Monday, April 6, 2009

Worry and Hope: Two Sides of the Same Coin

I have been doing a lot of reading recently, trying to wrap my mind around the economic meltdown and its connection with exponential growth. A post to come soon on this subject. It's not "cooked" yet.

Meanwhile, I want to spend a little time on "worry" and "hope". In our mythologies, worry is supposed to be "bad", and hope is supposed to be "good". But aren't they the same thing?

I have recently seen worry described as "a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we are doing something" (Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear, quoted by Jill Fredston in Rowing to Latitude, a truly fine book).

And hope has been defined as the wish for an outcome that we cannot directly control. (If we could control it, we would do so, and not have to rely on hope to do it for us.)

The two meanings are not too much different, actually, except that in the former case we are focused on the glass half-empty, and in the latter case we are focused on the glass half-full. But it's the same glass, and the same water.

So I can say I "worry" about the future, for example regarding peak oil. I worry that the lights will go out, and we'll be cold, and it'll be dark, and we won't be able to get to town. (And I do worry about these things sometimes.) Or I can say that I "hope" that we'll quickly implement alternate and sustainable energy sources, or that we'll convince a meaningful percentage of our citizens to really take steps to conserve, postponing and moderating the inevitable downward slope. But in each case, I am putting my energy into wishful thinking rather than something practical.

And because these wishful feelings do nothing but cause a stress reaction in me, and perhaps wear out the patience of those who are obliged to listen to me, neither worry nor hope do any good for me, my family, my friends, my community, or the world.

What is the alternative to worry? There are at least two: practical action, and fearlessness. Fearlessness frees us for action. What is the alternative to hope? Again, practical action, and hopelessness. Hopelessness frees us for action.

Why is that?

Because hope shackles us to inaction. We feel that somebody else, some organization, or some governmental entity will solve it all for us, and keep us from having to make the hard decisions and do the hard work. We feel that we are owed security in our lives, and we give up our time and some of our freedom for it. But the unavoidable fact is that the our lives are insecure. No government, no promises, can change that.

Pema Chodron, in When Things Fall Apart, says, "Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty." She suggests that we put "Abandon Hope" on our refrigerator door. She says, "Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning."

I have a long way to go before understanding and internalizing this wisdom. From a practical standpoint, I know that action is an antidote to useless worry. That is one reason why we started eating local food, started the LoveLandLocal food cooperative, got an energy audit, changed our lightbulbs, drive a high-effiency car. That is why I talk to groups about local food and our experiences, and post on this blog.

Making the internal changes to stop worrying, to stop my idle hopes that we can wriggle out of the problems that our generation and several before us have caused, is not as easy. To the extent that we rely on hope for the future, we are not facing the truth. And when we do not face the truth, see it clearly, and learn to deal with it, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of suffering. Facing the truth is painful and disconcerting, but not nearly as painful as trying in every way to evade the truth until it slaps us in the face so hard that we can no longer ignore it.

I'm seeing way too much wishful thinking ("hope") in the corridors of power these days. No matter how much money the Feds print, it cannot reinflate the bubble caused by criminally negligent speculation. We cannot "hope" that things will go back to how they were, because the truth is they never were that way; it was speculation, gambling, a delusion that we were running too fast to see, a vast Ponzi scheme. And it came to the same end as all Ponzi schemes; a few rich people get even richer, and the rest of the participants get poorer.

What I want to hear is the truth, and people courageous enough to tell us: this is the way it is. It's not the end of the world, it's the end of a dreamworld. Life will be different. It'll be worse if you define the quality of life by the quantity of goods you have and the amount of energy you can waste. It can be rich in the intangible ways, the ways that matter, in love, caring, community; in meaningful work; in responsibility and integrity.