🌻 Special edition: "Hope is a discipline" and 5 other ideas to live by in hopeless times

Hope is hard work, but maybe, just maybe, it is within our grasp.

“Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline… we have to practice it every single day.”

— Mariame Kaba


Last month, following a series of conversations with subscribers, I announced a new guiding principle for Sanity by Tanmoy: radical hope.

Radical hope is a powerful idea based on accepting that the world as we know it is falling apart but a better world is possible — even though we may not know yet what that world might look like. This framework is frequently invoked in climate activism, where tension between hope and an uncertain future is a constant.

Many of you responded to my pivot to radical hope encouragingly and asked me to go deeper. This special edition is an attempt at that: I want to share with you a 5-step guide I am trying out as my own pathway to radical hope, including resources generously gifted by subscribers.

This is going to be a longish piece, so settle down with with a cup of tea. And if you like what you read, share it with at least three friends who could do with some radical hope in their lives.

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Disclaimer: Even though radical hope sounds sexy, the fact is it’s a struggle right now for vast swathes of the world — plundered by the pandemic, abandoned by governments, locked out of life-saving vaccines courtesy the colonialist global health system — to hold on to any sense of hope. Also, trying to build a world whose face we can’t even imagine can lead to fatalism and inaction in the best of times. I don’t have clear answers to any of this, but I am not waiting for answers to start talking.

That’s precisely my goal with this exercise: to begin a conversation on radical hope — what it is and, more important, what it is not. This is strictly my personal interpretation of the idea, shaped by my privilege. I’d love for you to dissect/debate these steps — what you believe might work for you and what might not — in the comments. Here we go.

Step 1: Accept that the world is falling apart (and we don’t know what a better world looks like)

READ: A BRIEF EXPLAINER ON RADICAL HOPE

TL;DR

“Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified?”

That’s how the philosopher Jonathan Lear, who wrote the book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation rooted in the struggles of America’s Crow people, describes the concept.

Radical hope is liberating because:

  1. It has a bias for action — we need to actively direct ourselves towards the conditions that will allow for a better world. It enables us to reclaim power and agency.

  2. It gets rid of our outcome obsession and helps us stay focused on the process. At the cost of oversimplification: I go to therapy twice a week without any idea or expectation of a breakthrough.

  3. It calls BS on the the-rainbows-and-unicorns! worldview. My former colleague Nesrine Malik has a brilliant piece on the dangers of toxic positivity (often wielded by people in power to deflect attention from their gigantic failures). “Optimists display a jarring positivity because they believe only in one thing: the big picture,” Nesrine writes. “The further you zoom out, the smaller the negative phenomena appear. But just as in the long run we’re all dead, if you zoom out far enough, barring a nuclear holocaust, everything looks good.”

Resources from subscribers

Saskia recommends this interview on ‘falling together’ with the author, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit. The whole thing is worth listening to on loop, but here’s a segment I found particularly comforting:

Hopefulness is really, for me, is not optimism, that everything’s going to be fine and we can just sit back. And that’s too much like pessimism, which is that everything’s going to suck and we can just sit back. Hope, for me, just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene. We live in a very surprising world where nobody anticipated the way the Berlin Wall would fall or the Arab Spring would rise up, the impact of Occupy Wall Street. Obama was unelectable six months before he was elected.

Yes, but…

It is immoral to talk about hope without acknowledging that the labour required for it often befalls those most victimised by the exploitative systems that prop up the world — women, people of colour, frontline workers who must court death everyday in Covid wards without proper infrastructure. While we all have a role to play in fixing the world, those with greater power must shoulder a proportionate share of the responsibility.

Radical hope is also about making reparations, and it begins with demanding accountability from those most responsible for the planet’s multiple crises.

Step 2: Give yourself permission to feel (and then make it into a routine)

CHECK OUT: THIS PIECE ON CRYING

TL; DR

Radical hope is not the overnight erasure of despair. It must necessarily begin with an engagement with our grief at the loss of the familiar. The word ‘radical’ tends to evoke sharp elbows and machismo. But radical hope demands space for reflection and raw, honest, profoundly vulnerable emotions. The pandemic has primed us for this — we are hurting, and we don’t want to wait for an appropriate time and place to show it.

Resources from subscribers

How do we make this kind of reckoning with our feelings a routine? Skylar points to Trebbe Johnson’s radical joy movement, which has a fascinating charter:

“Radical Joy for Hard Times is a worldwide community of people dedicated to bringing meaning, beauty, and value to places that have been damaged by human or natural acts. We believe that in these troubling times, taking care of the places where we live in the present, even as we work for a better future is an essential tool for survival.”

  1. Go, alone or with friends, to a wounded place.

  2. Sit awhile and share your stories about what the place means to you.

  3. Get to know the place as it is now.

  4. Share with the others what you discovered.

  5. Make a simple gift of beauty for the place.

“As a teacher, I take a lot of hope from the young people I work with,” Skylar adds. “Their resiliency and desire to make a better world for themselves than the one they were bequeathed are an inspiration.”

Step 3: Reject ideas that don’t work (start with the workplace)

READ: HOW A £29 BILLION CHARITY IS USING SCIENCE TO CHALLENGE WASTEFUL MENTAL HEALTH INTERVENTIONS

TL;DR

Four-day weekends! Yoga on Zoom! Bring your pets to work! If you want to visit a museum of terrible ideas with ostensibly good intentions, look no further than the modern workplace. The thinly veiled objective of these ‘employee happiness’ schemes is to boost productivity — the prime cause of so much of our angst to begin with. Even if you are a compassionate employer truly concerned about employee wellbeing, chances are you are sinking resources in bad ideas, simply because everyone else is, too. It’s time to clinically identify, isolate, and dismantle these bad ideas.

No half measures. Becoming truly human-centric is impossible if you offer mental health leave but still hold on to the bell curve for performance appraisals.

Finally, if you are a boss, say goodbye to a culture where people act like robots in neckties. In a newsletter in my last job, I had written: “I am waiting for the day when all of this is over and people return to their workplaces — many dealing with trauma and PTSD triggered by personal illness, deaths in close circles, job losses, or just the environment of hopelessness and panic all around — and make their bosses terribly uncomfortable by refusing to hide it.” (See step 2.)

Truth be told, even I wasn’t convinced such a bold culture shift, led by employees who refuse to be silenced about the issues that matter to them, was ever going to happen. But it is happening. Basecamp, ironically a company whose seemingly enlightened workplace philosophy I wrote about glowingly in the past, discovered the dangers of a command-and-control culture when a dictum to not discuss politics at the workplace led to a mass exodus of employees.

Thoughts from subscribers

“When an organization pursues a more holistic, person-centered approach, but keeps the old metrics-based measurement systems in place, we're all sensing a disconnect,” says Catherine. “All my life I have worked alongside people who seem hypnotized by numbers, data and structured rules that protect them from the messy participation of helping each other thrive as humans.”

“This issue really reminded me of the push for increased ‘social-emotional learning’ (SEL) in schools,” Skylar adds. “On the surface, prioritizing relationships and helping students learn to process their emotions are awesome goals. But when it’s justified as a means to the ends of higher test scores rather than an end in and of itself, it just becomes another standardized curriculum, another box to check, another bubble to fill in. I treat my students like human beings so they can thrive as humans, not because it will improve an arbitrary measurement.

Step 4: Get behind ideas that do work (look beyond familiar places)

READ: HOW CASH TRANSFERS ARE PREVENTING SUICIDES IN BRAZIL

TL;DR

An underrated truth about hope — when it is sustained and not merely a flash in the pan — is that it is intensely intersectional. It sits flush at the meeting point of the different identities — gender, sexuality, class, caste, colour, religion, age, disability status — that make us, us. Solutions to complex problems rarely come from a neat box. Frequently, they do not come from the places we are conditioned to look in.

Take, for instance, suicide prevention. For decades, the work of suicide prevention has been projected as a part of the mental healthcare system, ignoring the reality that often people don’t kill themselves because they are ‘depressed’ but because of poverty, debt, unemployment, abuse, or violence.

When we begin to look beyond simplistic explanations, powerful solutions emerge. For instance, in Brazil, conditional cash transfers to the poorest families have been associated with a 61% lower risk of suicide. No psych ward involved.

Want people to feel hopeful about their lives? Make living easier.

Step 5: Celebrate action by ordinary citizens (but continue to hold the powerful to account)

READ: MEET THE HUMANS OF THE KINDNESS ECONOMY

TL;DR

This final step makes me uneasy. My country is going through an extraordinary time, when the abysmal failure of the healthcare system has forced ordinary citizens to come to each other’s rescue, using channels like Twitter to organise themselves.

From delivering oxygen cylinders to serving food to families in distress to verifying the availability of ICU beds to giving up their own bed because someone else needs it more — the gush of kindness has been spectacular, but it has also laid bare how spectacularly those tasked with keeping us safe have failed us. It is impossible to distil hope from this environment without reminding ourselves how we got here. Thankfully, radical hope hold space for both those impulses.

Hope is a discipline

I’ll leave you with the words of the Black American abolitionist Mariame Kaba. I was recently introduced to Kaba’s work by the poet Heather Christle and fully expect her to reappear in this newsletter. For now, here’s an excerpt from one of her most comprehensive interviews.

Hope is not an emotion, Kaba says. Hope is hard work.

The idea of hope being a discipline is something I heard from a nun many years ago who was talking about it in conjunction with making sure we were of the world and in the world. Living in the afterlife already in the present was kind of a form of escape, but that actually it was really, really important for us to live in the world and be of the world. The hope that she was talking about was this grounded hope that was practiced every day, that people actually practiced it all the time.

And so, I bowed down to that. I heard that many years ago and then I felt the sense of, Oh my god. That speaks to me as a philosophy of living, that hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom… I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way. I choose to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy….

….And I don’t also take a short-time view, I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that, that I’m definitely not going to be even close to around for seeing the end of. So, that also puts me in the right frame of mind, that my little friggin’ thing I’m doing, is actually pretty insignificant in world history, but [if] it’s significant to one or two people, I feel good about that.

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Many thanks to Ibrahim Rayintakath for his beautiful art. Follow him on Instagram: @Ibrahirn.


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