Is Hope Evil?

Everyone in this room knows that our planet is in deep trouble. Many of you may have read the very important book Moral Ground by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson. It is intended to be an appeal to conscientious and ethical people from all walks of life, and all parts of the world, to consider and act upon their moral obligation to the planet, the human species, and all living things.

I confess, I have not read the entire book. One of the things I like most about this book is it’s easy to pick up and read chapter by chapter. I further admit that parts of this book depressed me, deflated me and provoked despair; an emotion I spend a considerable amount of energy keeping at bay. Despair, about these huge issues of global crisis is thoroughly debilitating.

As an antidote to despair, many people latch onto hope. To avoid becoming completely cynical we talk about holding on to hope, visualizing the possibilities, praying for a healed world, etc. In fact, hope for the future has become a hot commodity. People are starving for anything that helps prop up their hopeful mindset. Posters, songs, magazines, advertising slogans assuage us with promises that recycling, cleaner fuels, organic food, yoga, hybrid cars, and (you fill in the blank) provide hope for a brighter future.

Now, don’t get me wrong; all of the aforementioned are very good things; very positive cultural developments. But I, like Michael Nelson, “worry that hope will actually stifle, not aid in healing our warped relationship with the natural word. He says, “I worry that hope can be, and often is a distraction, an excuse for not getting on with the work at hand.”

In recent years, I have heard and read more and more urgings to visualize a healed world, pray for the planet, meditate on man and nature living harmoniously, etc. Like the ubiquitous bumper sticker that reads “pray for peace,” these types of invocations are fine as spiritual practices, but they are poor substitutes for action. I believe a huge portion of society has been seduced by feel-good messages offering “hope for the future”. Clinging to hope may save us from descending into despair, but it may also reinforce the disconnect between what we say we believe in and how we behave, thus eroding our personal integrity.

Kathleen Dean Moore describes “a huge, essential middle ground between hope and despair. This is not acting-out-of-hope, or failing-to-act-out-of-despair, but acting out of virtue, an affirmation of who we are and what is worthy of us as moral beings. This is integrity, which is consistency between belief and action. To act lovingly because we love. To act justly because we are just. To live gratefully because this life is a gift.”

Taking action to combat climate change, and other environmental degradation is a moral imperative for all individuals who know the threats we face. Further, I believe, failure to act is vice.

There is a quote that I encountered decades ago and often rely on as one of my personal moral touch stones. Edmund Burke said, “Real evil is when good men stand by and do nothing.” I don’t know the context of this statement, it was likely a war. For me those words are a compelling reminder that being horrified about atrocities and injustice while failing to act is not a neutral stance, but is in fact, morally delinquent.

By focusing on hope rather than personal action, are we perpetuating evil? If we are so busy “wishing and hoping and thinking and praying” that we are, effectively, standing idly by while the lives of the children of the future are being seriously threatened, then yes! I believe we are as guilty as those who profit from drilling for oil in pristine landscapes, those who harvest scarce ocean life, who clear-cut the rain forest to create grazing land for cattle destined to become hamburgers, and those who spend multi-millions of dollars to send our young people to fight for oil in the middle east rather than investing in alternative energy at home.

I found myself in this moral crucible several years ago when I was the mother of young children. The menace posed by nuclear weapons, population growth, pollution, extinction and global warming nearly overshadowed the joys of parenting. I fought psychological and emotional anguish as I taught my son and daughter to love a world that seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. And I felt guilty; guilty about my privileged lifestyle, my consumptive habits, and for the whole catastrophic mess my generation, my parents and my grandparents had created. I could not sleep at night. To save my own integrity and attain some degree of peace, I realized I needed to focus on achieving two things:

1. Ease my conscience by working hard to create the future I desire for my children, and all children

2. Be a role model for my children: Model a life that responds to challenges and uncertainty with action, tenacity and resilience.

In other words, I got busy. I pulled myself out the dark brooding through yoga and meditation. These practices gave me inner strength and clarity, and empowered me to look honestly at my own life and the world around me. It can be very scary, to burst that protective bubble of hope and come face to face the truth of our dire situation. It really was a paradigm shift for me to admit that visualizing a viable future and praying for its coming were not enough. I quit kidding myself into thinking I could rely on other people, or institutions to come up with solutions. By now I knew in my heart that our desired future must be actualized by people with enough integrity to accept the emotional and intellectual challenge of analyzing the world for the purpose of changing it. That meant me.

I made a conscious decision to leave my passive comfort zone and become a messenger and an activist for environmental conservation and protection. I read up on environmentally friendly lifestyle changes and adopted them. I educated myself about ecology, species conservation and resource protection. I joined local environmental initiatives and volunteered for environmental organizations. My gosh! There are an awesome number of worthwhile and effective organizations, projects and movements going on here in our own community and around the globe.

I want to tell you about an organization I discovered through my interest in yoga, because I think it’s philosophy really reinforces what Michael Nelson and Kathleen Moore are preaching.

Off the Mat and Into the World was founded by three women, yogis, who believe yoga practitioners should do more than enhance their own well-being. OTM’s mission is to use the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change. Founder Sean Corn says, “A lot of people have been practicing yoga for years, even decades. Their bodies are healthier, their relationships are better. They’re saying, ‘Now what? I say, take your practice off the mat and into the world.” This inspirational organization encourages people to take all they have learned in their yoga practice and bring it into the community by implementing in-service group projects to fill real needs.

Wouldn’t it be great if more organizations started similar movements? I’d like to see Out of the Gym and Into the World to get all those body-builders to weatherize some houses. Think of how many trees could be planted by the world’s professional athletes through Out of the Arena and Into the World. College professors could pitch in through Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the World. Out of the Pew and Into the World, and perhaps even Out of the Pulpit and Into the World would give all of us good church people an avenue to aid the hungry, the sick, the illiterate, the addicted, and the abused by protecting the ecosystems upon which they all ultimately depend.

Speaking of pulpits, let me share another inspirational example. Clare Butterfield, a UU minister, is currently Executive Director of a wonderful organization called Faith In Place. Its mission is to give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth. I’d like to read an excerpt from the sermon she delivered just prior to leaving Unity Temple in Oak Park to devote herself to Faith in Place.

Butterfield says, “This is what I have learned. Rituals and acts, shared meals, surrender to the power of the natural world, apology for the costs we have inflicted, love for others, these are how we keep our souls alive in this soul-deadening world. The restoration of prairie, the care for the smallest part of our local ecology is a magnification of the value of life. It allows us to go on, and to go on in possession of our souls in a culture that really doesn’t want us to retain possession of our souls. The work that I do is not about a particular eco-system, a particular non-native invasive species, a particular faith or a particular tribe. It is about the quality of our relationships as we move on the Earth. Cultivating gardens reminds me of this. Working with the children in From The Ground Up reminds me of this. Pulling the garlic mustard and cutting the buckthorn so that the trout lilies can come back to the understory, where their seeds have lain dormant for years or decades, reminds me that any soul no matter how fallen away, can be restored to the knowledge of the Grace of God. This is hard work, this business of restoring souls. Hard, and look at the world, so necessary.”

Clearly Butterfield is entreating us to do more than pray and hope and wear t-shirts emblazoned with catchy environmental messages. Today I urge you to actively support and participate in any and all environmental protection and restoration efforts and organizations. National organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, Earth Share, and Green Peace need financial support. Locally, you can join or volunteer with the Green Communities Coalition, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition, Severson Dells, Audubon, Angelic Organics Learning Center or the Natural Land Institute.

From the pulpit, Clare Butterfield directly asked her congregants to come and help her restore a local prairie. She told them, “The benefit of this kind personal action is that you will rediscover your own agency in the interdependent web, you will recognize your ship with all the life around you.” I would like to extend a similar invitation to you. Come with me on this journey to integrity. Find a project or practice, roll up your sleeves, wade into the mess and begin today. I have with me a list of events, organizations and projects going on right here, right now, that are working for the restoration and protection of our land, water, soil and wildlife and also advocating and planning for renewable energy and sustainable communities.

If we are honest we will admit that our own souls have been damaged by what we have seen in our lifetimes and in recent weeks and months. But it’s not time to give up and it is not time to merely hope. If my life has taught me anything, it is that the possibility of restoration, of the land, of the people, of my own integrity lies in stepping off the comfortable island of acquiescence and becoming someone who contributes knowledge, inspiration, energy and resources to the fight for our planet’s future.

I think Kathleen Dean Moore says it best, “When all is said and done, make sure that you are able to say you lived a life you believe in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in your life choices what is compassionate and just. Even if hope is rapidly failing that you can make a difference to the future of the Earth, you can always make a difference to who you are.”

We don’t know what lies ahead, but we have to get through this time, and we can do it with integrity and elegance if we act with love and wisdom as our guides.

In closing, I want to share with you a Hopi Indian prayer because I think it speaks to the changes that must happen now. The need to let go of the way we have been living.

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour. And there are things to be considered: Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader. This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. -The Elders Oraibi Arizona Hopi Nation

Jamie B. Johannsen, Dir. Marketing & Community Relations
Winnebago County Forest Preserve District
March 20, 2011
© 2011 Jamie B. Johannsen. All rights reserved.

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