Moving Beyond Hope and Fear

Let’s talk for a moment about hope, especially given the worsening climate, ecological and social crises the world is facing. This part is strategically targeted at those of you who have heard the global Five-Alarm Fire, and are involved in the hard work to realize justice in one or more of its iterations, whether social, environmental, climatic or otherwise.

Can there be a Good Hope and a Bad Hope? Or should we discard Hope altogether? In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes,

In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.

I’m heavily influenced by that and an essay of Margaret Wheatley’s, titled “The Place Beyond Fear and Hope.” Before I begin, a disclaimer: although Buddhism has much wonderful practical insight to offer us as humans, it is by no means infallible as a religion traditionally dominated by men and ensconced in worldviews that have not always been respectful to living systems. In any case, Wheatley contends that hope is central in the Euro-American cosmology, that “fear is a necessary consequence of feeling hopeful again.”

Rather than inspiring and motivating us, hope has become a burden made heavy by its companion, fear of failing.

She couldn’t have said it better! Indeed, as an engaged citizen working on issues of climate justice and racial justice, I encounter many colleagues who are suffering due to the prospect of most of or all of life on Earth being annihilated by a destabilized climate system. Many of these individuals have children – an experience with which I can only sympathize, since I’ve never had any and don’t intend to – so their pain, their apprehension is indubitably magnified. Although I find myself intimidated by the slowly creeping fog of death and uncertainty that a rapidly destabilizing climate has begun to emit, I’m generally immune to the psychological torment of impending doom. Why? I’ve abandoned hope entirely. GASP! It’s almost as shocking a move as acknowledging the fact that the United States is a settler colonial country whose immense power would not have been possible without the genocide of the Indigenous peoples and enslavement of the Africans who built this massive country.

Here’s the reasoning: as Wheatley points out, hope and fear are juxtaposed forces. The metaphor I like to use is the coin – on one side of the coin is hope, and on the other, fear. You can’t have hope without fear. They feed each other, in fact, so why not just discard both of them? The writer goes on to say that

…those who endure, who have stamina for the long haul and become wiser in their actions over time, are those who are not attached to outcomes… They plunge into the problem, treat their attempts as experiments, and learn as they go.

Activists would be wise to heed the woman’s words on the Buddhist concept of groundlessness:

A willingness to feel insecure, then, is the first step on the journey beyond hope and fear. It leads to the far more challenging state: groundlessness… knowing that nothing ever remains the same, learning to live with the unrelenting constant of change, realizing that even the good things won’t last forever, accepting that change is just the way it is.

Wheatley explains that our feelings of insecurity are the inevitable results of the current systems’ dissolution. Fear and hope are quintessentially Western preoccupations, she believes, because they rely on looking backward or forward in time. Instead, we would avail ourselves of just being here and now, because “[t]he present moment is the only place of clear seeing unclouded by hope or fear.” It’s only in the current moment, contends Wheatley, that we “receive the gifts of clarity and resolve.”

She goes on, arguing that if we simply realize that we ourselves are hope, it gets much easier to avoid “being seduced or blinded by hopeful prospects.” In this way, we become an embodiment of hope rather than the harborers of this obscure, draining, and likely counterproductive emotion.

This may be very difficult to stomach for some of you. North American culture has instilled in us this toxic notion of “positive psychology” – that we should always be pursuing happiness, PERIOD; that hope is a productive emotion to harbor, one that is tied to happiness. I don’t feel like life is quite that simple. Happiness is an emotion – and it should be treated as the favorable outcome of a life well-lived. Instead of striving for happiness and hope, we should be focused on doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves and pursue our passions. Survival and pursuit of one’s passions come first! Happiness/Joy should result from doing those two things consistently and well. Happiness is not an emotion to be striven for, per se. It should flow naturally, like a stream from a mountain ice pack whose path you’ve worked tirelessly to maintain unobstructed. Happiness should be the result of hard work directed at self-care, taking care of one’s personal and familial needs, and pursuing one’s passions.

Getting back to the topic at hand, though, Wheatley continues by quoting the Christian mystic Thomas Merton, who has some insights for us:

Do not depend on the hope of results … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. …you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. … In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything. [Emphasis mine]

This man is on point. Focus on the work itself, the values you’re fighting for, the people and the animals and the plants and the living systems – the water itself or the air. Stop caring about whether or not we’ll “win,” (that word has become all but meaningless in our struggle) but focus instead on doing the best damn job possible. Do not submit to feelings of despair by withdrawing into spaces uncommitted to collective struggle against power.

More than ever, the Seventh Generation down is counting on us to be effective. Efficacy or Bust should be one of the guiding mottos of our movement. We have no choice – hell, I’m 26, and my generation’s immediate future is imperiled. We have two options: either we fight tooth and nail now, using all of the brilliance, intelligence, wisdom and power that we can muster until we are extinguished, or go down having done something – anything – less than that.

Although I strongly disagree with Dr. Wheatley that the thing to do is to “abandon the pursuit of effectiveness” – in fact I think that that’s the very opposite thing for us to do as individuals and social movements in these unstable times – I can personally attest to the effectiveness of renouncing all hope. It’s helped my sanity. It’s amplified my well-being. It’s allowed me to be more grounded in groundlessness, more focused on the actual work itself. It’s aided my realizing that, as the author puts it,

 It isn’t outcomes that matter. It’s our relationships that give meaning to our struggles. If we free ourselves from hope and fear, from having to succeed, we discover that it becomes easier to love.

As I form new connections, friendships, mentor-ships and even romances in this – my home region of the uniquely blessed occupied Ohlone Territories, also known as the S.F. Bay Area – I become stronger and therefore, more effective. Although I’m inclined to think about the future, about what may happen to them or myself, I continuously center myself back in the present, knowing that future-thought won’t get me anywhere except to less healthy states of being. Only persevering dedication to the moment, attending to what needs to be done (individually and broadly construed) will have any lasting worth for myself or the cause.


Wheatley, Margaret. “The Place Beyond Hope and Fear.” (c) Margaret Wheatley. Shambala Sun, 2009.


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