In the fall of 2013, I was at the end of an era in my life as a Colombia human rights activist, or so I thought. Having left my job as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Colombia Program, I found myself walking the busy, chaotic streets of Bogotá, reflecting on all the years I had poured my energy into the human rights movement there, wondering how any activist sustains enough motivation to continue, and why, despite feeling like things weren’t getting that much better in Colombia (or the world for that matter), I was still deeply committed to peace and social justice. Was it because I felt hopeful? If it wasn’t hope that fueled me forward, what did? Now, from my desk in Oakland, California, still involved with the work in Colombia, I continue to grapple with these questions.
In the carefree days of my youth, I had hope to spare. I had so much hope that I thought I could change the world! It was surely this faith that helped me hatch a convoluted plan to stage a long-term protest in front of the White House to end U.S. military aid to Colombia. A few years later, hope led me to quit my job, live off my unemployment check and become a full time activist. Now that I’m almost 40, hope seems harder to come by. I’m not embittered, but I don’t feel the same kind of idealism that I did when I was sixteen. Hope is no longer fueling me forward, but I don’t feel entirely hopeless either.
Navigating hope and hopelessness—as an activist—is what I explore in this piece: Hope can ignite a person into action, but keeping that hope alive in the day-to-day grind is an uphill battle. Hopelessness and sometimes despair creep in. I never hear my fellow activists saying, “We are so close to overhauling the entire capitalist system and eradicating all forms of oppression—I just can’t wait to celebrate!” And yet, if we know we might not see the fruits of our labor in our own lifetime, where does our resilience come from? Why keep going when every day brings bad news and so few signs of success?
For some activists, a spiritual practice is a way to avoid burnout, replenish energies, and renew inspiration. In my case, I’ve meditated from time to time. I’m hardly an accomplished Buddhist, but I was born into a Buddhist community, was steeped in the teachings from an early age, and have helped run a Buddhist summer camp for kids over the past 15 years. Rather than keeping me hopeful or sustaining my dedication to this work, my meditation practice has helped me unscrew the mechanics of the never-ending see-saw of hope and despair. Shambhala Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes it this way: “We hope, dwelling in the future, that things might turn out right. We do not experience the present, do not face the pain or neurosis as it is. So the only way that is feasible is developing an attitude of hopelessness, something other than future orientation. The present is worth looking at.” 1
Colombia—the South American country of coffee, emeralds, the largest bird population in the world, the longest-running internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere, and a second home where I have known many incredibly warm and cheerful people—has taught me a bit about navigating hope and hopelessness as an activist. Currently the country is, by all official accounts, in a very hopeful moment. This is why:
One of the top commanders of Colombia’s guerrilla army—a man who has been living his days in fatigues and fighting a revolution from the deepest reaches of Colombia’s jungle, a man who has not been enjoying his evenings in a carpeted living room watching Netflix—is now talking to the people he and his army were trying to overthrow for the last fifty years. The government is represented by a 66-year-old lawyer and politician, former Vice President and before that a Supreme Court justice. He is joined by a former Minister of Defense and director of the National Police. They are the cream of Colombia’s crop, living their days in the busy city of Bogotá and making politics happen from offices with nicely polished floors. The Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) began formal peace talks in Havana, Cuba on September 4, 2012, and have continued to debate, negotiate, and argue the terms that would put an end to this decades-old conflict for the last three years.
To state the obvious, the mere possibility of peace is hopeful. Experts and those close to both sides say that an agreement will be signed in 2016. They have already agreed on four out of the five points on their agenda: land reform, political participation, the illegal drug trade, and transitional justice. According to the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, the number of reported acts of violence carried out by the FARC dropped to 1,186 in 2014 from 2,003 in 2013.2 Despite the fact that the FARC appears on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, the Obama administration has backed the negotiations and in December 2014 the FARC declared an indefinite unilateral ceasefire—all hopeful signs.
The cover photo of a September edition of Semana, Colombia’s largest print magazine, shows Cuba’s President Raul Castro embracing Colombian President Santos on one side and longtime FARC leader Timochenko on the other. They are all symbolically wearing white, implying that peace is finally, very close.
But the skeptics argue that this is hardly a moment to rejoice. Colombia’s future could just as easily be summed up as absolutely hopeless:
First, the country’s war has been dragging on for over 50 years. Every other negotiation process to end the conflict has failed miserably, including various official attempts and who knows how many unofficial government tries. Last June was the most violent month since the talks began in 2012. In 2014 a human rights defender was assassinated every seven days, on average.3 Between January and August of 2015, 69 human rights defenders4 and 25 environmental activists5 were killed, making Colombia the second most dangerous place in the world to defend the environment. While human rights and environmental struggles are often falsely viewed as separate movements, in Colombia, the communities whose rights are most often violated live in places with valuable resources that attract the interests of multinational companies. In many cases, these communities have been environmental stewards of their territories for generations, living from them sustainably as their livelihoods, traditions, and communities themselves are largely defined by and dependent on the land. Their forced removal is both a human rights violation and a threat to the delicate eco-systems surrounding and sustaining them.6
Civilians in Colombia, specifically indigenous people, Afro-Colombians and small-scale farmers, are killed, threatened, and forced to leave their homes and lands more than anyone else. In fact, 80% of the victims in Colombia’s conflict have been civilians.7 They live in the areas that the armed groups, government, and multinational corporations want to control. The reason to control land has changed over the decades, but in general terms, those who own and control land are those who own and control wealth.8 The profitable enterprises have changed with the times, from cattle ranching to the movement of illicit goods (weapons and drugs) and, more recently, large-scale industrial extraction of resources (oil, gold, and coal). The government views land as more profitable if, for example, the potatoes and plantains that campesinos traditionally farm are replaced by miles of soy or palm oil monocultures. This kind of agribusiness allows the Colombian government to do business in a competitive global economy. In other words, it is the Colombian people (civilians) who need to be removed to pave the path towards economic growth.
Even after a peace accord is signed between the guerrillas and the government, there will still be people with guns and money to spare. Drugs will still be illegally bought, sold, and consumed in the United States, making the profit margin astronomical for those involved in their trafficking. And the icing on the cake of hopelessness is that a negotiated end to the conflict does not mean peace. The deal between FARC and the government won’t magically change the day-to-day lives of farmers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities, students, trade unionists, and women. These communities, along with human rights defenders and organizations at the frontlines, will continue to face corporate interests and power, a government trying to remove them from their traditional lands, drug traffickers, and people with guns who can be paid to do anyone’s bidding.
The current process to end over 50 years of FARC guerrilla insurgency has been welcomed by many civil society groups as a positive step forward for the country. And yet there are many obstacles both to ending conflict and to creating a different kind of society, one in which peace can be built. Three main obstacles are important to mention here. First, even after 7,000 FARC guerrillas are demobilized, there will still be about 2,500 members of the other main guerrilla army (ELN, or in English: the National Liberation Army) as well as about 5,000 members of paramilitaries or criminal gangs, the latter being successor groups to the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, which also went through a demobilization process between 2003 and 2006. Some of the demobilized FARC guerrillas will rearm themselves, mostly motivated by the lucrative drug trade. Second, a formal end to the hostilities will bring more national and foreign investment, as multinational companies see opportunities in the coal, gold, petrol, and agribusiness sectors, displacing rural communities and causing environmental destruction. Finally, bringing justice to over six million victims is a huge challenge for any government, both in terms of the budget that it requires and the coordination necessary to implement it. In the last thirty years, there have been 90,000 disappearances, 95,000 killings, at least 4,000 cases of sexual violence, and more than 5.7 million people forcibly displaced.9
Colombia, on the brink of signing a peace deal, is at a hopeful moment in a hopeless situation. The same could be said about climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, or any other issue our human family faces. People surely possess the ingenuity to solve the problem of an overheated planet, even though the statistics suggest we’ve passed the point of no return. The uprising in Ferguson has taken the issue of state violence against black men to a new level in the national dialogue, openly challenging the system of white supremacy; however, white supremacy has outlived the abolition of slavery and the overhaul of Jim Crow laws, now starkly embodied in mass incarceration and police brutality. Working for climate justice, racial justice, or justice and peace in Colombia, a common question arises: How do our movements navigate these territories of hope and hopelessness?
A Moment of Insight
Reflecting on how my Buddhist path has progressed in tandem with my activist work, I’ve found my meditative experience of hopefulness and hopelessness illustrative. A few years ago I was doing a week-long meditation program up in the Rocky Mountains. It was a cold and snowy December, but the room where 40 of us were meditating was warm and brightly lit. I had been there for a few days, so my mind had started to settle. As the teacher leading the program put it, the mind is like a jar of water that has silt in it: At the beginning of the program, the water has been jostled so the silt is floating all around. But as the days go on, the silt starts to settle to the bottom and the water becomes clearer. It’s day three: I’m not snoozing as much during the meditation sessions, my back hurts less. I’m thinking, but the speed of the thoughts fired by my synapses has slowed. I’ve had a good night’s sleep and a fresh cup of strong coffee, and it’s the first session of the day. After a few minutes, the room is crystal clear, the snow outside is brilliantly white, the breath is coming and going easily, the cushion in front of me is just red, and I’m aware of all the other people in the room. Everything is exactly what it is. I feel the space around me expand. It’s alive.
Then, a voice: “This is it. I’m doing it. Oh yeah, here it is, this, this, THIS. I can feel it. It’s so amazing, this feeling.”
In other words, I’m hopeful.
It’s like when I realized I was riding a bike for the first time and glanced back at my dad, who, moments before, had been holding onto the back of my blue banana seat. As soon as I realized that he wasn’t there, I fell over. In the meditation room, as quickly as I had an experience of something open, I became my own spiritual cheerleader standing on the sidelines, outside of the experience itself, trying to grasp and hold onto it, hoping that the next moment would continue to be as amazing as the one that just passed. And that made the space vanish; the silt got stirred up again. I was reminded that I was (hopelessly) myself: the room was not permanently in technicolor, the space around me was not expanding outward. And that’s it: the brilliance of the present moment, which was quite free of both hope and its absence, was gone.
Moments of insight like that one in the meditation room that day have happily co-existed alongside my human rights work over the years, each one with its own style in the boxing ring: in one round I am ready to fight, fight, fight the world’s wars, violence, and -isms; in the next, I am up against my own confusion and delusion, and my only weapon is to simply notice my breathing. With my fellow Buddhists, I usually avoid going on a rampage about corporate power or grassroots tactics to smash the state, and my activist friends and I generally don’t discuss the habitual tendency of the ego to solidify. In many ways, I’ve found it challenging to integrate these two worlds, even if they are both deeply important to me.
However, some kind of integration, albeit on a more subconscious level, has happened over the years. The Buddhist practice of showing up, moment after moment, for whatever is coming up in my thoughts and experience has strengthened my stamina to show up, year after year, for what’s going on in the world.
This integration came into focus more clearly a couple of years ago in the cool mountain sun of my backyard in Bogotá, as I read the insightful words of Kathleen Dean Moore, nature writer, philosophy professor, and lifelong activist who describes herself as a “sacred secularist.” According to conventional wisdom, activists are motivated by hope that things could get better, that humanity could finally wake up and smell… something.
However, Dean-Moore challenges the trappings of hope. With her students she has a “hope-o-meter” for the future of the earth, with “one” meaning very little hope and “ten” meaning no worries. She says she is at about a “one,” based on her understanding of the environmental destruction that is currently devastating the planet. “So why do you try?” asked a reporter in an interview. She offers this answer:
People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable…. Between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity—a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.
There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that.10
She was talking about hope and fear—a familiar Buddhist teaching—but delivered in secular language and from the perspective of someone who knows how much things need to change. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me about why hope can be an obstacle both when sitting on the meditation cushion and when taking to the streets.
More recently, I read an interview with Stephen Jenkinson, described as the Angel of Death in his work to support people in their death, dying, and grieving processes. His approach to the issue of hope is similar. In this scene of a documentary made about his work, he’s teaching a room full of young physicians:
I’m writing two words on the blackboard: hopeless and hopeful. It seems as if these were the only options. But then below them I write “hope-free”—and that’s me. I’ve been a long time getting to “hope-free,” but now that I’m here, I don’t require hope as my fuel to get me anywhere… [Hope is] methadone for New Age people. Don’t get me wrong: having it is understandable. And a lot of people are quite sure they need it… Here’s how hope works on people: it’s for the future. It’s addicted to possibility and utterly unattached to now. Either you’re well-informed and you let your days be guided by that wisdom, or you’re hopeful. But I am not going to traffic in hopelessness either. I’m not depressed. I’m not despairing. I’m just trying to be a faithful witness to the story.11
For an activist, the hope that Jenkinson describes can be like an addiction to a future scenario in which everything is better and different. This is a dangerous game, because it is so quickly followed by hopelessness when reality sets in. And hopelessness can lead to paralysis. Thus the back and forth of the hopeful-and-hopeless never-ending see-saw.
I believe, in part, it’s this kind of hope that leads to burnout and despair, and this might be a reason why activist students are a dime a dozen, but elders in our activist community are harder to come by. As a young person, my hope and idealism fired me forward, but then I turned thirty: I hadn’t successfully orchestrated a worldwide revolution, and there wasn’t much money in my bank account. In a success-obsessed culture, I could have deemed my efforts “unsuccessful” and abandoned ship altogether.
Beyond Hope and Hopelessness
I realize, through the words of both Dean-Moore and Jenkinson, that it’s not only meditation practice that has helped me let go of hope as the fuel for ongoing action. The world itself, with its endless depressing headlines and onslaught of hopeless news has forced me to give up on the see-saw too.
The Colombian government’s announcement that peace talks would commence in 2012 was a moment to feel hopeful, but was quickly followed by this clarification: There will be no pause in the hostilities. The fighting was going to continue while peace was being brokered. These terms were set because of prior failed attempts at peace. The last round of negotiations took place during the presidential term of Andres Pastrana from 1998 to 2002. The famous picture at the time was of a historic meeting taking place at a plastic table, under a thatched roof and with a backdrop of verdant foliage—President-to-be Pastrana had traveled into FARC territory to have a preliminary conversation with then-guerrilla commander Marulanda about a possible peace negotiation. He won the elections, set forth to broker peace, and then, after years of back and forth, the entire deal fell apart. Four years later, instead of being closer to signing a peace agreement, both sides were more equipped to continue fighting a war.
Perhaps the worst and most heartbreaking attempt of all the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC was in 1985. As part of the FARC’s deal with the government, a political party known as the Patriotic Union (UP) was formed. Former guerrillas and many other civilians who shared the Patriotic Union’s political agenda joined the party. The UP began to win posts and elections across the country in races for mayor, governor, and the Senate. A number of UP presidential candidates garnered considerable support. Thus began the bloodbath: Over the next ten years, 3,000 leaders and members of the UP were assassinated, effectively wiping out the party altogether.12 In other words, a political genocide. Every group in Colombia’s history of armed conflict that has tried to lay down their arms and rejoin the political milieu has been greeted by threats, exile and death. Colombia has had no space to welcome a different political agenda and therefore each attempt to negotiate has been met with more bloodshed.
In each of these periods, the elites of each side, the higher-ups and big-wigs, have brokered deals, talked, and debated each and every point of how, why, and whether armed groups will lay down their weapons. All the while, the predominant victims of the conflict—women, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and farmers—courageously face daily violence in efforts to build peace from the ground up.
I have traveled on the backs of donkeys and horses, traipsed through mud and crossed rivers in rubber boots, and held onto the sides of a boat speeding down the Atrato river to visit these communities; I have played cards by candlelight, sang songs, and shared coffee with these courageous people. They have taught me something that I recognize from my meditation practice as well. Their struggles are by no means perfect—there are injustices and infighting. There are people who leave and others who join. The threats and violence scare some so much that they can’t continue to stick their necks out. Meanwhile, presidents of Colombia come and go with their promises of this and that. Despite the external circumstances—circumstances so difficult that it is more reasonable that people would rather leave than stay—there are individuals who keep showing up, day after day, committed to human dignity, human rights, and life.
That willingness to keep showing up is the practice of no success. It is familiar to activists and meditators, alike. It is the practice of giving up hope and hopelessness, of letting go of attachment to outcomes, fruition, a sense of accomplishment, without despair or pessimism. “No success” is quite contrary to everything our culture teaches us about how to orient our lives. Hoping for enlightenment or world peace or fearing endless samsara and the planet’s demise are endless see-saws without exit. The practice of no success opens up the present space of now, asks us to sit down (again) and follow our breath because we trust there is basic sanity there; we act (again) because we know that despite all the war and aggression, there is goodness, peace, and justice to be found.
Liza Smith is an activist, singer and songwriter, who reflects on life, love and the revolution through songs, essays and an occasional poem. She has been involved in Colombia human rights work for the last 15 years, organizing grassroots solidarity state-side and accompanying threatened human rights leaders and communities in Colombia. She is currently the associate director of FOR Peace Presence and lives in Oakland with her partner and daughter.
Illustration by Alicia Brown
- Chögyam Trungpa, “Dome Darshan,” in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume Three, Ed. Carolyn R. Gimian, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003), 539. ↩
- Lo que Hemos Ganado, Fundación Paz & Reconciliación, November 11, 2015, http://www.pares.com.co/carrusel/lo-que-hemos-ganado/. See also “Hope for Colombia’s Peace Process,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/opinion/hope-for-colombias-peace-process.html?_r=0 ↩
- Los Nadies, Somos Defensores, August 18, 2015, http://www.somosdefensores.org/index.php/en/publicaciones/informes-siaddhh/134-los-nadie ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- How Many More?, GlobalWitness.org, April 20, 2015, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/ ↩
- How Many More?, GlobalWitness.org, April 20, 2015. ↩
- Grupo de Memoria Histórica (GMH), ¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad (Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 2013), http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informes2013/bastaYa/BYColombiaMemoriasGuerraDignidadAgosto2014.pdf. ↩
- Fellowship of Reconciliation. What’s land got to do with it? Colombia: Answers to the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. www.forusa.org. Retrieved from https://peacepresence.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Land-booklet.pdf. ↩
- “Seis millones de víctimas deja el conflicto en Colombia,” Semana, February 8, 2014, http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/victimas-del-conflicto-armado-en-colombia/376494-3 ↩
- Mary DeMocker, “If Your House Is on Fire: Kathleen Dean Moore on the Moral Urgency of Climate Change,” interview with Kathleen Dean Moore, The Sun, December 2012, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/444/if_your_house_is_on_fire?page=7. ↩
- Erik Hoffner, “As We Lay Dying: Stephen Jenkinson on How We Deny Our Mortality,” interview with Stephen Jenkinson, The Sun, August 2015, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/476/jenkinson_dying. ↩
- Iván Cepeda Castro, “Genocidio Político: El Caso De La Unión Patriótica En Colombia,” Fundación Manuel Cepeda Vargas, Desaparecidos.org, accessed December 30, 2015, http://www.desaparecidos.org/colombia/fmcepeda/genocidio-up/cepeda.html. ↩