Doing Without Hope

Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 3

Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese," begins: “You do not have to be good.” You only have be who you are. The poem continues: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Only then, as Zbigniew Herbert said, “will you attain the good that you will not attain.”

In the end we are redeemed only by the kind of person it is our nature to be – not by what we accomplish. The scorpion will sting. That’s not what matters. As Zbigniew Herbert’s poem said, “The informers, executioners, cowards – they will win.” Not what matters.

A line from The Lord of the Rings that has stayed with me since I first read it more than 40 years ago. Gandalf has just fallen to the Balrog in Moria. The rest of the company has escaped outside where it has a brief chance to collect itself and take stock. Aragorn soliloquizes “Gandalf . . . What hope have we without you?” He turned to the Company. “We must do without hope,” he said.

Doing without hope doesn’t always mean dejection, ennervating depression, inability to act, giving up, rolling over. Hopelessness is not despair. “Let us gird ourselves and weep no more,” says Aragorn in the next line. “Come! We have a long road.”

Hopelessness can help bring us into the present moment, pull us back from the sort of hope that has us living in our imagined future instead of the present. In the realm of social action, this hopelessness means not clinging to an image in which other people have finally stopped being so foolish and pig-headed as to have values that differ from our own.

There is another kind of hope, which isn’t about the future being different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.”

It’s about acting here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. It’s about what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. It’s about doing what we are called to do, not to make the world over in our image, but only to be who we are.

It’s about being courageous, joining the resistance with our hearts and our breath and our love and our being, and being comfortable not being able to predict what will come of it. It’s about listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go.

Any other kind of hope is really another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. It is fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become.

A hero of mine is A.J. Muste, a lifelong activist. He protested the Vietnam War outside the White House, day after day, usually alone, sometimes in the rain. One day Muste was approached a reporter. “Do you really think you’re going to change those people?” asked the reporter indicating toward the White House.

“I don’t do it to change them,” replied Muste. “I do it so they won’t change me.”

It’s not that Muste, or I, don’t want to be changed. It’s just that we want to resist the forces that would keep us from our calling, that would occlude the compassion from flowing out from us to what end we cannot see and do not control.

Yes, strategizing is a part of doing. Goals and outcomes and plans for achieving are the manifestations of compassion. It’s possible to plan for results without expecting them. Our hearts turn over to grace their labor, their sweat -- all that our hearts are and have.

Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Attain the Good You Will Not Attain"
See also:
Part 1: Life Is Not a Utilitarian Calculation
Part 2: No Desire for the Fruits of Your Action
And see:
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, "Conservation: Attaining the Good You Will Not Attain"

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