Step One: Give up hope
These days, I’m more likely to feel hopeless than sad, more likely to feel as if nothing is ever enough, as if nothing really makes a difference, as if our whole human civilization is unraveling and there is nothing I or anyone can do about it. It’s a different feeling from sadness, and perhaps it needs a different, more complex set of ideas for coping with it. Here’s what I came up with to that end:
Give up hope. That’s right, get off the hope/despair roller coaster and realize once and for all: It’s hopeless! You should have known when a U.S. presidential candidate won an election on a platform of mere hope that it was time to give it up. Embrace hopelessness! It’s OK! It makes sense. But we can, should, and must still be intentional, responsible, and joyful.
Explore your gifts and passions with someone you love. Get together with someone you love and tell each other what you really care about, what you have real passion for, what you think really needs to be done in the world, what you think you could actually contribute to usefully and would really enjoy doing. Then tell each other what you think each other’s gifts to the world are—the things that other person is uniquely good at doing. I bet you’ll feel things starting to shift, in ways that are practical and intentional, instead of just desperately, uselessly hopeful.
Be good to yourself. We’re fucked, and you know it, but still you’re doing your part, taking responsibility, doing important work to mitigate or help adapt to the hopeless future we all face, right? So ease off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself a break. Pamper yourself. Celebrate the fact that you’re smart enough, informed enough, strong enough, sensitive enough to feel utterly hopeless.
Cry (like an elephant). Research suggests that crying is a natural response to stress and grief, with enormous therapeutic value. Elephants, with exceptionally large brains and memories, visit the sites of pack mates’ deaths or suffering to remember and to cry, according to research by Jeffrey Masson. It’s natural, it feels good, and it’s good for you. So why does our culture not want us to cry when we feel hopeless?
Listen to kids talk about what they care about. Kids are hopeless. Until their parents, peers, and the education system brainwash them to start planning and hoping for their future and living inside their heads, they live in the present—without hope. By listening to them we can relearn what it means to live without the need to hope, to just accept and be.
Learn to be present like wild creatures. Like young children, wild creatures don’t live in hope. They too live in the real world, the present. They have much to teach us about the first principles of living, hopelessly: Be generous. Value your time. Live naturally. Learn to be present in your own way—meditation, exercise, walks in the woods, whatever works for you. Hope and hopelessness are both about the future. When you are present, neither has any hold on you.
Talk with other hopeless people. It’s hopeless for all of us, so acknowledging that and starting to talk about it knowingly and honestly is the first step in making peace with our hopelessness and our collective grief. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the taboo in our culture that we must not admit to, or talk about, the hopelessness of our situation, and our feelings of hopelessness. You might start with someone you care about whom you haven’t talked with in a long time. Right now, yeah, leave a message if you have to, and persevere. When you do converse, forget about catching up on old news or talking about future plans. Talk about what you’re doing and feeling right now. Including the feelings of hopelessness. Bring them into your present and they’ll bring you into the present in return, and out of the hopeless future.
Avoid unactionable news and “self-help” books. The media don’t have a clue, and the “news” is all about what has already happened, dumbed down, sensationalized, and oversimplified to the point of meaninglessness. It’s all designed to make you feel hopeful, so you don’t rise up and do something dangerous or appropriate to the worst of the perpetrators who have, in fact, made everything hopeless. And while you’re dispensing with hopeless reading, throw out all those so-called “self-help” books with their glib prescriptions for how you should live. They don’t work! You are the way you are for a reason. It’s absurd to hope that some stupid book is going to change it.
Dream. Dreams are alternate realities, and they are realities we can create and control. When you give vent to your imagination, it can manifest, real-ize, wonderful inventions—works of art with amazing healing, communicating, inspirational, and transformative power. Your dreams are clues to your gift to the world.
Fall in love. I have no advice at all on how to do this. All I know is that it works. It’s risky and addictive for sure, and for most of us its most blissful effects wear off too fast. But nature has given us this wonderful state of foolish, invincible, chemical-induced grace, and it makes us immune to both hope and hopelessness.
I will resist the temptation to rant about things I think are dumb to do when you’re feeling hopeless (like praying, or asking others for help) because that would get me into arguments, and arguments on things like religion and psychiatry are worse than hopeless. I trust you are not feeling better. After all, it is hopeless.
Excerpted from Dave Pollard’s blog How to Save the World (Sept. 12, 2010), where he writes about his “search to find better ways to live, and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.” www.howtosavetheworld.ca
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.