In spite of his opinions of trans people, I would still probably get along with Jensen if I somehow found myself in his company, because the man has a way of writing what I feel and know in my bones to be some kind of true and he does it in a way that makes me feel like I’m seeing myself in a mirror for the first time.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.
More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe — or maybe you would — how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.
I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.
I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated — and who could blame them? — I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.
When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.
When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.
This is part of what I was trying to touch on when I wrote No Hope, No Despair. Both hope and despair stem from inaction – the one is overeager to embrace futility, and the other simply struggles to accept it. Neither make room to see, with clarity, what can actually be done, because they are both equally concerned with what might happen at some point in the future rather than what can be made to happen.
Jesnsen despairs, and he doesn’t connect it with hope like I do – but I’m a bit more nihilistic than he is, and do more accepting than fighting, and I express and feel love, to use his word, differently than he does.
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell — you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.