The Space Between Despair and Hope

hope despairEinstein said that in his experience, the more people know about what happening in the world, the more pessimistic they become. I’ve become more pessimistic, but less depressed, as I’ve learned and studied and talked about the state of our fragile little planet and all its creatures. But I’ve also become less of an activist, more inclined to think and read and write and do things locally in my own communities (including my online ones), and less inclined to actually do anything physically. I’ve been content to let-myself-change and encourage others to do likewise. Content, or some might say, paralyzed.

When I was younger, ignorant and driven by hormones, I vacillated between ecstasy and misery, spending long stretches of my life in blissful denial of the grim realities of our world, and equally long stretches in black, suicidal depression. Both extremes were largely disconnected from reality.

These days I’m less prone to either extreme, and I’ve learned to navigate my way through good news and bad, rarely getting euphoric even at times when everything seemed positive (because my unbearable grief for Gaia is with me, always), and rarely getting despondent even at times when everything seemed to be falling apart (because what’s the point of that, really?)

But I am an incorrigible idealist, and my expectations are often high. I think this is because I have such a vivid imagination. I can see opportunities, envision possibilities. I am convinced we could, under ideal circumstances, live lives of astonishing joy, ease, and peace. I am persuaded by recent anthropological research that suggests that, prior to the ice ages, we lived such a life, and that most creatures live such a life even today, engrossed in the wonder of Now Time, intimately and utterly and blissfully connected with all-life-on-Earth. When I study concepts like polyamorism and intentional community I can imagine these concepts realized, if only we could overcome our prejudices, fears and inequality. “If only” — the idealist’s siren song.

So I navigate the narrow channel between hope and despair, steering clear of both unwarranted optimism and useless pessimism. With practice, I’ve learned to be good at this, adept and flexible to changes and challenges that once would have got the better of me.

But this keeps me busy. I aspire to becoming a realist, to gain a little more room for error, more room to maneuver emotionally. Like idealists, realists navigate the channel between foolish optimism and useless pessimism, but in their case the channel is wider, more forgiving. Their expectations and hopes are lower than the idealist’s, so the point at which they founder into euphoria (and then return from it, disillusioned) is further from the point of despair.

Realists therefore have more freedom to be activists than we idealists — we idealists furiously processing exuberant ideas and dreadful news and steering ourselves through the rocky and narrow passage between hope and despair. It’s a survival skill that allows us no time or energy for more altruistic and generous activities, and too little time for reflection. Maybe that’s why idealists are often also procrastinators, and often tired: “Just give me a sec to catch my breath before I face the next set of rapids.” Or perhaps that’s just a rationalization forinaction.

Can an idealist become a realist? Not sure. Perhaps meditation will help. Dreaming impossible dreams is a hard habit to break.

More strange ideas tomorrow.

Category: Being Human
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6 Responses to The Space Between Despair and Hope

  1. Dave – this is not strange at all! At least, not to me. But then I too am a bit of an eternal idealist, and optimist…which has joined with what you describe lately – this dance of hope and despair. Even how you describe becoming more pessimistic and the changes you are making these days: “i’ve also become more inclined to think and read and write and do things locally in my own communities (including my online ones), and less inclined to actually do anything physically. I’ve been content to let-myself-change and encourage others to do likewise…” somehow mirror mine – ie instead of being someone who was always out there to change it all, and service the change as a change agent, consultant etc these days I’m more content (or paralysed?!) to just being a better me – and getting on with what I’m here to do like storytelling and what comes up in the environments i’m in…In any case, your speaking about hope and despair bought me back to mid 2005 when I suppose I started on my own storytelling journey (wrapped and warped as it was with a massive determination to “change the world by changing the world of others” by moving to NY to work there…which I suppose has since – and thankfully – changed to change my own world…). it’s taken a while but i’ve noticed my own shifts particularly when i look at what is happening right now…though I still question often why it is that we would prefer to only act when things are really so near breakdown than doing something way before when they seem so obvious to so many of us…and before us, to less…and before that, to a few.It makes me think of what I read last night in the preface to Martin Buber’s I-Thou -“mundus vult decipi” – the world wants to be deceived”. And about our need for tidyness and neat models and to paths…and our fear of everything being possible and the true complexity of nature Back off the path of tangents, to what I meant to comment on: there is a brilliant speech by Ellie Weisel (his nobel laurette actually) that takes account of these two words: Hope and Despair…and also adds the notion of memory.I just did a google search for it for you: it took me back to something else I had written:…At a dialogue in 2006 I saw that there is actually, or can be, the “joy in hope despair and memory” too. The story that Ellie Weisel references in his first lines is a reduced version of a longer narrative I tell as a storyteller…or used to…about the Baal Shem Tov.What I love most about it is this – even the greatest of “men” who have discovered the joy in every moment a. make mistakes b. loss hope and become stuck in despair c. attempt to solve the worlds problems via the path of tackling the world (and in this case and others are punished sorely for it…) and d. re-discover hope (and memory) when they come back to themselves and doing what they are here to do. Which is NOT about getting out there and rescuing the whole world. But about ‘being’ your own world…I also love that in another version of this story it is the Baal Shem Tov’s daughter who re-teaches her father the alphabet.I suspect that there are some 5 year olds who would have some advice from us ;)hope this finds you well and thanks for a wander back in time…thank you for holding up a mirror!

  2. Chaitanya says:

    Pen is mightier than sword, Dave ! Keep up the online activism !

  3. mattbg says:

    Great visualization of the idea in the graph, Dave.As for Natalie’s comments about 5 year olds… bollocks, I say! 5-year-olds don’t live in the real world and have no meaningful advice to give us. But we can learn from them by observing and mapping certain things within our own mindmap. If you want to talk to a 5-year-old with experience, go to the other end of the age spectrum. As Dave’s graph shows, by that age you’ll be laissez-faire but with a wealth of life experience to temper it and understand why certain bouts of idealism are ill-advised, which a 5-year-old would not understand.Also, happiness is a mental illness… when put in the context of grim (or glib) surroundings. It is a coping mechanism.

  4. Are “realists” idealists who have just learned to play social politics well? I don’t think there’s anything unworkable in the general thrust which idealists lay out on the table when they are talking with folks. Last spring I was volunteering with a fourth grade elementary school teacher for a couple of weeks, and I really admired the effect she had on the children. In order to get and hold their attention, she had to be be a bit hyperbolic in the way she talked about things. This is the role of the idealist. In order to prod social trends into motion, you have to appeal to folks’ passions, and their dreams. Would the agendas of idealists work mechanically, if one were to try to put them into practice as such? Usually not. However, most idealists when given the resources to do their project would become well-grounded pretty quickly. And their project would be a success. I always will admire the success of the loose association of street performers who put together Cirque du Soleil. With some initial resources provided by the Canadian government, look what they were able to accomplish. I think that it’s not a matter of realism versus idealism… it’s about resources versus a paucity thereof.BTW, myself, I don’t look at you as a pessimist at all. I wish everybody had the same ethic of careful observation and model building which you have. Philosopher types don’t work with a narrow scope of observation like scientists do. We look at the broad picture, and we piece together patterns, and study those things. The way you build your models about the world, Mr. Pollard, is really beautiful. This is how it’s done properly. One keeps building models and keep studying and observing, and one gets closer and closer to the truth with every new wave of thinking about the issue. And it always requires more temerity to look at negative things, and postulate about them. That’s the sign of a truly wise person – if she or he can stare the bad in the face, and eagerly seek to understand how those things work.

  5. John Powers says:

    I despair about my own inaction, or almost. Perhaps I too am navigating through the narrow space between hope and despair. I do love the conversation here. Contrary to mattbg I agree with Natalie about five-year olds having a thing or two to teach us. Just now thinking about them what occurs to me is by way of a negative example. Five-year olds can be such pricks! But they also suffer when their vying for status brings social issolation. As a result something five-year olds can teach us is about repair and forgiveness.What I first thought about however is Paul Polak’s 12 Steps to Practical Problem Solving Step 5 is to think like a child. Polak says: “There is a simple and direct curiosity in childhood and a love of play that we tend to miss badly in our approach to problem-solving as adults. If you think like a child, you can quickly strip a problem down to its basic elements.”Whatever else we might learn from them, that play is serious business, is something to take to heart.

  6. Mariella says:

    realistic vs idealistic…. opposites….. remember once I talked to you about the cognitive excercise of trying to validate both opposites at the same time… : evocate the feeling they both produce in you, trying to feel the inner chemistry those feelings produce…. as our brain cannot process that information alltogether …it will start looking for something new that can create a new kind of sense for what you are proposing to yourself….. have fun and enjoy the “void”….M

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