Room for Hope: Why Justice Work Needs Contemplation

By Lauren K. Carlson 10-12-2016
Image via /Shutterstock.com

“It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.”

So wrote Rebecca Solnit in July 2016, in an essay titled, “Hope is an embrace of the unknown.”

I return to Solnit’s writing again and again, and to particular this column, because for me it articulates the inseparable relationship between contemplation and hope. In the piece, Solnit quotes Belgium essayist Maria Popova: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety.”

I’d like to take Popova’s thinking further. Without contemplation hope is stagnant, but hope that partners with contemplation activates transformation.

The key to living with hope is not maintaining a hapless optimism that denies painful realities. Rather, it is a willingness to face the unknown. This may involve turning toward our own ugly histories, both individual and collective, in order to change the story moving forward. And that may be painful. But despair — that we cannot possibly move beyond the shame of our wrongdoing, or fear and oppression — is a lie.

Contemplative practice and spiritual direction ministry create safe places for individuals to turn toward painful stories to activate transformation. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose memoir Between The World and Me won the National Book Award in 2015, writes in The Atlantic that “something that went very wrong, long ago, with law enforcement, something that we are scared to see straight. That something has very little to do with the officer on the beat and everything to do with ourselves.”

In his column, Coates calls for American communities to look closely at policies created through a democratic process that ultimately lead to systemic violence and oppression for people of color and those in poverty. By doing so, he compels readers to take the microscope off of police officers and instead look at themselves. The message is one of mutual accountability, acknowledging that violence in policing is a symptom of a broader sickness, not its cause.

While writing this essay on practicing hope amidst despair, on spiritual direction’s role in a seemingly destructive and violent world, a friend called my attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. A sign she photographed read: “We Are Protectors, We Are Prayerful and Peaceful, “Isms” have no place here, We Are Non-violent, Respect Locals, We Are Proud to Stand—No Mask, No Weapons.”

The sign, to me, was a hopeful one — literally and figuratively. It illustrates a daring to stand in the face of fear and violence, and hope for a better conclusion than history demonstrates. Instances of violence erupting against the #NoDAPL demonstrators should give all Americans pause. This situation demands a more complicated and accurate telling of our nation’s history, a retelling that acknowledges the legacy of destruction systematically enacted on indigenous peoples while maintaining a stubborn gladness that our future can, and will, be better than our past.

Because hope points to something greater, and yet unknown, it can transform pain from what could be opposing places into an opportunity for mutual connection. In her essay, Solnit quotes theologian Walter Brueggemann: “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.”

She goes on to say, “We can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation.”

Rebecca Solnit, Maria Popova, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Walter Brueggemann represent cultural figures who model “broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.” Hope is necessary for action. Yet a transformed future demands contemplation, as well.

The collective turmoil people experience during political uncertainty, systemic oppression, and natural disasters have potential to unlock deep places of human connection. When collectively we are at our worst, let us look back at what we’ve overcome — and remember our deep connection to one another into the future. Contemplative practice is the figurative room in which we experience the freedom to remember and courage to respond. It is what it means to have hope as a spiritual practice.

Lauren K. Carlson is a poet and spiritual director living in Dawson, Minn.

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