HOPE and Joy

To celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday recently, he and his close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu got together for a week to talk about something very important to them: a human, embodied, and honest exploration of the challenges of living a joyful life. The result was “The Book of Joy”. Here is a small excerpt from the book, in which they are speaking with co-author Douglas Abrams about hope.

Clare Bryden, TEDxExeter Storyteller

 

Book-of-JoyThe Dalai Lama said “When bad things happen they become news, and it is easy to feel like our basic human nature is to kill or to rape or to be corrupt. Then we can feel that there is not much hope for our future.

“All these things happen, but they are unusual, which is why they become news. There are millions and millions of children who are loved by their parents every day. Then in school their teachers care for them. Okay, maybe there are some bad teachers, but most of them really are kind and caring. Then in the hospital, every day millions of people receive immense caring. But this is so common that none of it becomes news. We take it for granted.

“When we look at the news, we must keep this more holistic view. Yes, this or that terrible thing has happened. No doubt, there are very negative things, but at the same time there are many more positive things happening in our world. We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective. Then we will not feel despair when we see these sad things.”

Neither [the Dalai Lama nor Archbishop Tutu] was asking us to look at the world through rosecolored glasses or to not see the world with anything but a searingly honest view. The Archbishop even discouraged people from being optimistic.

“You’ve spoken, Archbishop, very powerfully, about how hope is not the same as optimism. Could you tell us a little bit about the distinction you make?”

“Hope,” the Archbishop said, “is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper.

“I mentioned earlier about Chris Hani, whose assassination occurred at a very critical point in the negotiations for a new, democratic South Africa. We were on the edge of a precipice. It was so serious that the then president, the white president of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, asked Nelson Mandela to address the nation.

“That incident could have caused the collapse of the negotiations, but it didn’t, in fact. We were fortunate that we had someone like Nelson Mandela.

“Now, if you had been an optimist, you would have said, Well, the assassination of Chris Hani is really the end of everything. What made people want to go on going on – holding on by the skin of their teeth – was not optimism but hope – dogged, inextinguishable hope.

“I say to people that I’m not an optimist, because that, in a sense, is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. It’s in the pit of your tummy. It’s not in your head. It’s all here,” he said, pointing to his abdomen.

“Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

As the Archbishop was explaining, hope is the antidote to despair. Yet hope requires faith, even if that faith is in nothing more than human nature or the very persistence of life to find a way. Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving whose membership includes Gandhi, King, Mandela, and countless others. Despair turns us inward. Hope sends us into the arms of others.

Wiggle Room in the Universe

Last year, I wrote a review of Rebecca Solnit’s vision of “Hope in the Dark” for Issue #1 of The Porch magazine. Now it is on Issue #3, The Porch has kindly allowed me to cross-post it here.

“Hope in the Dark” was originally published in the Bush years as ‘an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists’. It sold out after Trump’s victory in December. So here also are Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Lies, and Making Change on WNYC in January this year; and from earlier in 2016, Brain Pickings’ reflections on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change.

Clare Bryden, TEDxExeter Storyteller

 

Activists come in all shapes and sizes.

My particular interest is in sustainability, especially in economics and climate change, and until 2009 I was an insider working in consultancy and government science. But more recently, my tendency has been toward what might be called the outlying practices of contemplative prayer, living the change, conceptual art, and writing.

Rebecca Solnit has been an outlier since the 1980s – a social justice activist who is committed to direct action; and a writer compelled to weave beauty into the conversation about the things that compassion demands we change. She first wrote Hope in the Dark in 2003-04 for activists, to “make the case for hope… against the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”. This third edition includes a new foreword and afterwords, reflecting on the intervening twelve years. It is a timely publication, during a bizarre US presidential election in which it seems the stakes couldn’t be higher, and at a moment which demands urgent and significant action on climate change.

For Solnit, Hope in the Dark “is one part of a vast, ongoing conversation about who we are, what powers we have, and what we can do with them”. It is now part of the conversation in my head, with other books and ideas that have inspired me; another piece in my mental jigsaw of how I can be what the world needs.

When she locates hope in “the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act”, I am reminded of how much wiggle room there is in the universe. Not just in the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics, but also in our minds: the wisdom available to us through what Jung called our unconscious, which, at its best, dances with linear Cartesian thinking.

Solnit quotes Paul Goodman: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” My linear logical mind is uncertain whether my small attempts to live that way now or my contemplative prayer practice are really making a difference. But my unconscious, in its dark unknowing, convinces me that I must continue in that uncertainty.

Donald Rumsfeld recognized the existence of uncertainty in his “unknown unknowns”, but he left out or never saw the unknown knowns, those things we don’t like to admit. Walter Brueggemann wrote in The Prophetic Imagination of the need for prophetic grief in the face of how the Powers that Be deny change and death, and their wrong-headed insistence on perpetual business-as-usual. Solnit agrees that hope “is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine… grief and hope can coexist.”

She invites us to imagine how things could have happened differently and better if 9/11 had not been followed by lies and propaganda that served the Bush government. Such imagination is a powerful tool. She also invites us to imagine (as in It’s a Wonderful Life) how things could have happened differently and worse if we had not acted. It is important to acknowledge those victories that look like nothing has happened: the environmentally destructive road that wasn’t built, or the fracking that was banned.

There are so many stories of victories, and individual and collective histories of change: but we are somehow trained to downplay or even erase them in the face of today’s struggles. For Solnit, hope is the branches that grow out of the roots of recovering such memory. Much of Hope in the Dark is story and memory – “examples of positive change, of popular power, evidence that we can do it and have done it” – and this is primarily what will continue to resonate for me in my own activist ups and downs.

Alongside Solnit’s stories of the Zapatistas, Silent Spring, Nunavut, and many others, we can set still more. I recently re-read Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, an account of two successful campaigns in Scotland against a proposed super quarry on the Isle of Harris, and for land reform on the Isle of Eigg. Like many, these victories were incomplete. Land ownership is still concentrated in the hands of very few. Quarries will still be opened until we stop building unnecessary roads and use only recycled sources for crushed rock.

This is the essence of what Solnit calls a “seventy-seven cent victory”. Such a victory doesn’t shut activism down either in the mistaken belief that we have won and our work is finished, or because a perfect victory is not immediately possible. Instead, it celebrates winning an increase in women’s pay from sixty-six cents relative to the male dollar, vowing not to stop until parity is attained.

McIntosh’s activism is inspired by Walter Wink’s writing on naming, unmasking and engaging the powers. Solnit doesn’t directly draw on Wink, but often nods to his approach, for example: “Making an injury visible and public is usually the first step in remedying it”. In the case of climate change, we should celebrate the investigative journalism which revealed how Exxon suppressed information about the impact of climate change, and the achievement of the Paris Agreement despite struggles1 – while recognising how much further we still need to go and how rapidly the room to act offered by uncertainty is shrinking.

In one of the new additions to this edition, Solnit issues a challenge: “This is the time to find your place in [the climate movement].” I first found my place there in the early 1990s, and have to agree. The quotation (slightly out of context) that for me sums up Hope in the Dark is: “Here are some stories about other things BUT CLIMATE IS BIGGER THAN THIS”. Thankfully, each story has also inspired me to recall my own; and to reaffirm the knowledge that others have achieved what they also once believed impossible. It can happen again.


1 See Christiana Figueres’ TED Talk

Remember to DREAM

Abbie McGregor: Remember to DREAMAbbie McGregor is an inspiration for students at Exeter College. In 2016 she won the Exeter College TEDxExeter competition to give a talk at TEDxExeter 2016. In her talk ‘Remember to DREAM’, Abbie spoke passionately about inspiring hope and vision in young people, and doing away with dispassionate and limited SMART targets!

Now she has written a guest blog post about how her experience has given her HOPE.

 

Once upon a time, a little girl was shown a TED talk. It set her on a path not known to many. It sounds like a fairy tale because cheesily enough, my experience of TEDxExeter really was, magical.

When I was about 12, and just starting secondary school, I had an inspiring teacher whose favourite thing was a TED talk. As a class, we would watch them for everything we studied. The TED speakers taught us to be motivated, confident and to care about everything. So, when the opportunity came along for someone from Exeter college to give one, I knew there was only one way I could do that teacher justice.

It’s something that everyone wants to talk about. I meet people at college and they know that I’m the girl who gave a TEDx talk. I receive a barrage of questions about how it went, what I said, what happened after. And those are the three things I want to speak to you about today.

As to how it went, I’m standing here now because I won that internal competition to give a TEDx talk and now, a year on I’m starting to give advice to many others having that same shot, and nothing is more inspiring than hearing the buzz about the opportunity to really be taken seriously.

The recognition of a 17-year old’s voice is something many people my age feel they do not and cannot have, and therefore this opportunity is astounding. So I couldn’t be more thankful to Martin and Exeter College for it.

Following this, I was given so much help by Claire and Cathy. My speech went from strength to strength which I simply couldn’t have done without them. Their experience is evident the first time you speak to them, but even more so in the outcome of each of the speeches and the quality of TEDxExeter talks.

And then I stood up on that stage, and spoke for five whole minutes and I said it all. I repeated the messages that my teacher had taught me of how to make a better future. A future of children who are full of dreams, hope, passion, motivation, ambition, dedication, energy and a want to make something happen – much like I really wanted to take away SMART targets from the system.  

For many people that’s where they think the journey ends. It gets uploaded a few months later and people watch it online, 1,700 have watched mine to be exact. But that really isn’t it. This is what happened after.

A week later, I had an email from a primary school, another from my own college and another from the city council, all asking for me to come and give my talk again in another context. And so I did. I gave my speech at the city council applying it to their devolution programme and how Exeter really is becoming a city of the future.

And then, I took the talk down to primary level and spoke to children about how they really are the future. Finally, the talk I gave that impacted me most was at my own college. In September, I gave my talk to the entire A-level cohort, alongside two other distinguished speakers. At the end I was stormed by students. They told me how good it was to hear ‘one of own’ telling them to go out and make things happen. In another girl’s words, ‘I was my own example of taking an opportunity’.

We are often called the troublesome teens, slightly rowdy, lazy, always tired, often late, but all my peers wanted was something to believe in, a dream or in the words of this launch –  they just needed a bit of hope.

Abbie McGregor, 19th January 2017

Taking responsibility for our own statistics

Last year I started a series of blogs on things that interest me which have a TED or TEDx angle. These might be my responses to watching TED and TEDx talks, or interesting things that TED and TEDx talks could shed some light on.

I haven’t had time to watch many new TED talks this year. But this week I have made some space for statistics in honour of Hans Rosling, who died on 7th February. He was a TED favourite, lighting up the stage with his passion for communicating statistics about important things to the world. Here he is in action…

It struck me as interesting timing that Alan Smith’s talk on “Why you should love statistics” at TEDxExeter 2016 was published on TED.com just before Rosling’s death. Perhaps there is a baton being handed on here.

It also struck me that we have a responsibility for our own data and statistics, because they reflect ourselves and the way we see the world. Whether it’s how we take care of our bodies – data on types of calories we eat, and calories we burn off in exercise – or our minds – minutes during the day we allow ourselves to switch off, or number of TED talks we watch per month! – or how we take care of the world – our carbon footprint, or how much time or money we give to others.

The Iona Community is “An ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Church engaged together, and with people of goodwill across the world, in acting, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation; convinced that the inclusive community we seek must be embodied in the community we practice.” Its Members commit themselves to a short Rule of life which includes “accounting with one another for the use of our gifts, money and time, our use of the earth’s resources…”

Whether or not you share the Christian faith, these words describe a helpful discipline, which also harks back to Mike Dickson’s talk at TEDxExeter 2012 on “What is Enough?”. Alan Smith’s talk encouraged us to think about our local communities, about what we know and what we think we know. And then… all our lifestyle choices affect others. The inclusive community we seek must be embodied in the community we practice.

Clare Bryden, TEDxExeter Storyteller

Alan Smith on TED.com

We should be fascinated by numbers says Alan Smith in his challenging and amusing TEDxExeter talk. And TED must agree as it has selected his as one of the few TEDx talks that are featured on  TED.com. We are delighted that, as a result it will reach a much larger, global audience. The statistics (yes) show that this is a rare honour. Fewer than 1 per cent of TEDx talks feature on TED, and Alan’s is the 8th TEDxExeter talk to be chosen.

In his talk Alan Smith, who is data visualisation editor at The Financial Times, uses statistics to illustrate the massive difference between perception and reality in many areas of life. “Statistics are most wonderful when they surprise us,” he says. “They are about us as a group … the science of us, and that’s why we should be fascinated by numbers.”

Amusingly he demonstrates that the National Statistician and Jeremy Paxman are just as likely not to know what’s really going on in their neighbourhood as anyone else. He also busts the myth that some people are good at numbers, while others aren’t.

“I am thrilled that this talk has been selected for TED.com,” said Alan Smith. “It’s increasingly hard to avoid statistics in modern life – so we need to learn to love them for what they are: surprising, revealing and the key to answering so many important questions.”

TEDxExeter organiser and licensee Claire Kennedy adds: “We are delighted that an eighth TEDxExeter talk has been selected for TED.com. We already know from our own website stats that we have visitors from around the world; now these talks will be seen by an even greater global audience.

“Alan presents numbers in ways that we can all understand – even those who have thought themselves bad at numbers since maths lessons at school. Not only does he challenge prejudices and misunderstanding, he also makes you laugh. It is great news that Alan’s ideas will now reach people all around the world through TED.com.”