In Buddhist circles, hope often gets a bad rap. Especially in times of crisis and emergency, it can appear light, frivolous, or even delusional. But writer Rebecca Solnit is determined to change this narrative. For Solnit, hope is inextricable from action and allows us to imagine alternate modes of being in the world.
Over the course of her career, Solnit has published twenty-five books on feminism, popular power, social change and insurrection, and hope and catastrophe. Her most recent project, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, explores how we can harness the power of hope in the face of our current climate emergency. Featuring climate scientists and activists from around the world, the book addresses the social, political, and spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis—and envisions a path forward.
In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Solnit spoke with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg to discuss the difference between hope and optimism, the dangers of hyperindividualism, and why she believes beauty is an essential piece of activist work. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.
James Shaheen (JS): You write that our present moment is an exodus into the unknown, and our task is to make a home in this space of uncertainty and possibility. Can you say more about how we can take refuge in the unknown?
Rebecca Solnit (RS): A lot of people seem to really dislike uncertainty. One of the things I love about Buddhism is that it really encourages us to engage with codependent arising and to see that innumerable forces are at work, and exactly how they’ll dance together remains to be seen. I think of both optimism and pessimism as forms of certainty about the future. In both cases, we assume we know what’s going to happen. Pessimists assume it’s terrible and let themselves off the hook from doing anything because they speak as though the future has already been decided. Optimists take the opposite position but with the same kind of certainty that everything will be fine, so nothing is required.
Uncertainty is unnerving because it’s unpredictable but also because it demands a lot of us. If the future does not yet exist and we are creating the future in the present, then we have tremendous responsibility to actually engage. [We tend to have] anxiety and avoidance around recognizing the truth of uncertainty, which is also recognizing that change is constant. People often don’t have much memory of the historical past. They think of the present as a kind of eternity that’s somehow being shattered rather than seeing that the world was radically different twenty or fifty years ago, let alone a hundred, so of course it’s going to be different in the next twenty or fifty years. How it will be different is something we’re deciding now. This is the decade of decision.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): Throughout your career, you’ve written about the power of hope in times of emergency, and you say that hope is not a lottery ticket but an ax you break down doors with in an emergency. So how does hope function as an ax? And how can we harness hope as a powerful organizing tool?
RS: One of the quotes that I love is that you can’t have hope without action, but you can’t have action without hope. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about hope. One misconception is that it’s the same as optimism. But optimism is certainty about the future, whereas hope is just about possibility. Another misconception is that hope is a feeling and that if you don’t feel good, you can’t be hopeful. But we know that people in the worst situations in the world dared to hope, not because they felt good but because there was something worth doing.
Hope is active, not passive. Hope is where you begin, but you don’t just sit there on the couch feeling hopeful. You actually need to take that hope and act on it. I love the anti-prison activist Mariame Kaba’s definition that hope is a discipline, meaning that it’s a real commitment to how you want to be in the world, and you’re going to try without being confident or certain about outcome.
“You can’t have hope without action, but you can’t have action without hope.”
I often go back to Václav Havel, the Czechoslovakian activist who helped topple the [Communist] regime in ways that were so unforeseeable until it happened. He’s a great beacon of hope, and he said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Sometimes people think that if you don’t always win, then your hope was ill-founded, but it’s always a gamble. You’re breaking down the door with an ax, but whether you’re going to get everyone out of the theater on fire or the flooding basement remains to be seen. Still, you might as well try.
SS: You liken hope to love in the sense of taking risks and being vulnerable to the possibility of grief and loss. Can you say more about the relationship between hope and love?
RS: I think hope is a kind of vulnerability and a form of care. You don’t hope if you don’t care. Cynicism is a way of saying it’s not worth caring because it’s all going to hell anyway and there’s nothing we can do—it’s a form of giving up beforehand. When I wrote Hope in the Dark, I was really struck by who was hopeful, which was often people on the frontlines, and who was cynical and despairing, which was often really comfortable people who saw it as a form of solidarity with the people they imagined as being desperate and therefore hopeless. I think they were wrong about the hope, if not the desperation. But I also think that ultimately, they were taking care of themselves rather than the world.
Cynicism doesn’t require anything of you. It’s a posture. Hope does put you on the spot. If you hope we can win, then why the hell aren’t you doing anything to win? If you hope that this life can be saved, you better get out there and save it. Hope is inextricable from action, whereas cynicism is almost inextricable from passivity and making decisions that may benefit yourself but not the greater whole. I think cynicism comes partly out of a sense of powerlessness and partly out of a sense of separateness.
“Cynicism doesn’t require anything of you. It’s a posture. Hope does put you on the spot.”
So much encourages people to believe that we can’t win, so all you can win is a really good posture for yourself. But I think that’s wrong. There’s so much more that we can win, and the historical record demonstrates this. This is why I view hope, which is about the future, as very connected to memory and to the past. If you remember how different the world was and how many times dedicated small groups changed the world through nonviolent direct action and concerted campaigns, you know that the world can be changed by these means—it has been changed, and it is changing all the time. The fossil fuel companies, Wall Street, and capitalist forces are all very willing to change it for the worse, so we should be at least as willing to change it for the better.
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