Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, in an On Being podcast, said that from the darkness comes the best of humanity. That which we call disaster is only a disaster because our ability to respond is hampered by some limitation. Instead, if we look from a specific perspective we will see that our ability to care, help, and love often emerges from the courage to respond in the deepest black of the night. In her essay, Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage, she says:
“ History is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
The idea that we can do some unseen good and it contributes to the betterment of others and ourselves in the long run requires courage and endurance. In Solnit's words it requires hope.
“Nearly everyone felt, after September 11, 2001, along with grief and fear, a huge upwelling of idealism, of openness, of a readiness to question and to learn, a sense of being connected and a desire to live our lives for something more, even if it wasn't familiar, safe, or easy.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.
Dorothy Day, saint, activist, and founder of the Catholic Workers Movement describes a foundational moment in her life. She says it begins with a disaster.
The 1938 earthquake in San Francisco wrecked havoc on the city and killed thousands of people. In addition, countless homes were destroyed and many citizens of the city were left without shelter, water, food or clothing.
Dorothy noticed that amidst this tragedy there was something miraculous happening. Her family and her neighbors were taking care of each other. They were helping and loving one another. Dorothy Day’s epiphany was not the observation that people want to help but that one can be helpful all the time. She realized that there was nothing to keep one from living a life of service. Dorothy Day found service gratifying; as a result the rest of her prolific life was dedicated to embodying hope.
“We talk about 'what we hope for' in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it's a more powerful and more joyful way to live.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.
The idea of hope in the dark is hard to understand. I find the following Buddhist tale helpful. I first heard the story from my meditation teacher, Steve Haddad. I've published it before, when my beautiful dog, Sugar Ray, passed away.
The Buddha and a grain of rice.
Once there was a woman whose beautiful young son died suddenly. She was distraught and felt like dying herself. She went to the Buddha and asked the Blessed One to bring the boy back to life.
The Buddha, seeing the woman’s inconsolable grief, wanted to help in whatever way he could.
“My dear woman,” he said, “I will bring your son back to life but first you must complete a single task.”
“Anything!” she replied.
“ You must go to the village and find someone who has not had lost a loved one to death. When you find that person, ask them for a single grain of rice, bring that grain back to me and I will return your son to you.”
The woman thanked the Buddha and left to knock on doors.
A young girl answered the first door and the woman told her the story of her son and the Buddha and a grain of rice. “Have you had death or loss,” she asked? “Can you give me the grain of rice?”
The girl was moved by the woman’s story and wanted to help but she could not. She explained that last year her beloved mother passed away. She, her father, and her brother felt many nights of grief and loss.
The woman thanked her for her time and went to the next door.
A gentleman answered and the woman told her story. “Unfortunately,” the man replied, “I cannot help you. My beloved wife passed away this winter. I still feel so much pain and loss on some days, I still cry.”
The woman knocked on door after door. She knocked not only in her own village but the next village and the next.
After three days the woman realized she was not alone in her grief. She saw that everyone has lost someone they love.
The woman took comfort in this understanding. Though she missed her son very much, she knew she was not the only one to experience loss. She returned to the Buddha and they sat in meditation. The woman was able to live with her loss and the story continues. The woman reaches enlightenment by recognizing her connection to others. She spends the rest of her time helping people heal from grief and the devastation of death.
“The world gets better. It also gets worse. The time it will take you to address this is exactly equal to your lifetime, and if you're lucky you don't know how long that is. The future is dark. Like night. There are probabilities and likelihoods, but there are no guarantees.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Discomfort takes place throughout the body, mind and spirit. Discomfort and our perpetual actions to move away from discomfort can initiate apathy, confusion, fear and intense sadness. Physically, we can experience symptoms including low energy, increased physical and altered circadian or daily rhythms including the breathing, circulatory and sleeping patterns.
Discomfort is a human reaction to any loss, trouble, or disappointment. Understanding the inevitability and temporality of discomfort can help us endure, can help us to work without necessarily seeing the fruits of our labor, without missing the opportunity to celebrate a victory just because that victory cannot yet be seen.
“As Adam Hochschild points out, from the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women's rights movement. It took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women and has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done. Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.
The body-mind reacts with discomfort to many things or ideas: The unknown, a reminder of past pain can all trigger a feeling of discomfort, but for example, in the Bhagavad-Gita, we are shown the importance of hope despite our blind king seated on the throne.
“The world gets worse. It also gets better. And the future stays dark.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
New grief triggers old; every time we face a new loss, we are confronted with the grief of previous loss, in our own life as well as the grief we carry as a family and as a community. A willingness to embrace the dark, to stop lighting up the night sky as a prerequisite for hope can ease the sensations of mystery. Without the darkness the sun would dry up the world in an instant and we would perish very quickly. Pema Chodron, Buddhist Monk and beloved teacher, says that tapping into our personal discomfort is the most effective way to initiate our own transformation. This transformation is eternal and takes circuitous roads, in and out of the light; to nowhere we could ever know, the hopeful place.
"People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange, sidelong paths in a world without end" Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
I found Hope in the Dark at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/677/rebecca_solnit_on_hope_in_dark_times visit here for Toms perspective.