Oné gloomy fall day in the early 1980s, I was on a tour of the infamous toxic waste dump in Love Canal, New York, with government officials from Canada and the United States. The dump’s contaminants were leaking into the Niagara River, and hence into Lake Ontario, the source of drinking water for 40 million Americans and Canadians. Needless to say, this was causing widespread alarm on both sides of the border, and, as an environmental policy analyst for the city of Toronto, my job was to prepare an appropriate response for the city council.
By that time, all the local residents had been evacuated, and there was a high chain link fence surrounding the site with large warning signs every hundred yards proclaiming “DANGER: HAZARDOUS WASTE AREA. UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT” in big red and black capital letters. Looking through the fence, I could see rows of boarded up houses and empty streets. The silence was palpable, and I felt overwhelmed as I looked at the poisoned earth and the uninhabited neighborhood. The knowledge that the children were most seriously affected, combined with the fact that there were hundreds of other abandoned sites leaking contaminants into the river and the lake, became too much to bear.
Looking back, this was my first experience of what I might call “environmental hopelessness.” Since then, I’ve had many others. During a career spent working on environmental and social problems, including climate change, pollution, and toxic chemicals, I found it increasingly difficult to stay hopeful about the future.
My Quaker faith helped to sustain me, as did my commitment to social justice, equality, stewardship of the earth’s resources, and peace. Meeting for worship became an invaluable refuge for me, and I cherished the many helpful conversations I had with Friends about activism and avoiding burnout. But over the years, confronting environmental degradation and loss as well as the resulting harm to human health became a crushing emotional and psychological burden. I gradually lapsed into hopelessness and despair, and it seemed impossible to follow George Fox’s 1656 oft-quoted advice to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” Indeed, how could I be hopeful at all, let alone walk cheerfully over the world, when I felt sad, angry, and depressed about it most of the time? How could I answer that of God in people when I wasn’t sure that polluters, corporate executives, or many government officials had anything remotely divine inside them? And anyway, what would I say to them?
Eventually, my despair led me to launch a personal inquiry into the nature of hope. I started with the dictionary. Most define “hope” using words like desire, expectation, and anticipation. These definitions are based on wanting things we do not currently have and expecting that life will give them to us. This type of hope is about anticipating that we will attain desirable outcomes that are outside our present-day experience. I call it “extrinsic hope” because it is based on hoping for specific improvements in our external circumstances or conditions.
We all harbor these types of hopes and at their root there is always an “I” or a “we” that wants something we don’t currently have. This type of hope comes from a sense of dissatisfaction or the perception that there’s a problem, combined with the desire for whatever we believe will make us feel better or resolve the problem. For example, if I say “I hope to lose weight,” I am dissatisfied with my weight; I am identifying a problem and am wishing for a specific solution.
Extrinsic hopes can be selfish or they can be altruistic, and like most Quakers, I have a lot of altruistic hopes. For starters, I hope for an end to discrimination in all its forms, poverty, homelessness, climate change, pollution, and the consumer society. I could go on. I also hope for a just, peaceful, and sustainable world; universal healthcare and education; and a livable, guaranteed minimum wage for all. Enough said.
Altruistic hopes like these are usually regarded as more worthy or virtuous than self-centered ones, so it’s even easier to expect that life should give us what we hope for. After all, if life is inherently good, shouldn’t it comply with our well-intentioned wishes for others? But life doesn’t work that way. Our altruistic hopes may be extremely noble, but this is no guarantee they will be fulfilled any more than self-centered ones.
I want to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with extrinsic hope. Indeed, this type of hope can enable us to cope with difficult or painful situations, and sometimes it provides a goal to work toward. This explains why extrinsic hope is so common. Just think about it: whenever you have an extrinsic hope, it gives you something to look forward to, something to anticipate with pleasure. But this type of hope is always accompanied by the fear of not getting what we hope for, and by disappointment, sadness, anger, and other unpleasant emotions when we don’t get it. These difficult feelings are indicators of unmet expectations, and they come up often because there is a lot we cannot control in life.
The dissonance between our extrinsic hopes and our inability to attain them makes it inevitable that we will experience all those unpleasant feelings. The gap between what we hope for and the way life actually is ensures these emotions. Even though our extrinsic hopes may be extremely noble and altruistic, the more desperately we want to attain them and the more specific they are, the more emotional suffering we will experience when life doesn’t go our way.
When I realized this, I felt even more hopeless, but, thankfully, my Quakerism led me to another definition, which is also in the dictionary. In addition to defining hope in terms of desire, expectation, and fulfillment, most dictionaries provide a secondary, archaic definition based on faith. This older and much less common meaning is about trusting life, without the expectation of attaining particular outcomes any time soon. This type of hope has a quiet but unshakeable faith in whatever happens and in the human capacity to respond to it constructively. It is a positive, but not necessarily optimistic, attitude to life that does not depend on external conditions or circumstances.
I call this “intrinsic hope” because it comes from deep inside us. Václav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia, said in Disturbing the Peace that hope “is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.… It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” To me, intrinsic hope is also that of God in everyone; the inner light; the quiet, still voice; and the experience of the Great Mystery.
As George Fox advised in an epistle to Friends in America some 20 years after his 1656 counsel, “Hold fast the hope which anchors the soul, which is sure and steadfast, that you may float above the world’s sea.” In this way, intrinsic hope is about accepting the waves and storms of life, and working with them. It is about aspiration rather than expectation, possibility rather than anticipation. With intrinsic hope, I can aspire to see an end to discrimination, poverty, homelessness, and so on, and I can aspire to help create a better world, but I don’t expect life to conform to my wishes any time soon.
Intrinsic hope says yes to whatever happens—whether we like it or not—because if we lose hope and give up, then all the gloomy predictions about the future will become a reality. And if we dwell on our extrinsic hopes, we will continue to feel sadness, despair, and anger whenever life does not give us what we want. But if we can live from intrinsic hope, we will be able to stay positive and engaged even in the darkest of times. And in doing so, we can influence whether there will be a viable future for our children, their children, and all future generations of life on earth.
To conclude, I’d like to quote Thomas Kelly, a Quaker mystic, who in 1938 went to live in Germany to support Friends living under Hitler’s régime. As quoted in Practicing Peace by Catherine Whitmire, in words that perfectly describe intrinsic hope and might have been written yesterday, he said:
In such a world as ours today, no light glib word of hope dare be spoken.… Only if we look long and deeply into the abyss of despair do we dare to speak of hope.… We dare not tell people to hope in God … unless we know what it means to have absolutely no other hope but in God. But as we know something of such a profound and amazing assurance, clear at the depths of our beings, then we dare to proclaim it boldly in the midst of a world aflame.