Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better), Penguin Books, 2009. The authors crunch the economic data from around the world to back up the conclusion implied in the title; not something necessarily to read from cover to cover so much as an essential reference text.
• Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization, Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. Rifkin, one of our leading progressive thinkers, essentially picks up where Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid left off but on a much grander scale. His thesis doesn’t always hold up but is worth considering.
• Michael Braungart and William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, 2002. The authors explain how industry can adopt Nature’s principle of “waste equals food” to end the cycle of industrial waste.
• Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Perennial, 1997. Benyus established the Biomimicry Foundation to help industry create non-toxic products based on design principles found in Nature. http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry38/institute/
• Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Penguin Books, 2008, also available in video, http://www.thecorporation.com/index.cfm?page_id=46
• Bertrand Russell, Understanding History and Other Essays, Philosophical Library, 1957, New York. This fine little book may be out of print but is probably easy enough to find online through abebooks.com or other used book retailers.
ARTICLES & ESSAYS
• Chris Hedges, The Phantom Left, Truthdig, November 1, 2010, http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/the_phantom_left_20101031/
• George Orwell, Why I Write, 1948 essay, http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw
• Sean Arthur Joyce, Occupy Love—An Exercise in Hope or Futility?, May 7, 2013, https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/occupy-love-an-exercise-in-hope-or-futility/