Preparing for despair

I’ve long thought hope might be the most potent resource humans possess, that it might account, even more than opposable thumbs, for the stunningly successful evolution of our species. Defined as “an optimistic state of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes,” hope enables us to keep moving forward with trust in a brighter future, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But what would happen if a group of humans or a nation lost hope…for democracy, for a virus free lifestyle, or for in a healthy inhabitable planet?

I knew, or should have, that my marriage was over when I wrote in my journal for the first time that I knew it would not change, that I “despaired “ of it ever changing. In retrospect, I could see that moment was the end. My whole frame of reference shifted from wanting it to change, believing it could change, and trying to make it change to accepting that it would not and probably could not. Letting go was both profoundly sad and transformative.

Reality can be rather insistent.  Sooner or later a sane person will stop beating their head against a wall. At some point choices once considered unacceptable become necessary.  

Very serious social, political, and environmental threats persist now with low and diminishing likelihood of solution. Despite herculean efforts by many, global warming is said to have reached a stage where the best-case scenarios merely reduce the level of catastrophe; vaccine resistance and viral mutations are pushing the prospects for risk-free social intercourse off the table; and the groundwork for minority control of an authoritarian government now being laid by Republican state legislatures is very likely to be used. We hope for solutions, but expecting them gets harder by the day.

So, what if the humanitarians and progressive types who value and toil to protect the planet’s ecosystems, public health, and democracy lose hope? We don’t like to speak of it, but despair of saving us from these problems could be no farther away than the next election. Impediments to solution seem endemic and intractable, and the momentum is working against us. What if climate scientists and advocates conclude we’ve lost or inevitably will lose the battle?  Will we give up on reducing Co2 and defer to the geoengineers and dike builders, build bigger walls against the inevitable flood of climate refugees? If frustrated medical teams, researchers, and policy makers abandon expectations of stopping virus mutations, will we all simply harden our personal defenses, turn to triage and perhaps stop treating unvaccinated Covid patients when beds are needed by others? Will Americans give up, stop voting and seek off-the-radar niches in which to live safely and survive under authoritarian rule as so many societies around the world have done and still do?

Perhaps hope escapes from despair by releasing impossible expectations and moving on, as I did with my marriage. Maybe such transitioned hope will help us creatively imagine new lifestyles designed to survive on an over-heated planet or to live with active viruses in our midst. Maybe we’ll find ways to eke out personal freedom and security under corrupt authoritarian regimes. For those of us who spent our lives trying to protect against exactly these losses it’s painful to imagine these futures, but we might have to. The young will adapt to and cope with the world they’re born into. They might even become epidemiologists or brave crusaders for democracy. It is we who have known and valued something different, had it and lost it, who will have to reckon with disillusionment and despair. 

Why think about this now, it sounds like giving up and it’s depressing? Two reasons. One, because it might open our minds to new realms of possibility, to open spaces where hope can go when its former abode is foreclosed. When the previously unacceptable becomes necessary, and the options narrow to hard and bad, new ways of valuing are required. Thinking ahead about the “what now” might cushion the shock and reduce the potentially paralyzing effects of despair. Having some of our current leaders already thinking past despair could be essential to shaping a best-possible future out of catastrophic conditions. The other reason is to wake ourselves up to the magnitude of the threats we’d prefer not to face, the real risks of nearly unimaginable events.

I’m afraid the reality is that business as usual is not working. If we are to overcome these problems, avoid these disasters, it will take commitment and actions commensurate with the seriousness of the challenges; determination strong enough to overcome despair. Eliminating or suspending the Senate filibuster to pass voting protection legislation, to protect citizens’ ability to protect themselves, could be such an action.

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