We are living in an extraordinary times. Even those who have decided not to listen to or watch news cannot be unaware of the current situation in Israel and Gaza or that elsewhere other conflicts continue to rage. Most people are still reeling from the global pandemic that has set of a global wave of insecurity and mental health problems and it is easy to feel a sense of impotence and paralysis in the face of world news. And that’s before we even think about the ongoing ecological assualts on our planet.
Nurturing our stories during a crisis can feel anything from self-indulgent to pointless, perhaps in proportion to the scale of the problem. But there is never any future in despair. The world, all of us, need different stories, different futures, and hope is a powerful antidote to despair.
Leaning into hope in uncertainty
Hope is vital to the writing life because it’s what prevents us becoming cynical and jaded. It’s fundamental to becoming a different story. In my novel For Hope is Always Born, the title is a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote:
For hope is always born where there is love.
Despite the suffering, loss and grief that the characters experience, they resist despair. To live through what is tragic without giving way to bitterness and nihilism is a huge feat and testimony to the human spirit. And hope is not simplistic. It exists in the midst of real sorrow and doubt. It is not a claim to having all or even any of the answers, but a refusal to become warped and sceptical or to give in to utter anguish.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit frames this tension 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. Will the world ever be a safe place? And for those with family in places being torn apart—whether in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine or elsewhere—Will I lose anyone close to me? What will the economy look like in a month, three months, a year …?
It’s tempting and understandable to torture ourselves with such questions, to lose sleep over them. Hope doesn’t offer false balm in the face of such 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.
Hope to live small lives well
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 the 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.
It is hope that gives us the courage to live small lives well. And we begin living small lives well by first changing our own internal stories, which in turn can change the external story.
Of course, it’s hard to change the story when we are consumed with worry. And it’s hard if you are juggling caring for children or elders, wondering how long your job might last, working long hours, worrying about bills and feeling traumatised by the stated ot the world… And it’s even harder if you find yourself walking that storm front between everything that the world is throwing at you and that awful inner voice of self doubt whispering inside.
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 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 (online or in real life), walking or music… However it is possible, get some nourishment and support.
Do everything possible to find small joys rather than sink into overwhelm. Do everything possible to find kindness for yourself so that you can give kindness in turn. 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.
Hope as the momentum to write
Hope gives us the confidence to keep writing, to keep telling different stories that challenge the status quo. 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
While Chinua Achebe in conversation with James Baldwin warns:
Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.
Writing, as well as the many other ways people create nourishing art, 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 — sometimes it’s far below ground, hibernating and 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.
When life takes a huge turn towards the harsh and the bizarre, take joy wherever you find it along the way. When life becomes complex and frightening, we need hope more than ever.
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, which is not the same as living on excuses or living in a victim mentality, is that you develop a much deeper and more generous empathy towards others. Not self-sabotaging turns out to be good for everyone.
Hope as the basis for forgiveness
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 none of use can say what we would or wouldn’t forgive until that’s tested in real life. If it was my child who’d just died in a rocket attack I have no idea whether I could think about forgiveness,
But practicing forgiveness now, under circumstances that are not extreme, is the only way to build the chance of forgiveness in extreme circumstances. And it often seems that our capacity to fogive others is intimately linked with our capacity to forgive ourselves.
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. And when we do, we are more open to the imperfections and failures of others.
Hope, not perfectionism
All of us are works in progress as much as any of our writing is, probably more so. Yet 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 apparently ‘successful’ has struggles. Don’t imagine the writer with three award-winning novels doesn’t struggle to start writing every time she sits down. What’s often amazing is how so many of us get through our days given how much is going on at any one time.
The world is never going to be perfect, however or whatever life looks like in the future. But this doesn’t have to diminish hope. Our writing will never be perfect either. There’s always a gap between the great artistic project in our minds and the one we produce. The novelist Ann Patchett puts it brilliantly and poignantly:
If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.
I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
But Patchett doesn’t stop there. She goes on to talk about how she has learned the next step through years of practice. And the next step is not perfection but something deeply humane:
I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.
When we live in hope we can forgive ourselves, perhaps even forgive life, and keep going.
Hope as an act of wonder
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. As Kierkegaard put it,
Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
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. And we work to nurture them, however imperfect they are, knowing that hope is always born where there is connection, where there is love, where there is life. And hope thrives when we are able to sustain a sense of wonder, even in a world that can also be ugly and brutal.
‘Wonder’ can be hard to come by in modern life but we all have experiences of wonder. A memory that I reach for when I find myself feeling jaded is of watching my grandson opening gifts on his second birthday. He opened each item and exclaimed ‘Wow!’ and then named the item and took time with it rather than racing on to the next present. His wonder was genuine and in response to simple things. Children are great teachers of wonder and so is nature. A night sky or a shaft of sunlight can stop us, change our perspective, make us go back to that childhood ‘Wow!’ with no weary sense of irony.
These 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, which in turn helps us to live with questions, even in the most uncertain times.