No Matter Where We Look

I have a friend with AIDS. After all this time, and all these friends of friends, lovers of friends’ brothers, near-forgotten classmates, the epidemic hits closer to home. He got HIV from his first partner. For years he’d had lots of sex, but never trusted anyone enough to begin a long-term monogamous relationship. And then he did. It didn’t work, and as they broke up the other said, “You should know, by the way, that I’m HIV-positive.”

My friend sent me a 12 X 15 envelope full to bursting with AIDS literature. I read every page, most of which I no longer remember. But one sentence slapped me hard enough I had to close my eyes and just think: Eliminate false hope.

I have another friend who has been married for fifteen years to someone she cannot talk to. He squeezes her breasts, and says, “A hundred and fifteen cc’s of silicon would help.” She cannot use the “r” word to describe a sexual incident from several years ago: “I said no and he said yes and I said no and he was on top of me saying yes and yes and yes.” She wonders why she does not want to have sex with him–she has often asked if I think some people just aren’t interested in sex, and if she might be one of them. She does not talk about–does not think about–whether or not she’s afraid of him. They’ve been in counseling several times before, and they’re starting it up again this coming weekend. The question becomes: What do we hope for?

I teach at a maximum security prison, and recently asked my students to write about hope. Most simply refused to write about the topic–understandable, really, all things considered–but one of my students, who normally writes page after page in response to any prompt I give, came up with one sentence and then self-satisfied, placed his pencil on the table: “Hope is the delusion that something good will happen in the future.”

All of this, I suppose, is a roundabout way of asking myself what is my relationship to hope. What gives me hope? Do I have hope? What do I hope for? As the world is destroyed before our eyes the question becomes each day more crucial.

I am a longterm grassroots environmental activist. For years, among other things, I filed timber sale appeals that stopped illegal federal timber sales on public lands. We shut down logging on several national forests. The government response to our efforts across the country was to pass a law essentially exempting federal timber sales from environmental regulations. Every one of the upwards to ten thousand acres I helped save in several years of activism was clearcut over the next fifteen months.

I want to hope that our culture will undergo a voluntary transition to a more sane and sustainable way of living. Every cell in my body yearns for that. But I do not think it will happen.

Not believing the culture will undergo a voluntary transition is not the same as not having hope. The question, again, is what do I hope for? I hope that salmon survive no matter what happens, and I hope the same for grizzly bears. I do what I can to help. Most of the activists I know do not believe a voluntary transition will take place, but they are hoping–there’s that word–that if lynx and bull trout can survive another forty or fifty years, until, they hope, civilization collapses, then these creatures may be able to sustain. If they do not survive till then–whether or not civilization is still standing, whether or not our culture has undergone a voluntary transition–they will not survive at all. An activist friend often says to me, “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure that some doors are open, and some doors are shut.”

He and I both, for example, want to make sure the “door” representing the evolutionary potential of salmon remains open. Two weeks ago I watched wild coho salmon spawning, albeit in a stream clogged with sediment from logging. Coho–and these particular fish were two and a half to three and a half feet of muscle, beautiful gray sides and white bellies, fins frayed from their journeys home–have survived for hundreds of thousands of years, swimming out to the ocean, gliding on deep cold currents, smelling the faintest traces of the places they were born, then following these traces home to spawn and die. They will almost undoubtedly be extinct in the continental United States within the next decade or two. Mine will probably be the last generation of humans ever to witness them cleaning algae off rocks of their redd–their spawning bed–scooping out spaces for eggs, cleaning away sediment with their powerful tails. But I do not want–will not allow–that door to close during my lifetime, on my watch, as it were.

There are intellectual, emotional, and perceptual doors, too, I fight to keep open. For example, the understanding that alternatives exist to industrial capitalism. The knowledge that cultures have existed (and still exist) where women aren’t treated as inferiors. The capacity to feel wonder and to experience beauty in encounters with others–human and otherwise–who are wild and free and different not only from us but from what we expect them to be. And most especially the ability to envision and live relationships (with humans and nonhumans alike) based not on bending others to our wills but on cooperation and mutually-beneficial sharing.

To eliminate false hope is not to eliminate hope altogether, it is merely to remove barriers that blind us to real possibilities, and bind us to unlivable situations. For example, my father was violent, and it was the false hope that my father’s violence would miraculously cease that allowed my mother to remain so long married. Early in her marriage, back in the 50s and through the 60s, when battered women’s shelters did not exist, perhaps that hope–that false hope–allowed her, and us, to survive. Because we were essentially at the mercy of someone else, with few options for meaningful change–because we were powerless or perceived ourselves as powerless–false hopes saved our lives by helping us to emotionally survive in otherwise untenable circumstances. But what if your life is not immediately threatened? What if you do not merely wish to survive, to get along day after day? What if you strive for something else? What if you wish to live fully?

When outside circumstances had changed enough to allow my mother to leave, she still had to defeat that internalized, and false, hope that things would change on their own. She had to realize that it was not so much her sorrow or even the pain of that jarring transition to becoming a single mother that would hurt as much as it was her resistance to it. And she had to find new and real hopes to replace the false ones, to carry her forward. No longer occupied with physical and emotional survival, she now had the luxury and necessity of entering into relationship with her own self, with discovering who she was, what she loved, what she desired, and what she hoped for beyond mere survival. We all could now begin to know ourselves and each other as human beings, and not just refugees.

My dictionary defines the verb hope as to cherish a desire with anticipation. I like that definition better, I believe, than my student’s certainly understandable definition. It seems to me that part of our task, faced with the awesome and terrifying momentum of industrial civilization’s grinding away at the natural world and at the hearts of each of us as we see so much needlessly inflicted pain, is to maintain and encourage our ability to perceive and cherish the slender slips of very real hope that surround us no matter where we look.

Last night, for example, the rains came, and their sounds bubbled through my dreams. After, I sat looking out the window, to where morning sunlight refracted through drops of water that clung to each tip of redwood branch. A flock of phoebes flitted from branch to branch, and a flock of flycatchers did the same. The sun climbed over the redwoods to the east, and a mist began to rise from the ground. Later, I took a shower. Spiders live in my bathroom. I often watch them while I soap up, and while I shave. Today they danced along the ceiling, reaching out with long front legs to find the threads in front of them, and holding tight with back legs to the support behind. They moved this way and that, feeling their separate ways forward, step by step. Maybe this is hope, it occurred to me this morning as I watched them above, no matter our circumstances, to walk delicately on slender strands above the rush of water, where one misstep means certain death, with the knowledge that those strands will support you.

Originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of “Hope”

Republished in the Summer 2001 issue, #18, of Black-Clad Messenger: A Journal of Revolutionary Anti-Industrial Anarchism

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