Oct 19, 2016

Hope, revisited

I started drafting this post before a series of recent events, both personal and political, further complicated my relationship with what I was trying to say. I want to finish it anyway, though, because I’m interested in the difficulties of sustaining this feeling I’ve been trying to capture, whatever it might be, in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

I’m not at all a cynical person, but I find it hard not to interrogate the concept of happiness, at least in the form that’s generally presented to us. I do want to live well, with meaning and with joy, as far as that’s possible in a world that’s in so many ways unjust. But the most common understanding of what makes for a meaningful life feels both at odds with my preferences and values and increasingly impossible to realise under current social and political conditions — particularly if you don’t want your comfort to come at the expense of other living beings.

So how does one carry on?

A little over year ago, an unexpected act of kindness brought me a sense of hope and possibility that ripples to this day. The specifics are important, as is the wider context in which this happened, but at the moment I don’t feel up to elaborating on them. I apologise for being vague and speaking in generalities, which is something I increasingly mistrust, but hopefully just saying “something happened, and it was important” will be enough for the rest of what I’m saying to make sense. I don’t want to make this sound like a simple story about a transformative moment, because I’m also suspicious of those. And yet this suspicion coexists with a deep belief in the ability of certain moments to sustain us, and with a desire to embrace and cherish that without fear or shame. This is the first of many ambivalences I hope to be able to express.

I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich lately, and a lot of what she has to say about cultivating everyday habits that work as a counterbalance to political despair resonates with me. When describing a trip she took during a dark period of her life, she says, “One moment of relief lifted the seamless web of anxiety and allowed me to get outside of myself enough to remember that things could be different.” This has been important to me too: enjoying moments of interruption that nudge me away from my only half articulated belief that a constant low-level despair is inevitable and inescapable. At its core, this is also not too different from what Laurie Penny says regarding the cultural legacy of Occupy five years on: “Such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. You can’t stay up on the roof forever—but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred—a difference is made.”

How do you sustain that sense of meaning, though, especially when you’re sceptical about instant and permanent transformation? I suppose it all depends on what we mean when we say “things have changed” and “a difference is made”. Cvetkovich defines transformation as “a slow and painstaking process, open-ended and marked by struggle, not by magic bullet solutions or happy endings”. The everyday habits of living she finds helpful are “not the stuff of heroic or instantaneous transformation”, “but instead must be integrated through the ongoing activity that forms a life story”. These words are of use to me, but of course one vital question remains: what does this translate into, when it comes to my own everyday habits of living?

I know what I want, more or less. I want to be in the world more, and to form and sustain ties of community and love. I want to live according to my values, or at least in ways that are not unbearably at odds with them. But that’s putting it too abstractly — the question of how to realise this in more concrete terms remains unresolved. It’s difficult for so many reasons: because of winter, because of life’s precarity, because of the limits of the everyday, which are also the limits of existence under capitalism. At least I’ve learned to manage, I think, the half-punitive, half-defeatist streak that sometimes comes with inertia; with the gravitational pull of sadness. To give you one small but telling example, last winter I went through a few weeks when, at the height of my Hamilton obsession, I stopped listening to it completely and deliberately cut myself off from the joy it brought into my life.

I don’t want to do that anymore. But I also don’t want to be punitive about my own need to live with bad feelings whenever they seem proportionate to my reality, which is a lot of the time. I want to be better at ambivalence, and to spend less time feeling bad about feeling bad. Lately I’ve found it helpful to think of hope and despair as phases, as cycles with value rather than as a simplistic narrative of progress where I transition from one to the other once and for all. Whatever I learn about living well during those moments of heightened intensity isn’t wasted if I don’t manage to sustain it forever. It comes and goes, and it leaves something behind.

When I say I need hope, then, I think what I mean I that need a feeling that embraces both ambiguity and possibility — a hope capacious enough to accommodate bad feelings without them negating the good. I mean an “embrace of the unknown”, as Rebecca Solnit puts it. I mean a hope that’s not facile or relentlessly optimistic, but is reparative all the same. I mean a hope that is both about the possibility of change and about making everyday existence not only bearable but joyful. This is what I’m struggling to sustain, both personally and politically, and perhaps it helps to be armed with the knowledge that these two facets are one and the same.


  1. I have that same punitive streak. In small doses it's helpful -- I've used it to make myself do things I am procrastinating on, like chores and blog posts and other obligations -- but I know that I have the tendency to go overboard with it. I read a thing on the internet once where a woman described herself as her own wicked stepmother, and that's the perfect description for this way I am towards myself sometimes.

    Your idea about thinking of moods as phases and cycles rather than a clear narrative progression is wonderful. I have been prone throughout the life of my depression to constructing these narratives of once-sick-now-well that serve me very ill when I hit a bump in the mental illness road -- which is, of course, inevitable in a lifetime. Much better to say "for now I am happy, another time I'll be sad" and give myself the space not to be disappointed and angry with myself when the sad times come.

  2. It is hard to not fall into despair when the world practically insists upon it every day. I struggle against it all the time. Being in relationship with others who also struggle whether it is a whole community or a friend or two makes a difference, at least it does for me. I also try to take care of myself and do things that bring me joy like going on long bike rides or working in the garden so at least, if only for a little while, I am calm and present and happy. I hope you are able to "embrace the unknown" and that in doing so you are able to have moments of peace.

  3. I too have learned to recognize such cycles. When I reread my journals I find that I have always had them. Whether the overall arc is upward or positive or whatever you want to call it, I am not sure. But I am learning to embrace the cycles as evidence that I may be getting wiser, which is my goal for life. Excellent post!

  4. Thank you for this post. I too cycle in and out of what I call joyful living and depressed retreat. I like the idea of cycling, rather than a narrative where it "should" end on an upswing, because sometimes life throws hard stuff in our paths. I try to live in hope and looking forward as much as I can, but it is important to be honest about reality as well.

    One therapist once said to me that while pessimists often have the most accurate understanding of reality, optimists function better in that reality.

    Looking forward to getting acquainted with Ann Cvetkovich's writing.

  5. So what is your definition of a meaningful life, as opposed to your perception of what the common understanding is? I guess you shouldn't worry too much about the latter. Just surviving day to day is enough to keep us from doing all the things we want to do; we probably all have trouble bringing in the real things, even when all we need to do is incorporate some small habits. I'm terrible at small habits.

    It's interesting that seasons seem to have so much influence on us. I guess I'm a fall person--I'm finding myself with more energy now and suddenly doing a bunch of things I've been putting off. Summer is exhausting, with all the heat, blech. I turn into a puddle and get angry at myself because I planned to organize the house over summer break, which I fail at every year. Then fall comes and I start spontaneously scrubbing kitchen drawers. I should probably plan for this next year...


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