Essays, Open Access

There is a Love Beyond Hope

In my decades working on environmental problems and social change, I was motivated by the hope that humanity would change everything in time to slow climate change and transition to a sustainable way of life. I even talked of it that way, without looking more closely at that idea of “hope.” What did I mean by that? Could I be motivated without such a hope? In my rush to achieve an impact in the world, I did not take the time to explore our shared cultural story about hope, despite being a part-time academic, where deeper inquiry is often expected. Eventually, evidence from the real world forced me to think again about hope and to ultimately free myself to live creatively in the face of societal disruption and collapse.1 I discovered there is a love beyond hope, a love which can guide active engagement in society without attachment to outcomes. Through that engagement, I met many people attempting to reduce harm and contribute to possibilities within our environmental predicament without ‘fairytales’ of success required to motivate them.         

For many years, I downplayed the full extent of the planetary situation. Bad environmental news kept flooding in, demonstrating that the apparent successes of people in my field of corporate sustainability were not having an appreciable effect in the real world. In 2014, after my Inaugural Professorial lecture with the University of Cumbria, I had a “dark night of the soul,” where I allowed myself to wonder whether it is too late to “save” this civilization— or even the human race.2 My despair was particularly intense during a week when I had a high fever, which suspended the many distractions of my busy life of “important” activities. However, I was not yet ready to allow a disintegration of my identity and worldview. Getting off my sick bed, I pulled myself together and parked my existential dilemma to develop a suite of MBA courses on sustainability issues. From that point on, whenever I saw any bad environmental news, or a worrying new scientific paper, I filed it away to look at some point in the future. Over the next few years, those electronic files grew and grew, but I was too busy to peek into the abyss they might reveal to me. Yet, I sensed that if I did take that time, my whole being might fall into it. Three years later, however, the cognitive dissonance, between my work on the environment and what the latest data indicated was happening, had become too much for me, and I began a year of unpaid leave to look at climate science directly for the first time since studying it as an undergraduate at Cambridge University.

What I found during this leave of absence meant I could not go back to working on corporate sustainability. I concluded that global heating had progressed so far, and there was so much more heating and erratic weather to come due to existing damage to the biosphere, cryosphere, and atmosphere, that the collapse of modern societies was inevitable.3 My previous career suddenly seemed like a charade, based on assessments of reality filtered by experts who were too embedded within the established order of things.4

I was fortunate that the meltdown of my own identity occurred within a supportive environment of wise friends, most of whom had already prioritized living a consciously spiritual life.5 I realized there could be another version of me to emerge. The sense that I could survive through the abyss allowed me to see the way various concepts from my culture had kept me trapped in a delusion. I came to realize that one of those concepts was “hope.” Freed from an attachment to hope, I was better able to see how we can live meaningful and creative lives while accepting that we have entered the era of collapsing industrial consumer societies.

The statement that “we must have hope” is still widely heard, and widely accepted as a good thing. But I came to learn that it is not a view shared by many ancient wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, which regards hope as a thought pattern that takes us away from meeting reality as we find it.6 In the Aṅguttara Nikāya, part of the ancient Pāli-language Buddhist canon, we read the Buddha’s comments that there are three kinds of people in the world: “The hopeful, the hopeless, and the one who has done away with hope.”7 A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, Oren Jay Sofer explains that hope can direct “our longing for happiness in an unskillful way. It places our well-being on an uncertain, imagined future beyond our control, thereby feeding craving and fixation. When the wished-for outcome isn’t realized, we are crushed.”8 He suggests that “Dhamma practice channels our longing for happiness, harmony, and equity in a skillful way. This begins with saddha, most frequently translated as ‘faith’ or ‘conviction.’ Saddha refers to one’s aspiration and confidence in the path. It is the intuitive sense that there is something worthwhile about being alive, that inner freedom is available for each of us.” There is some similarity here to the more mystical understandings of Christian teachings. The invitation for believers to have hope, as in the theological virtues of “faith, hope and charity,” is not an invitation to expect that a pain free world will come to exist on Earth. Rather, it is an invitation to expect that the ultimate rightness of existence will be experienced by each of us in the end, whether that is in this life or after death. That kind of hope is closer to a faith or trust in the universe, whatever may come to pass. It resonates with the Buddhist understanding of equanimity, or upekkha, which recognizes, in the words of Oren, that we “choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”

Insights from wisdom traditions help us to look more closely at what people mean when they claim that there is need for hope. Do they mean a wish, an expectation, or a possibility to work towards? To understand the differences, consider the example of studying for an exam, where you hope to achieve an A grade. Does that mean you wish to get that grade? If the exam is important to you, then wishing for an outcome doesn’t sound like the best way to go about it— as it isn’t very active or practical. Perhaps you have an expectation that you will get an A grade in the exam. If you do, then this expectation may or may not be useful to you achieving that grade. Your expectation depends on your views on your past performance, and how much effort you are putting into revision and exam practice, so it might be a fair or misplaced expectation. Whether this expectation helps you to achieve a good grade or not depends on other considerations, such as whether you are the kind of person who needs such an expectation to feel motivated in the first place, or whether it might even reduce your dedication to working towards the desired outcome.

A third way of thinking about hope refers to the belief in a possibility that one can work towards. Joanna Macy describes this as “active hope.”9 If you believe that an A grade is possible if you work towards it, then this might be helpful in motivating you. However, you might not be a person who needs to focus on the possibility of an A grade to work as hard as you can. Perhaps avoiding failure might be more motivating. Or perhaps you focus on doing the best you can whatever the result might be. In this form of hope, your efforts can arise from a sense of duty to the efforts of your parents, or due to respecting the gifts and opportunities you have been given.

By not taking hope for granted and reflecting on why it is so widely regarded in modern societies as an important quality, we can recognize multiple motivations for action that do not require stories of human dominion and progress. This recognition is helpful because it is too late for humanity to get an A grade on the environment. It might even be too late to pass. By stating that, I mean that all the evidence concerning existing biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, global toxification and climate change, as well as the anticipated future damage stemming from existing environmental degradation, means that the planetary environment is changing, and these changes are partly beyond our control (the science on which I describe in my book Breaking Together).10 Yet, despite this upsetting situation, to try to do the best we can, while not ruining our lives in the process, makes sense to many of us. Active hope should inspire us not to give up because we won’t get an A grade, or because we might not even pass. It involves us being attentive to the reality of suffering and loss, so that we can adjust our efforts accordingly. For instance, we might come to realize that an ecosystem cannot be saved but a new one aided in its development, or that further mass migrations will be inevitable and need accommodating, or that some aspects of our lifestyle and expectations must be relinquished and try to do that in a conscious and fair way. 

The concept of “Active Hope” can, and should, leave space for the “hopefree” form of compassionate engagement in life that the Buddha was referring to in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Because when some people speak of hope they are alluding to a kind of faith about the ultimate rightness of all things, no matter what occurs. That is the concept of saddha, which I mentioned earlier. Personally, I have that kind of faith. It is a faith that is also encouraged by multiple religions, that encourages us towards living lovingly without attachment to outcomes. This kind of religious hope does not involve a wish, an expectation, or even a realistic possibility, but a deeper knowing within us of the nature of reality, and thus, an instinct for living lovingly.11 As such, it does not require the promise of a successful material outcome for humans or the rest of life on Earth. This faith is intertwined with the consciousness of unconditional love. There is, in other words, a love beyond hope. Tuning into this love within ourselves and each other has always been important, but never more so than during this new era of societal disruption and collapse.

With these deeper understandings of hope, we are better able to recognize the increasingly panicked exhortations for us to have hope as climate chaos unfolds around us.12 We can see how some people who demand that we maintain hope are being deferential to existing systems of power and the ideologies associated with that. We can see how they might be craving for the situation to be different than what it actually is, in a way that distorts understandings of what can be done. Instead, we can look for wise counsel in these difficult times, seeking and sharing guidance on how to be—and to lead—through an era of polycrisis, disruption and collapse.13 I am grateful to Buddhist insights and practices for helping myself and many environmentalists find that deeper drive for an engaged compassionate life. 


Jem Bendell is the author of Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse. He is also the founder of Deep Adaptation Forum, 14 a space that provides support for people as they seek to respond positively to unfolding societal disruption and collapse, something he also teaches about in the online course “Leading Through Collapse.”


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Notes

  1.  Jem Bendell, “Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse,” April 8, 2023, https://jembendell.com/2023/04/08/breaking-together-a-freedom-loving-response-to-collapse/.
  2.  Jem Bendell, “Exploring Sustainability: Inaugural Professorial Lecture,” Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, University of Cumbria, March 14, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-Opqi-2UgY.
  3. Jem Bendell, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy,” Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Papers 2 (2018), https://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/4166/.
  4. Jem Bendell, “The Sustainability Professional’s Seven Deadly Sins of Denial,” Brave New Europe, May 22, 2023, https://braveneweurope.com/jem-bendell-the-sustainability-professionals-seven-deadly-sins-of-denial.
  5. Jem Bendell, “Grieve, Pray, Love,” March 23, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQwhZSdHh-Q.
  6. Rigdzin Shikpo, Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2007).
  7. Bhante Sujato, trans., “The Chariot-Maker (AN 3.13: Hopes),” Aṅguttara Nikāya: The Numerical Discourses, The Buddha’s Words, 2019, https://thebuddhaswords.net/an/an3.13.html.
  8. All quotes from Oren Jay Sofer are drawn from Ayya Yeshe, “Ask the Teachers: What is the Buddhist View of Hope?,” Lion’s Roar, August 11, 2020, https://www.lionsroar.com/ask-the-teachers-what-is-the-buddhist-view-of-hope/.
  9. Joanna Macy, “Active Hope, A.K.A. How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy,” Center for Ecoliteracy, May 9, 2012, https://www.ecoliteracy.org/article/active-hope-aka-how-face-mess-were-without-going-crazy.
  10. Jem Bendell, Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse (Bristol, UK: Good Works, 2023).
  11. Jem Bendell, “Let’s Have Faith in Reality and Humanity, Not the Tired Hopes of Modernity,” November 2, 2022, https://jembendell.com/2022/11/02/lets-have-faith-in-reality-and-humanity-not-the-tired-hopes-of-modernity/.
  12. Jem Bendell, “Let’s Tell the Moodsplainers They’re Wrong and Then Get Back to Work,” August 5, 2023, https://jembendell.com/2023/08/05/lets-tell-the-moodsplainers-theyre-wrong-and-then-get-back-to-work/.
  13. “Leading Through Collapse” is a series of courses with Jem Bendell and Katie Carr. https://www.katie-carr.com/leadingthroughcollapse.
  14. Deep Adaptation Forum, https://www.deepadaptation.info/.