Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hoping for the sacred

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

"To despair of the entire situation is another reasonable alternative. But the unsatisfactory thing about despair in my view, is that besides being fruitless it's far less exciting than hope, however slim."

--David Quamman

What is exciting to each of us and why is worthy of the most serious and deepest of personal reflection. And who among us is not excited about hope? The hopeless? Is there such a creature, the truly hopeless? Or are there only times of hopelessness?

The 20th century ended with far fewer species of life and, it seems to me, less reason for hope than when it began. The past few hundred years of human exploration, industrial and technological growth, the urbanization of its countryside and the explosion of human populations have changed the earth from a cornucopia for all its creatures and beings to a super market for its dominant form of life, Homo sapiens. When used to discount the accelerating rate of species extinction in the world today, the vacuous argument that species extinctions is natural to evolution is disingenuous at best, contemptuously evil at worst. It is in no way evident that the super market can ever return to a cornucopia. Nor is it probable that the market suppliers will be able to keep up with an ever growing demand for the amenities of what has come to be known as western civilization. The fecund mystery of a cornucopia is infinitely more interesting (and hopeful) than the controlled, delineated sterility of a super market, however effortless it makes it to pick up a tin of tuna and a six pack of Bud Lite or Diet Pepsi. Despair, therefore, is reasonable, perhaps inevitable to some; but just as anger is easier than happiness, war less complex than peace, ignorance more confining than understanding, the individual lost without community and friends, and hatred as boring as love is engrossing, despair is the dark stupidity of bankrupt spirit. Hope is the way out of darkness.

The present moment is the only home of hope. I am reminded of the verse of the Japanese Zen master Ryokan:


The day after?

Who knows?

We are drunk

On today!"

These are not the words of an insipid fool, but, rather, those of a man whose hope and fulfillment are sought and found in the present moment, not tomorrow or the day after.

It needs mentioning that hope is a very different matter than desire. An individual's desire is at some level usually tied up with the urge to control the object of desire, whether it be a new car, a piece of land (to farm, develop, graze or build a house upon), a promotion, a raise, a win, a takeover, fortune or fame. Hope is the intention to trust the true nature of things. Desire, it can be argued, is the result of a fear of trust. For wild creatures, trusting the nature of things is innate. Among domesticated beasts, including man, trusting the nature of things is a quality, like courage and self-reliance--integrity itself--brutalized by the demands and limitations of domesticity. The nature of hope, it seems to me, is at odds with domesticity, which tends to a fearful sacrifice of the primal experience of the mystery to an illusory security that can never be, often with a brutality that no wild creature knows. Like all qualities, hope has many of the attributes of a skill; it is enhanced and deepened with use; it atrophies with neglect. And the knowledge of hope's existence and value is transmitted between people.

Mother Theresa found and instilled hope among the poorest, most despairing people on earth: the sick, poverty bound untouchables of the slums of Calcutta. When talking about her work she often used the example of the light that went on in the hearts and minds and souls of hopeless, abandoned, truly anonymous people when she and her Sisters of Charity accomplished the miracle of making the wretched realize the miracle of someone else caring about them. Mother Theresa spoke in the vernacular of her religious convictions, but she was able to care because she had hope, and because she had hope she gave it to others. She lived her hope. Her legacy of hope was not an abstraction, and for that reason Mother Theresa had an exciting life; and she passed it on and thereby ever so slightly but perceptibly opened up the slim slice of hope which illuminates this world and gives it the vibration of excitement.

After observing the work of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, an English journalist is reported by Annie Dillard to have reasoned, "Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other."

Life is always sacred or intrinsically of no account, all or nothing, take your pick. Hope is the acknowledgment of such reason.

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