Why I Don’t Rely on Hope

“Where do you find hope?”

“How do you sustain hope?”

Those are probably the most common questions in response to more than three decades of writing and lecturing about today’s multiple cascading social and ecological crises.

For years I struggled with how to answer, wanting to be honest but sensitive to the anxiety that typically motivates questioners. My answers have changed over the years, but my various responses always seemed inadequate to me.

In the past few years, after much reflection about my life, I have settled on a simple response: I do not find hope anywhere, and I cannot sustain what I do not have and never had.

Hope has never been terribly relevant in my life and has never been a large part of my motivation to act in the world. I know that hope is important for most people and that many find reasons to have hope. Neuroscientists and psychologists have called this tendency in most people an “optimism bias,” and I have no quarrel with those who hold onto it.

But even if hope is about more than optimism—more about faith in humanity’s possibilities than about belief in a positive outcome sometime soon—I still do not feel it. Hope is not necessary for everyone, and living without hope does not condemn one to despair or cynicism.

In my writing and organizing work—starting in the radical feminist movement challenging men’s sexual exploitation of women in pornography, through organizing to challenge American militarism, to current work on the ecological crises—I have assumed that whatever positive change might result would be small and that even small changes were not guaranteed. At the same time, I have tried my best to engage in collective efforts that could achieve as much as possible, reaching as many people as possible, trying to be as strategic as possible to achieve realistic short-term goals while still focusing on the need for radical change over the long term.

But I never had hope.

An Inconvenient Apocalypse

As a professor with a steady income for 26 years, perhaps it was easy for me to renounce hope, to keep working without expecting significant success. A friend challenged me once, pointing out, “You can afford to live without hope.” That is accurate—I always had a roof over my head, I ate regular meals, and I could go to the doctor if I got sick. In material terms, my adult life has been comfortable by any reasonable standard. That is important to acknowledge, but lots of people with similar privilege do not find it so easy to work without hope. Some sense of hope, however small, seems to be necessary for people across the political spectrum.

Why has a kind of joyful hopelessness been second nature for me?

While introspection is not a perfect method for answering such questions, here is my best guess. My early experience in the world was defined by trauma, on multiple levels from multiple sources, fairly relentless and with no safe harbor. I will spare readers the details; that sentence is adequate in explaining one reason I am so tone-deaf to talk about hope. Long before I was capable of understanding the forces that produce such trauma—not only for me, but for countless others—I had to live with it for the first dozen years of my life, without support and with no expectation of better days ahead. I survived and was lucky to eventually have opportunities for higher education and satisfying professional work, and by that time I had found a way to live that did not require hope.

I have gravitated toward projects for social justice and ecological sustainability because they have provided some meaning in my life, not because I imagined success. By the time I made those choices, I had concluded that the only meaning in our lives is created through our own thoughts, words, and deeds. I do not recall ever searching for the divine or seeking epiphanies to provide meaning. Instead, I developed a rather banal workaday attitude: Get up in the morning, day after day, try to find something worth doing, and then do it as well as possible, realizing that failure will be routine but that small successes—sometimes really small, maybe even too small to see in the moment—make it possible to continue.

Through all this, I have had to give a fair amount of my time and energy to a boss. Like most of us, I met the demands of various employers so that I could pay my bills and live a kind of normal life. But I have carved out as much space as possible for activities that challenge me personally and intellectually. I have sought the company of others who also seek those challenges. I have tried to create opportunities to help remedy problems in whatever small ways possible.

I have done this not out of hope for dramatic change in the world but because it has been for me the best way to live a decent life. Positive change happens, of course, and should be celebrated, even when it is the clichéd pattern of two steps forward, one step back. Even when it is two steps forward and three steps back, we can take a step to the side to try another route. Creative responses to rejection and failure are always possible.

People have told me that this approach is a kind of hope in itself, that I have found hope in the way I abandoned hope. At that point, the words we choose do not matter much. What does matter is getting out of bed in the morning and finding work worth doing. I believe in this path not just because it has sustained me, but because I have seen it sustain others, and sharing this perspective with others has made it possible for me to plod forward.

In my life, that approach was lived most fully by my late friend Jim Koplin. Although he played an integral part in most of my writing, he never wanted to share a byline with me. Jim valued his privacy, and it was not until after he died that I wrote a book about him.

Jim’s early experience was also defined by trauma, and his struggles to live with those harsh realities resonated with me. Growing up as an only child on a Depression-era Minnesota farm, Jim was often alone. As an intellectually minded kid, he spent a lot of time reading and in self-reflection. He told me that at one point as a child, he realized that every person on Earth had basically the same cognitive and emotional capacities as he did—that we were pretty much all the same kind of creature. That meant that every person had the same capacity as he had to feel pain and to suffer. The suffering he and his mother endured at the hands of an abusive father was considerable, and he knew from reading that others around the world suffered as much, sometimes much more. The awareness of the scope of pain in the world overwhelmed him, and so he took the family rifle out to the woods with the intention of killing himself. He sat alone for some time before deciding to live. But, from that point forward, Jim told me, he knew that he had to find ways to acknowledge the pain of the world but also insulate himself from a constant awareness of it, or he would not survive.

He not only survived, but thrived. Up until his death at the age of 79, Jim was committed to radical political activity and loving community connection. I was fortunate to know him for his last 24 years, and I now am part of a circle of friends of Koplin, people whose lives were changed by his quiet commitment to decency, by watching him honor the dignity of others. He was the first person who talked to me about the grief that was inevitable if we told the truth about the world, and he remains my model for being honest with myself and others.

Did Jim Koplin have hope? I do not recall the word ever coming up in our many conversations about these subjects. Jim simply got out of bed in the morning, tended his garden, volunteered with community groups of all kinds, showed up at rallies and protests, laughed with his neighbors, struggled with his own unresolved demons, and went to bed early so that he could get up early to do it all over again.

If that is hope, so be it. Whatever we call such an approach to life, it is more than enough to get me up in the morning.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson.

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