The Case Against Hope

do-you-feel-hopeless-21308086Derrick Jensen writing in the May/June 2006 issue of Orion Magazine:

We’ve all been taught that hope in some future condition—like hope in some future heaven—is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.

The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would—how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell—you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase—not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.

When you give up on hope—when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive—you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?

But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.

And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.

Read more here.

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  • echar

    What use is hope if there is no future?

  • Cortacespedes

    Hmmm. This is from “Endgame”.

    Yes, only hope can destroy us now.

  • Meecheroo

    What if some people only have a socially constructed “you” and can’t disconnect from that layer of hope because it’s been inculcated from such an early age?

  • BuzzCoastin

    What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
    Hope and fear are both phantoms
    that arise from thinking of the self.

    When we don’t see the self as self,
    what do we have to fear?
    See the world as yourself.
    Have faith in the way things are.
    Love the world as yourself;
    then you can care for all things.

  • X.

    So hope is not our only hope?

  • jnana

    I would argue hope actually inspires one to action(or non-action). Without hope, there is despair which may lead one towards the nihilistic feeling that all is futile, doomed to decay. With hope, one feels that struggle is still worthwhile and resistance is fertile. The hopeless aren’t going to resist. They give in.
    But, I see where he’s coming from, and the hope that the Buddha mentioned is codependent w/ fear might be a different kinda hope that I’m implying. For the Buddhist still hopes, for the liberation of all.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Hope can be good or bad. Yes it is a giving up of agency and passing the buck onto someone else to give action. But sometimes one is powerless, and nothing can change that; and when given the choice between anxiety and hope, I’ll choose hope.

    It is good though because it is a way of identifying which “side” you are on so to speak depending on an issue. Hope is one of the things that feeds compassion. Someone could be powerless but hopeful, and the compassionate ones can see this and would want to help within reason.

    Alone, hope is useless, but its symbiotic with other qualities.

  • Ted Heistman

    Derrick Jensen gave up hope and decided to make money telling OTHER PEOPLE to blow up dams and sabotage the infrastructure.

  • Ted Heistman

    This guy makes a shit load of money, which I don’t begrudge authors that. I think being a best selling author, who demands thousands of dollars in speaking fees is an honest living. But it does strike me as a bit ironic, considering he purports to believe everyone should return to the stone age and if not voluntarily, than by force.

    Sometimes I think its simply a Schtick other times I think he must be an government informant like a walking honey pot collecting info on would be revolutionaries. His latest book with Lierre Keith and that clone that talks just like him seemed to borrow an awful lot from Chairman Mao. What I mean is, they don’t seem to have an original ideas at all about what to do once they convince some flunkies to overthrow western technological/industrial civilization.