From hope to hopelessness–Margaret Wheatley

A friend linked me up with this article. I think it has a kinship with Grow Mercy.

What Margaret Wheatley describes in this short essay is not hopelessness as we commonly think of it, but a kind of hopelessness that can liberate us from being controlled by outcomes. Results, outcomes, is the language of the day. We are slaves to effectiveness. Not that these are unimportant, rather, they are not the final criteria for measuring value or success; they do not offer us meaning.

However, giving up the hope that things will turn out well is to walk a dark valley. It is to live with disorientation and misunderstanding and insecurity. But perhaps it is only here where we learn the relative worth of positive outcomes, as compared to the real worth of relationship. Then, what is done is not for outcomes, what is done, is done because it is right. And what is right has everything to do with nurturing human relationships—something that effectiveness, results, know little about.

Wheatley wrote this a year after 9-11. No matter, she could have written it yesterday.

From Hope to Hopelessness

As the world grows ever darker, I’ve been forcing myself to think about hope. I watch as the world and the people near me experience increased grief and suffering. As aggression and violence move into all relationships, personal and global. As decisions are made from insecurity and fear. How is it possible to feel hopeful, to look forward to a more positive future? The Biblical Psalmist wrote that, "without vision the people perish." Am I perishing?

I don’t ask this question calmly. I am struggling to understand how I might contribute to reversing this descent into fear and sorrow, to help restore hope to the future. In the past, it was easier to believe in my own effectiveness. If I worked hard, with good colleagues and good ideas, we could make a difference. Now, I sincerely doubt that. Yet without hope that my labor will produce results, how can I keep going? If I have no belief that my visions can become real, where will I find the strength to persevere?

To answer these questions, I’ve consulted some who have endured dark times. They have led me on a journey into new questions, one that has taken me from hope to hopelessness.

My journey began with a little booklet entitled "The Web of Hope." It lists the signs of despair and hope for Earth’s most pressing problems. Foremost among these is the ecological destruction humans have created. Yet the only thing the booklet lists as hopeful is that the earth works to create and maintain the conditions that support life. As the species of destruction, humans will be kicked off if we don’t soon change our ways. E.O. Wilson, the well-known biologist, comments that humans are the only major species that, were we to disappear, every other species would benefit (except pets and houseplants.) The Dalai Lama has been saying the same thing in many recent teachings. This didn’t make me feel hopeful.

But in the same booklet, I read a quote from East German dissident Rudolf Bahro that did help: "When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure." Could insecurity, self-doubt, be a good trait? I find it hard to imagine how I can work for the future without feeling grounded in the belief that my actions will make a difference. But Bahro offers a new prospect, that feeling insecure, even groundless, might actually increase my ability to stay in the work. I’ve read about groundlessness – especially in Buddhism – and recently have experienced it quite a bit. I haven’t liked it at all, but as the dying culture turns to mush, could I give up seeking ground to stand on?

Vaclav Havel helped me become further attracted to insecurity and not-knowing: "Hope," he states, "is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out."

Havel seems to be describing not hope, but hopelessness. Being liberated from results, giving up outcomes, doing what feels right rather than effective. He helps me recall the Buddhist teaching that hopelessness is not the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear – fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating. I’ve listened to others describe this state. Unburdened of strong emotions, they describe the miraculous appearance of clarity and energy.

Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, clarified further the journey into hopelessness. In a letter to a friend, he advised: "Do not depend on the hope of results … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself … you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people… In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything."

I know this to be true. I’ve been working with colleagues in Zimbabwe as their country descends into violence and starvation by the actions of a madman dictator. Yet as we exchange emails and occasional visits, we’re learning that joy is still available, not from the circumstances, but from our relationships. As long as we’re together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we persevere. Some of my best teachers of this have been young leaders. One in her twenties said: "How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith." Another young Danish woman at the end of a conversation that moved us all to despair, quietly spoke: "I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods." A Zimbabwean, in her darkest moment, wrote: "In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all."

Thomas Merton was right: We are consoled and strengthened by being hopeless together. We don’t need specific outcomes. We need each other.

Hopelessness has surprised me with patience. As I abandon the pursuit of effectiveness, and watch my anxiety fade, patience appears. Two visionary leaders, Moses and Abraham, both carried promises given to them by their God, but they had to abandon hope that they would see these in their lifetime. They led from faith, not hope, from a relationship with something beyond their comprehension. T.S. Eliot describes this better than anyone. In the "Four Quartets" he writes :
     I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
     for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
     For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
     But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

This is how I want to journey through this time of increasing uncertainty. Groundless, hopeless, insecure, patient, clear. And together.


  1. Thank you for sharing this Dad. I think this will help me to get through my day. I’m going to focus on connecting to the people around me and worry less about rushing to get everything done. Sometimes it is hard to remember… really hard to put into practice… that the journey itself is worth it, regardless of the outcome.

  2. Thank you Teryl. We do forget, get caught in expedience, in the next day. But I also know you are intimate with the journey, with connecting. I know you’ve come to know this from the inside.

  3. I’ve been learning to let go of the demand for a specific outcome. This article shows how it also impales relationship. Being competitive is not life giving either if one values winning above relationship. Wow.

  4. Thanks, Steve. In the outcomes-oriented, growth- based, profit-addled word in which we live, a breath of air. There’s something more important – as my wife reminded me this week!

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