To sit by the wounded and soothe them

What happens to hope when our chances of avoiding catastrophe fall away, and we begin to see there is no way out of the present climate crisis, no matter how many lights we turn off, no matter how many wind turbines we install? How does hope change as the earth’s climate becomes less and less hospitable and less and less controllable? Project us forward to the year 2030, when we will probably know for certain that the catastrophe is full upon us. What will our hope look like then?

In a haunting and beautifully written contribution to Dark Mountain, Issue #15, Ingrid M. Rieser discusses the work of researcher Vanessa Andreotti who says there are at least three paths open to us “if we decide the current system is not ‘fixable.’

First, we might try “hacking the system – using the system’s resources to create something which undermines or defies logic. But when attempting to play the system, you always run the risk of being played instead.” Second, we might “leave altogether and try to set up a new, separate alternative, simply walking out (think eco-villages). But in both cases, she says, “you will risk ‘reproducing modernity’s violence’. Inadvertently bringing with you the very evils you hoped to escape.” Put in Buddhist terms: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Our old habits, character traits, and personal problems will tag along with us. Though we may change our residence ninety-nine times, our inveterate tendencies and unwholesome mental formations will remain—warm as toast, and tight as a drum.

But, according to Andreotti, there is a third path – that of hospicing. Rieser says that we think of hospicing “as caring for the dying, and that is exactly how Andreotti and her colleagues intend it.” They see this kind of hospicing as: “sitting with a system in decline, learning from its history, offering palliative care, seeing oneself in that which is dying, attending to the integrity of the process, dealing with tantrums, incontinence, anger and hopelessness, ‘cleaning up’, and clearing the space for something new. This is unlikely to be a glamorous process; it will entail may frustrations, an uncertain timeline, and unforeseeable outcomes without guarantees.”

For many of us, hospicing will be an essential, perhaps primary, component of our response to the present climate and environmental crisis. And, the crucial first step in the process is to tell the truth. For the greatest gift one can give a dying person is to gently take their hand, look them straight in the eye, and, with radical tenderness and great compassion, say to them ‘Dear friend, you are dying.’ This is what a friend should do. One must not lie to them. One must not pretend it isn’t so. One must not give them false hopes. For hope can be an obstacle, it can allow us to persist in our present way of life entirely immersed in a soothing bath of wishful thinking and self-deception, blunting the immediacy and urgency of what lies at hand.

In all of this, I think of the following lines from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘The Wound-Dresser’:

Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

Hope: Danger’s Comforter

In the next few weeks, I will focus on hope as it pertains to the present climate disruption. This first meditation is from Thucydides. I offer it without comment, and suggest that the good reader to meditate on the text for an hour or so and try to express the ideas that come to mind. The portion I’ve selected is from the famous Melian Dialogue. This is the discussion in which the Athenians articulate the bald facts of perennial power-politics when they say to the Melians: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (lines 87-89).” Here are the remarks that bear upon the question of hope:

Melians: “It were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried . . . to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.

Athenians: “Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.

There are always two voices

“At the advent of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the human heart: one very reasonably invites a man to consider the nature of the peril and the means of escaping it; the other, with a still greater show of reason, argues that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general march of events, and it is better therefore to shut one’s eyes to the disagreeable until it actually comes, and to think instead of what is pleasant. When a man is alone he generally listens to the first voice; in the company of his fellow-men, to the second.” — Tolstoy in War and Peace (1849, 886), on the consequences for Russia of the French invasion of 1812.

As found in “Facing Up to Climate Reality: Honesty, Disaster and Hope,” John Foster