In a recent blog I considered what it might mean to forgive, not only others but ourselves, our shadows. Hope is inextricably linked with forgiveneess because it’s when we hope that we find the internal resources to forgive ourselves, forgive life for not being perfect, and keep going.
Finding hope in wonder
When we keep trying and trying again to craft the next story and the next, we can keep faith with even the most uncertain future.
In a world that throws obstacles along every path, we are more likely to keep hope and to keep writing when we live with a sense of wonder and uncertainty rather than with a desperate search for perfection and surety.
Giving the world new stories is not a simplistic task with an obvious or guaranteed outcome. But as writers, we witness to the need for these stories, even when we may not know how they are going to end. More and more, it seems to me that cultivating a sense of wonder is fundamental to staying hopeful, especially when so many apparent certainties are being stripped away.
After more than a year of living with Covid, with new strains threatening and divisions over everything from lockdowns to vaccine passports, wonder can be hard to come by, but even in this stessed and uncertain world, a night sky with a huge full moon or a shaft of sunlight through trees can stop us, change our perspective.
These small epiphanies, whether of the vastness of all life or the intricacy of it all, change us. They slow us down, they make us pay attention, they demonstrate the deepest of connections. Such visions are not artificial highs or a means of sating our hunger for meaning with displacement activities. Rather they are experiences of depth, however simple, or perhaps precisely because they are so simple.
They confirm what Whitman says so lyrically:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
And what Ella Frances Sanders says at more length in Eating the Sun: small musings on a vast universe:
Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.
You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.
Cultivating a sense of wonder, a sense that life is full of awe even when we feel under threat, fosters hope and helps us to live with questions.
Hope beyond despair
Wonder and the hope that emanates from it, are vital to the writing life because they are attitiudes that prevent us becoming cynical and jaded, even when there is plenty of scope for despair in the world.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit frames it like this:
This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. […] Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.
This is a time of huge uncertainty. And uncertainty can be emotionally and psychologically excruciating. Hope doesn’t offer false balm in the face of our questions, but it does give us a liminal space is which we can move away from the certainties and hard conclusions towards living creatively with the questions.
The writer, dissident and later president, Václav Havel, agrees with Rebecca Solnit:
The kind of hope I often think about [… is] above all a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; […] Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
We have hope not because we see a bright future and sing about things getting better, but because we value life and love and connection, even if we might ultimately fail. As Havel adds:
Hope is […] not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. […] It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
Hope as a different story
It is hope that gives us the courage to live small lives well. And we begin living small lives well by changing the internal story, which in turn changes the external story.
Of course, it’s hard to change the story when we are consumed with worry or ground down by simply getting through the next day and the next. Being able to keep going, with integrity and hope intact, takes resources, emotional, psychological and spiritual as well as physical. Which is why, no matter how much you are juggling, you need times when you can slow down, say no to the distractions and focus on some nurture. As Anne Gilchrist wrote to her publisher, William Michael Rossetti:
I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.
Hermann Hesse puts it like this:
Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.
I know that I’m least attentive to these small joys when I’m feeling overwhelmed and besieged. So another clue to living a small life well is to get help. Whether we find it in books or friends, walking or music … we need nourishment and support. Small lives lived well declare to the stars that in the midst of this crazy world, our stories can still sing with resistance and resilience, with courage and hope.
And, in turn, hope makes writers a force to be reckoned with. As Iris Murdoch put it:
Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth.
And so many other writers agree with her. In the 1950s Camus pointed out that
To create today is to create dangerously,
And Auden noted that:
the mere act of making a work of art is itself a political act
Hope as writing, then, is vital. It can allow us to dive deeply into ourselves and connect us to all life. It can give us extraordinary moments of epiphany, awe and insight. But there are also days when, for whatever reason, getting out of bed is a struggle and a few lines in a journal seems like way too much effort. There are times when the day unravels almost before it has begun. There are days when you feel anything but inspired and wonder what you were ever thinking to have had the audacity to call yourself a writer.
Creativity is a delicate creature. It can wax and wane like the moon, especially when life is hard. How do we find the hope to persist when the predominant feeling is of exhaustion or disenchantment?
Holding the vision when the hard times come, might be as basic as one or two lines in a journal each day — it might be reflection, a scrap of a dream, a rare haiku, one thing you were grateful for that day … But trust that creativity will return — it’s incubating. Give it time, don’t keep taking its temperature. You are a writer. Use any scrap of creativity that comes your way but don’t force it.
Hope as forgiveness, as radical kindness
Ultimately, the hope that gives us the momentum to write, is an act of radical kindness to ourselves and one of the extraordinary things about being radically kind to yourself is that you develop a much deeper and more generous empathy towards others. Not self-sabotaging turns out to be good for everyone.
A while ago I re-watched the film Magnolia with two people close to me. It’s not an easy film to watch at points, but it is deeply moving and a central question runs through it: What can we forgive? It’s clear that the answer to this varies enormously for each person and that this variance differs on the basis of how much each character can forgive him or herself.
This isn’t a glib forgiveness of shrugging off responsibility or making trite excuses. It’s hard won and involves deep work. But not self-destructive work. Accepting ourselves isn’t the same as excusing ourselves. We can take responsibility without taking ourselves apart.
It seems to me that a key to this is not believing that anyone can be perfect. We are works in progress as much as any of our writing is, more so. So often perfectionism has us looking at others and thinking they have it all worked out. It’s easy to see what’s on the surface of someone else’s life. But everyone, no matter how ‘successful’ has struggles. What’s often amazing is how so many of us get through our days given how much is going on at any one time.
Don’t imagine the writer with three award-winning novels doesn’t struggle to start writing every time she sits down.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. In her poem, ‘Wild Geese’ Mary Oliver suggests:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves
All humanity is flawed, but no less worthy for being so. Hope begins in kindness — to others, to ourselves. It begins (often) not when all is well, but when we realise that so many things are terribly wrong, that there are things crying out to be witnessed and that cannot be glossed over, that we have suffered so many losses, yet still there is the possiblity of another story, that is not false hope but a hard-won hope, forged beyond the horizon of ‘this is how things are’ in the furnace of forgiveness and kindness, even to ourselves — as Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently expresses:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as online courses of different lengths here. While you’re browsing, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Khalsa Morgan says
Such a beautiful post, with quotes I will treasure! Thank you so much.
Marina Sanchez says
You are such a radiant light in these time strange times Jan!
What a fantastic blog!
I feel I have been brought back to my centre very gently, clearly and beautifully.
I love everything but especially the Vaclav Havel quotes which I am copying in my writing folder for affirmation and thanks also for quoting two of my favourite poems 🙂
I shall come back to this week’s words whenever I feel off.
Thanks again Jan
Love and hugs
Tricia Durdey says
This is so clear and lovely.
It comes at the right time for me.
Thank you so much.