RASHMI OBEROI | 11 DECEMBER, 2020
Bordering on Hope… Living in Despair
“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops
Weakened by my soulful cries…”
And my India weeps a little more each day.
As this rather wretched year comes to an end what prompts me to write is a certain mood I have been in, and which I believe many others have been sharing.
The word I would offer to describe this mood would be: foreboding. A certain apprehensiveness, unease, disquiet, dread. A feeling that something is about to go really wrong (Can it get even worse I keep asking myself?)…wrong in a way it hasn’t before for most of us, or in a way we thought no longer possible.
Or worse: that it has already happened; that the thunder was subdued if ominous, but the next lightning strike will not be, that it will disrupt everything about our way of life and about the possibilities for the future.
I’m not going to bother now to try to give the reasons, or the facts of recent history, why I or we might think it is legitimate to feel this way. It’s the mood I want to reflect on.
I don’t think there is a viewpoint about premonitions as such but two other moods have more bona fide philosophical credentials—namely hope and despair. They lean more towards states you ought to be in, attitudes you ought to have, or not. States or attitudes you can present arguments in favour of or in opposition to. These arguments and debates then result in the formation of two great opposing positions—meta-worldviews, as it were—Optimism and Pessimism.
The sense of foreboding I mention presents itself to me as a kind of waiting room. It’s a state of suspension open to overtures or assurances from either camp. It can either ‘fall’ into pessimism or ‘steel itself up’ and insist on optimism in spite of itself. Either side can take the high ground, insist that it is the courageous or sober or warranted response.
Our government officials and figures have opted lately, at least publicly, for the magnanimous cloak of optimism. Every day, you hear politicians publicly pronounce that they are optimistic in spite of it all, even sometimes adding “now more than ever!” But in reality, things couldn’t get worse here.
We are balancing dangerously on a precipice…that will plunge us down into an abyss that will take years and maybe decades to climb back out from…or maybe crawl out from?
How should we be feeling? Is it naïve to be hopeful? When should we despair? Does it make more sense to be optimistic or pessimistic? Recent political developments the world over have made many apprehensive about the future, instilling a sense of foreboding and unease. And yet many public officials, journalists, and academics have also expressed a firm hopefulness in the midst of these developments.
For many, if not most, the idea that pessimism would be a good attitude to hold seems almost nonsensical. Even if it is difficult to be optimistic at times, it’s clear to some that it’s really the only option, the only attitude to strive for. To ‘fall’ into pessimism is to admit defeat, to give up and give in, which would involve a kind of moral failure.
Today, as people around the world grapple with hardship and grinding inequalities, many feel confused about how to live happily in the here and now—while others think doing so is downright impossible. But as an optimist, I think there is a way to make the present enjoyable and open to change. It’s making room in our lives for hope.
It is possible to acknowledge the very real pain and suffering in the world today while still living with hope. And hope can be seen as a transformative way of enjoying an otherwise bleak present. Hope is a way of living felicitously despite dark times, believing that tomorrow can be better than today. This does not mean that one passively waits for everything to come out all right in the end. Rather, hopeful people desire a certain outcome, and believe that it is possible.
Take political hope of the kind seen in resistance movements. Here the sense of the possible involves a belief in a group that can collectively bring a new vision into actuality. The farmer’s movement bespeaks: “We the people are greater than fear.”
So hope’s power lies in its embrace of the present as a time of possibilities. As a practice of enjoyment undertaken despite hard times, hope resists fear and despair. And so if we want lives that are both enjoyable and open to change, we should choose hope even in dark times—because it keeps the possibility of a better world alive for us.
It doesn’t feel wise for me to enumerate all of the possible causes of despair, but I do feel the need to ground this piece in time. So, to state what feels obvious: We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a public health crisis that has changed our daily lives. We are also, in India, in a moment of reckoning, facing religious bigotry, hate, oppression of minorities, autocratic laws and rules, subjugation, terror and atrocities.
So many lives have been lost — so many people have been killed — as a result of the times we live in. The enormity of those losses alone, their causes, preventability, and implications, is enough to lead to despair. But, the lack of clarity about how we will move out of our present circumstances into a better future is downright depressing. Being able to think expansively is what makes us human. How can we — all of us — develop resiliency in the face of such deep despair?
Allow for what you are actually feeling. I think a lot of people struggle to find the idealistic balance of being optimistic or hopeful with the reality of experiencing true pain. In the realm of intolerance and social justice/injustice, this rings particularly true. We cannot ask people to push away feelings of anger to deny the real pain they are experiencing. That kind of expectation furthers injustice.
These are truly unprecedented times. But we live in hope… Hope that 2021 brings a new dawn!
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