My newest crusade is to have the cleanest, most litter-free potter’s field in the world sprawled in front of me on my morning walks through the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, not one candy wrapper, cigarette butt or beer bottle surviving the sweep of my gaze as I traverse its hills and dales.
My eyes are mine sweepers, extending 180 degrees through the harbor, left, right, back, up and forth.
My mission: to find and emerge triumphant over every litter bomb, no matter how tiny it is or clever its attempts to hide behind a bush or under mounds of dead fall leaves.
Out with you and into my bag, pocket or hand, you Doublemint wrapper! Quit your cowering pretension that you’re just another tree twig, you lollipop stick!
I am onto your nefarious ways!
It is good to have a noble purpose in life, and I am surpassingly glad to have found mine.
The modern world can be hell on hope. Bad guys wreaking havoc all over the planet, cynics popping up in their wake like poison mushrooms in the night, free market zealots urging you to take what you can simply because you can, before someone else does.
An aging friend tells me he’s feeling not only his hope but his interest in the affairs of life itself waning. “I’ve given up a bit,” he confides.
A voice—pretending to be as rational and reasoned as an engineering equation but with a bitter undertone—tries to convince me it is manly to face the hard truth of how big that world is against the small corner of it I inhabit.
A very young and idealistic couple traveling the world to various trouble spots, helping where they can, very much out among the people, try to listen intently and process the world’s pain in a spirit of hope. They dare to do something every day to relieve suffering and call the attention of the wider world to it, but have found their mood occasionally darkening as they stay alternately with Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East.
“Destined for Despair” is the headline on their recent blog post, the wife lamenting: “I do not hold much hope for a time when we as a people can agree enough to tear down our barricades and lay down our weapons. I do not think that peace will ever come if it is dependent on consensus.”
She then manages to find her own form of hope in “peacemaking (that) is less about eliminating conflict and more about building bridges of love and trust and relationship amidst the discord. For that, there may yet be hope.”
I choose to hope she is right.
When I look at the wide world of intransigence and ideology, political gridlock and business chicanery, grinding poverty and environmental ruin, it is tempting to call a pox on its entire house. A voice—pretending to be as rational and reasoned as an engineering equation but with a bitter undertone—tries to convince me it is manly to face the hard truth of how big that world is against the small corner of it I inhabit.
As I grasp my tiny tools of hope and perspective, despair sidles on up, whispering her easy implorations of anger and impotence, cynicism and its companion—greed—into my ear.
None of us not named Obama or Gates or Francis, this voice says, can change one thing in the broad course of history; without a platform, we can’t see any forest for all those trees in the dark fading light.
But that voice loses volume on my walks scouring for litter through the cemetery, in these very words I struggle to bring forth and cohere, in my greetings to neighbors, in the open doors and ears of friends who bid me to enter, all my troubles, travails and contradictions in tow. Tiny gestures, all, but gestures nevertheless, specific, purposeful and sincere.
“Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for,” wrote early 18th century English poet and essayist Joseph Addison. One could easily enough collapse those into “hoping to do something one loves,” which sounds like a good life’s work to me, a kind of trifecta of loving the feeling of love itself, loving hope, and loving all the doings of our life which express that hope.
This also includes keeping graveyards clean and the homeless fed and dogs rescued and children safe and clients tended and sidewalks swept and the thousand other ways we float our boats of love, hope and doing on the sometimes stormy seas of our lives.
Just how much more do we expect of ourselves, these broken tender selves so recently emerged from our caves?
It means we do our thing, to lapse into ’60s parlance for a brief moment—just one small thing.
Or more like the countless extremely small things that add up to the one small thing of a life, there to stand alongside the equally countless other lives that also add up, over time, like the miracle of compound interest, to create the fortune that was building itself almost invisibly through the years and decades and millennia.
Not saving the world, but saving our tiny corner of it, minding our stall, clearing the weeds from our lot, straightening one child aright who was headed toward a crooked path.
One at a time, like drops on a stone.
Nothing has ever changed the world that didn’t include those billions of small things ultimately wearing away ignorance, injustice and fear.
We come to realize that hope is not a gift but a choice, a commitment, a bit of existential daring-do that stakes a claim that what we do, in our almost infinitesimally small way, matters, against all the dismal hearsay and anecdote that would seek to contravene it.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” wrote the late Czech playwright and later president Vaclav Havel. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Havel learned a thing or two about hope, we can assume, from his years in prison under his country’s then Communist regime. He later led the altogether remarkable “Velvet Revolution” that brought peaceful change and the first democratic elections to his country in 44 years.
So, what makes sense for me? Perhaps even more to the point: What doesn’t make sense?
It makes no sense to be indifferent or inattentive to the pleasures and glories of this life, transient as they are. Their very transience makes them all the more precious in my eyes.
It is not tragic they will not be mine for eternity; it is tragic if I do not accept their gift to me here.
It makes no sense not calling out the best in people, nor not to forgive them their slights, their forgettings, their misplaced priorities, their out-and-out neuroses.
There, but for the grace of God and the radical love that word represents, would I go, too—less than whole and unforgiven besides.
It makes no sense to wake in the morn with no hope in my heart, no desire to breathe deeply of the day, no joy curling the corners of my mouth, forcing them upward into hope’s clearest, most universal expression.
So long as I have the great fortune of my basic health and my mind, what a kick this life is. What goodness abides in most people most of the time, even amidst appalling circumstance.
“Why can’t we all get along?” asked Rodney King in his now famous refrain. What his question didn’t reveal was that the vast majority of us do get along already. The evidence for that on every city street, through the window of every restaurant and the doors of every school, is overwhelming.
We say our society is broken and doesn’t work? I offer you: traffic lights. Orderly lines for food and vaccinations. Hospitals. Research institutes. And 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone. Etcetera, etcetera, so many etceteras…
Just how much more do we expect of ourselves, these broken tender selves so recently emerged from our caves?
Ultimately, despite the seemingly relentless conflict that continues to roil our history, there’s a severe shortage of evidence to indict the human heart, which continues to reward its devotees with its fathomless capacity for love, goodness and self-sacrifice. One needn’t pine in desperation to affirm that elemental truth—it’s there in 3-D and full technicolor in your town, today and every day.
Wherever two or more are gathered in the peace and goodwill that typifies most of our days.
Finally, this bit of loveliness from Emily Dickinson, straight up:
Follow and “Like” this blog’s Facebook page in between posts for daily snippets of wisdom and photography from all over: http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Follow along on Twitter: @AndrewHidas
Deep appreciation to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small photo of floating buttercups near top of page and photo of pampas grass in the breeze by Jan Tik, Seattle, Washington, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jantik/
Photo of happy children by shri Kshetra, Panjim, India, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shrihari_pathak/
“We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do small things, with great love.” Mother Teresa
I think a healthy regard for the troubles of the world and this life is essential for one who hopes to join the fullness of humanity. Swimming in that sea of troubles is the baptismal for empathy. And let’s not consider that our lives are singularly blessed or we may end up like King Lear, blind and bereft, only seeing the One True Goodness…..the only daughter who was true……at the moment of death. I find my tolerance for letting the bad news in waxes and wanes. Sometimes I just turn NPR the f**k off. But engaging in the small and local life, a walk somewhere, pretty much anywhere, will always rejuvenate. As will a smile to a stranger, a simple kindness given or received, or perhaps picking up a wrapper in a graveyard. And I find hope is something I am powerless to resist, even in the face of evidence that argues against it. That’s evidence of evolution I reckon.
I agree that hope is a powerful and rather mysterious frame of mind. However, there are plenty of people who don’t seem to mind if the thing they hope for cannot be shown to actually exist, especially in a religious context. 72 virgins, anyone? False hope is cruel not just because of the lie but also when it crushes the believer’s ability to hope again.
On the other hand, hope is a powerful motivator to get something done. Politicians offer it all the time. On the third hand, hope can lead one down the garden path while turning out to be something the hoper didn’t realize (Germans under Hitler). False hope can be dangerous.
Scientists use instruments and mathermatics to prove that what they are seeing and hoping that they are seeing is actually true. No cruelty of false hopes there! Besides, we can use it to land on comets,….
I like that, Angela. We may not have much by way of material goods to bring to the party, but we can always approach the front gate and walk inside with love (and will likely be invited back when we do).
Interesting point on evolution, Dennis, and I reckon it is so, indeed. Perhaps the propulsive, generative force—the kind that makes babies and seeks to secure their future—is immune to evidence that life ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that the future may only bring tales of woe. And it applies as much on an individual level as it does species-wide, and just as deftly keeps us going…
Walt, your comments bring to mind lines from Eliot’s “East Coker”:
I said to my soul be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing…
Sure, hope can be ridiculous, whether it be for 72 virgins or a new Porsche to drive itself into my garage this afternoon with $1 million in cash in the front seat. But that is not to indict hope, only to denote its imperfect elaboration in imperfect human beings. I’m more interested here in the quality of hope that affirms the essential goodness of humanity and informs our attitude and behavior of trust, openness and joy therefrom.
I would add to Mother Teresa’s quote that we also notice and internalize the small, beautiful moments that unfold around us daily: a kind gesture of a young person assisting a struggling elder with a door and the grocery bags; the young child expressing delight at the sight of ducks on the pond; the knowing smile and nod of a stranger in a quiet public space acknowledging the irritation of a loud talking blowhard holding court on nonsense and, in my mind, Jon Stewart (though he and his work are far from small things!).
Jay, I often think the whole of religion and a religious way of life can be boiled down to “Practice kindness and express gratitude.” Some people sum it all up with the Golden Rule, but I think even that is incorporated within practicing kindness. All the dogma, the “world views,” the towering theological edifices, your angels and my angels jostling for space on the head of a pin: Oy…Increasingly, that all just makes me weary.