Sometimes life just …. laughs in our face. That’s what happened to me while getting ready to make this post. You see, I of course start writing the post for the next month at the end of the present month, so I can post it on the first of the next. So I *almost* had my post for this month written, apart from the proofreading and formatting and last minute changes when, everything changed. Ironically, I was writing a post about hope – about how we sometimes need to take action to clear the way for feeling hopeful about our future. But on the evening of October 25, my beautiful state of Maine… not only that, but the city just across the river, at a location that’s a ten minute drive from my home that I take on a regular basis, became another horrifying statistic in the bloody and senseless history of much of our population’s sick and inexplicable fascination and almost sexual love affair with guns. The entire list of 18 victims who died (13 more were injured, at least three still critical as of the time I’m writing this less than a week later, and many still in the hospital) took days to be positively identified (because semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15 the killer used can leave victims unidentifiable). A State formerly known as one of the safest in the country became over the span of a 15 minute shooting spree the home of the largest mass murder event this year. So far. Once again, we are faced with another chapter in the unending litany of mass shootings – just another day in America. These now common occurrences leave communities grief-stricken and horrified; not just for the victims and their families and friends, but the families of the shooters, also part of our close-knit rural communities, and for our loss of innocence. My neighbors and I weren’t directly involved, but because of our proximity to the crimes, we had to listen to helicopters flying through our neighborhood and were under orders to “shelter in place.” Every time our dog barked at nothing in the woods out back (as she does a LOT), I was terrified. Even though the situation has now ended, with the shooter (who suffered from severe mental illness, had threated to shoot groups of people as recently as September, and spent two weeks as an inpatient in a mental health facility in July, but was allowed legally to posess a killing machine anyway) having been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, our collective trauma remains, and normally trusting Mainers have begun to lock their doors. How can anyone go back to “normal” in the wake of such horror?
As an empath, because of how deeply I feel not only my emotions, but the emotions of those around me, I was not only in emotional and mental anguish during the ordeal, but also physical pain, to the point of being nearly paralyzed. Now that it is over, we’re expected to go on nonetheless, uttering platitudes and thanking the brave heroes who pursue and attempt to subdue our monsters. As if the world hasn’t changed. So in the face of all that I sit down once again and try to finish a post on hope when I just feel so… hopeless.
I suppose that, looking at the big picture, this wake-up call for me (one of the people living in a “safe” place, where these things “don’t happen,” as countless others before me have thought) is making me put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I can write ad infinitum about taking actions designed to give us hope when things seem bleak, but unless I live those words, it’s just as hypocritical as the politicians who send thoughts and prayers to grieving communities rather than legislate change, beginning with banning assault weapons. If I’m going to lecture about hopefulness, I’m going to try to practice what I preach. Here’s the blog post I wrote for this month before mass murder came to my doorstep, changed to reflect what I’m learning as I live through it, with some additional thoughts at the end:
Hope is a Verb
We start this November with a world in turmoil. Not for the first time, and, unfortunately, likely not for the last. We are, at our most basic, raw, common core, animals, after all. Human beings like to think of ourselves as more evolved than other species on the planet, but our larger brains and our ability to reason and create don’t necessarily translate into civilized behavior. In fact, in some ways (because we also possess egos), it makes us more predisposed to conflict with one another. Other animals have conflicts over the necessities of survival – food, shelter, mates, etc. We conflict over those needs, sure, but also the trappings of ego and “civilization” – wealth, power, recognition. It’s not enough for some of us to live well, we have to live better and have more than everyone else. It’s not enough for their children to survive and thrive, but to be the best and greatest. Their satisfaction comes from taking from others – he who dies with the most, wins. Animal communities, were they to pay enough attention to us (or care to), probably would think us foolish, or insane. A handful of us are squandering our planet, our survival, the very air we breathe, to amass a wealth that they have no hope of ever spending in their lifetimes, or even in the lifetimes of their descendants. And the rest of us are either cheering them on as we watch it happen, wishing we could do the same, or angry, frightened or sad, powerless to stop it. It leads some of us to a place of utter helplessness, hopelessness and despair as we watch our planet descend into chaos, war, starvation and destruction.
Much of the planet’s arbitrary divisions we see as distinct from one another are in conflict (note: as of the date of this writing, this map does not seem to be up to date, as it doesn’t show the current crisis in Gaza). People are suffering and dying, or starving, or in pain, or living lives of absolute misery, because of our inability to live together. Disagreements about who or what is god, or who should make decisions for a particular group of people, or who owns what, or how we look, who we love, or how we should be living our lives, or one of the countless other ways we differ cause deep disruption and destruction to the lives of our fellow human beings. Some of these conflicts have raged on for years, decades, even centuries and millenia. It’s truly enough to make anyone lose hope that things will ever get better; that we will ever, as a species, learn to live in harmony and peace. It’s enough to make us lose all hope.
Hope is an interesting concept. It’s a pure mental construct, a way of looking to future events to shape them into our minds into something that we think will make us feel happy or comfortable: “I hope I get that job!” “Hopefully, things will get better.” “My hope is that it snows on my birthday.” “Hope we win!”
Hope can be a noun, something that we hold in our hearts and minds, or express openly. It can be an expectation, an aspiration, a plan, with a certain amount of confidence that our desired outcome is possible, or even probable. It can be a goal for what we want our future to look like.
But hope is also a verb. It’s a state of being, an anticipation, a state of waiting. It’s an action word – and implies living one’s life in a place of joyful believing or knowing that something good is to come.
My Bone set has a few unusual symbolic charms that aren’t technically “bones.” One of those is the anchor – a traditional symbol of hope. But this is an unusual anchor, since it only has one curving crosspiece on the bottom rather than the usual two. That’s because at one point the other side broke off when I cast it for a reading (even though it’s made of metal). I’ve tried numerous times to repair it, but it obviously wanted to remain broken as it is, since nothing I’ve been able to do can keep it intact. I have learned to accept and expect that the Bones know more than I, and their wisdom is usually infallible. What often happens now, when the anchor comes up in a reading, is that another bone will take the place of the broken crosspiece in the array. The anchor’s meaning, having hope in something that helps us through our difficulties, can be subtly changed if, for example, the “broken” side is completed by a squirrel’s jaw (the need to communicate your needs for help and to restore your hope), or the tiny shell (that your hopes will lead to a new beginning), or the snake rib (your hopes are better realized if you are flexible in your expectations). In other words – hope sometimes needs a little help. It can’t bring about the change you seek all by itself. It needs action.
Many of us are hoping for positive change in the world, or our country, or our state or neighborhood, but hoping alone won’t make it so. We need to work to make our vision of the future happen. This would be easier if we all agreed on what that future should look like, and there’s the rub. We disagree – wildly. We don’t even agree on a future that would seem like a no-brainer: a world at peace, with clean air and water, a planet with a healthy and comfortable climate, everyone with a place to live and enough to eat and good health care, a place where every person is seen as having just as much right to live in a way that they please as anyone else. Some of us actually actively work against these goals. They don’t jibe with their hopes for the future.
So, then, what are we to do to keep hope alive. “Hope floats,” is a popular phrase. Hope, like the anchor, grounds us, and gives us something to hold on to when we are afraid of washing away in the storm. Anything attached to it rises to the top, and takes us with it. It’s so, so easy to lose hope in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. It doesn’t help to know that there really is nothing – nothing – that is completely under our control in the long run. We may feel on top of things for a while, but change is inevitable, and so is the stress that comes along with it.
So how can we turn hope into action? Here are a few ways:
- Positive affirmations about ourselves and the state of our world. “Pain is temporary,” “I have power in this situation,” “I am strong and will get through this,” “We can weather this storm together,” “This too shall pass,” and similar thoughts and statements are messages to the Universe that we aren’t succumbing to negative thoughts and emotions. It puts us in a better frame of mind.
- Meditation. I am a casual student of Thich Nhat Hanh. His thoughts have brought me great comfort, peace and direction at many difficult times in my life. His teachings about mindfulness meditation – of being present in every moment, be it “good,” or “bad,” (no time is either, really) and living what each moment brings to us – has helped me to grow in my Spirit and in my relationship with the world and those in it. I highly recommend the deep breathing and slow, restful practice of clearing your mind of all but the present position of your body and Spirit in the Universe. It takes practice, but brings immediate focus of what’s truly real. This action by inaction is a wonderful way to refocus your energy on hope rather than despair. Perspective is key.
- Activism. Activism – taking active steps to try to bring about change – may sound scary to some, especially for introverts who think of it as marching through the streets shouting catchphrases and carrying large signs. This is great for some, but if that’s not you, there’s letter writing, joining or starting a focus or advocacy group, calling the office of your representatives, posting on social media – whatever feels comfortable to you. The whole idea is to bring the feelings outside of your brain and into the world where they might influence a favorable outcome. It gives you the feeling that you’re doing something.
- Know you’re not alone. This is where reaching out can be so important. If groups aren’t your bag, call or text or email or get together with a friend/loved one. Even if the only thing you do is support one another, and talk about and process out your feelings of hopelessness, it’s a balm for your soul when it’s burning with anguish. My bet is that your loved one will need it just as much as you do.
- Vote. This is a codicil to the “Activism” point above. If you’re lucky enough to live in a Democracy (while it still exists), you have the opportunity to let your voice be heard once a year. Use it. It will give you hope of making change, as well as the ability to pat yourself on the back for doing your “civic duty,” and avoiding the regrets of inaction if the outcome isn’t what you wanted.
- Be mindful of Children. When the world is in turmoil, and we are in turmoil, don’t forget to check in with the kids in your orbit – it’s guaranteed they’re not only in turmoil as well, but frightened and confused. Whether it’s family members, children you deal with as part of your job, or kids you encounter in the midst of a scary happening, let them know that, although you’re scared too, you’ll help them get through the rough times. Giving them hope that things will get better will help to ease their fears that the world is a terrible place. If you’re in a situation in which there is no foreseeable avenue to things getting better any time soon, just hold them, soothe them, talk with them, answer their questions and be available to them. Find hope in one another.
- Take care of yourself. One thing we tend to forget when all hell breaks loose is that we have some power to help ourselves through it through self-care. Start a routine of alleviating stress by doing things that make you feel better every day – whatever works for you. It could be a hot, bubbly tub soak, a perfect cup of coffee, listening to your favorite music, bingeing your guilty pleasure, reading your most-loved author’s work, cuddling with a pet – anything that brings you a small bit of comfort. When you’re feeling a little better physically, mentally and emotionally, it’s easier to find hope, even if it starts as just a shred.
Remembering that we are all animals simply trying to make our way in this world sometimes helps me to put things into perspective. We each have individual and unique ways of looking at the world – through eyes of hope, of fear, of selfishness or magnanimity, of love and compassion and empathy. We each hope for “the best,” based on those world views.
|“The only thing worthy of you is compassion— invincible, limitless, unconditional.|
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.”
|Thich Nhat Hanh, Call Me By My True Names|
What did I do while I was locked down in my home when a killer was on the loose nearby? I took care of myself – by knitting baby clothes for my family’s next generation, due this month; sitting on the couch with Shadow, snuggling Milo in my arms (when he wants); occasionally asking for a hug from my husband to remind me we’re not alone; and thinking about hope – the lack of it and the need for it. Keeping hope for the future. We owe it to those who will survive.
Hopeful sign in Lewiston, Maine, is part of The Hopeful Project by Charlie Hewitt.
Never Lose Hope image by ShonEjai on Pixabay
Anchor Bone image by Tracy Arietti, (c) 2023