Accepting Our Lot in Life
Between acceptance and hope lies a tension. According to Buddhist theory, the way out of suffering is through acceptance. By letting go of desire and aversion, by embracing the moment as it is, we become free, not of pain, but of the stories that make our pain miserable.
Such acceptance, however, can lead to passivity. Years ago, in a source long forgotten, I read about a Buddhist woman who had grown ill, yet refused medication or medical support. It was her karma to become sick, she believed, and if she were to recover, it would be because it was her karma to get well. Medicine was not part of that. She would endure without complaint the pain she had been given. Forsaking any hope that she might initiate change, she would accept the life she had.
Hers was an erroneous interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings, yet how many of us have done something similar? We see reality from our personal vantage point and understand it according to our nature, our insecurities, our assumptions, and our hopes. From this, we develop our religious beliefs, our social proclivities, our political positions.
Who knows what caused this woman, in the guise of complete acceptance, to reject the care that might have eased her life? After all, it was not what Buddha taught. He encouraged his followers to make wise choices, including ones that provide efficacious medical help. 
Nonetheless, there is some precedent for her ideas. From Buddhist teachings, we learn that hope takes us out of the present moment. It traps us in a desire for a different future. Because of this, it contains an element of fear or anxiety. As The Venerable Phra Payutto writes, hope brings with it an “apprehension,” which is “a form of suffering.” 
So perhaps the woman had risen above suffering. Perhaps in her total acceptance of the moment, she had become like the “arahant” or enlightened one. Payutto explains that the arahant has no hope, but not because she is lost in despair. Rather she feels “an inner completeness and satiety.” No lack exists that must be changed or filled. She experiences “no deficiency giving rise to desire and hope.” Thus, the arahant is free of craving, aversion, and suffering. 
We don’t know if this woman was enlightened and thus content, or whether she refused medicine for another reason. Maybe she felt unworthy of care or was resigned to being punished. Maybe she’d been taught she should not complain. But would it have been so bad for her to hope for relief or even cure?
It Is Okay to Hope
The Buddhist teacher, Joan Halifax, references this notion that within hope lies fear. She acknowledges its truth. Even so, she maintains that it is possible to hold out hope with wisdom, a wisdom that precludes fear. 
Yes, there is suffering, but there is also the capacity to transform that suffering. That’s what the Buddhist practice of Tonglen is, a meditation in which we breathe in the suffering within and around us and change it with our minds and our breath so it becomes love.
So it is okay to seek relief.
But there is a tension. Halifax doesn’t suggest we hope for some specific thing or event to occur, for a future we cannot control. This leads to a desire that, when thwarted, turns to despair.
From Hope to Despair
As a ministerial candidate, I went before my governing body hoping they would welcome me into the ministry. They did not. Although they didn’t reject me, they told me that to become fellowshipped in my denomination, I would have to make some changes, then return.
I was crushed. My despair lasted only a few days, but there it was. Had I not hoped, I would not have experienced the pain of rejection.
Yet it was not so bad. I felt shock and grief. My mind spun with the thoughts of one who has failed. And I got through it. I went back, I was welcomed, I was ordained. The ending was happy, but it would have been just as happy had I chosen to do something else. My hope was not wrong, and my pain was not bad. It was just part of the experience. Besides, I don’t know how to go into a performance or an interview without the anxiety of hope, without the desire to do well, to be appreciated, to be accepted. I have not reached the complete peace of the arahant.
Few of us have. In fact, many of us depend on hope to keep us going.
Flag Day the Hope of the American People
For instance, there’s the hope that one day, the United States will grow into the nation our founders envisioned. Or perhaps not quite that one, for the founders were patriarchal, elitist, racist, and obtuse, unable to see beyond their own needs and the needs of white landowners like them. Still, they had good ideas about freedom, justice, and equality. Our founding documents contain hope of a future of peace and prosperity for everyone, and I do mean everyone. The hope is there, regardless of the original intention.
And on Flag Day, many people fly the flag of our country with some idea that hope is reasonable, that we are a venerable people who can and will do wonderful things. Lately, this hope has been tarnished, but it hasn’t gone away completely. If it had, there would be no uprising in response to the inequity in our county, no protest against police aggression, no cry for justice for black, brown, and red human beings.
And on Flag Day, hope is encouraged. Barack Obama, during his 2011 Flag Day proclamation, called our flag a “powerful beacon of hope.”  Ronald Reagan said it was a symbol of “freedom, equality, justice, and hope.” 
Even so, not everyone places their hope in the United States flag and the nation it represents. When one lives in despair and desperation, when the only hope that makes sense is a hope in a heaven hereafter, the American flag can seem to symbolize oppression rather than freedom. Yet around our country, I see hope in possibilities.
Halifax talked about a “wise hope,” one that recognizes the obstacles to happiness and the insidious nature of suffering, but still “shows up.”  She quotes Václav Havel who distinguishes hope from optimism. Hope, he maintains, isn’t “the conviction that something will turn out well,” but the knowledge that regardless of how things turn out, they will make “sense.”  No matter what happens, things change. Nothing stays the same. Hope is the determination that we can be part of that change, and that we can influence that change so it makes the world better. Halifax reminds us that “apathy is not an enlightened path.” 
Thus, we must act. Or at least, show up, which is a kind of acting. And what drives us to show up and to act, to imagine a world different from the one we inhabit, is hope.
For What Do We Hope?
Yet hope is complicated. Defining hope is hard enough, but even if we can agree on what it means to hope, how do we know we’re hoping for the right thing? As T. S. Eliot reminded us, it is easy to get it wrong.
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,” he wrote in his poem, “East Coker,” “For hope would be hope for the wrong thing . . .” 
What if we hope for things that are not achievable?
As the protests continue over the death of George Floyd, and of so many others, there seems to be an abundance of hope. People are insisting, for instance, that we dismantle the people force. It is a daring and righteous idea, and it is wildly hopeful.
Yes, let’s take money from the coffers of those who abuse their power and use it to create communities that provide care, that soothe the aching and the wounded, that heal the traumatized, feed the naked, clothe the hungry, educate all our children, and reintegrate the criminal back into the fabric of society and into the arms of love. I long to see such a transformation. And, yes, such changes would do much to create a more peaceful society.
When Reality Collides with Hope
But as we strive to build this alternative approach to policing, and as we imagine prisons as places of growth and healing rather than punishment, and schools as places that promote enthusiastic exploration and reasoned debate rather than hopelessness, and even nursing homes that enhance the lives of our elderly and promote generativity rather than increase uselessness, and as we demand that systems everywhere become more humane, let us not forget that things will not turn out as we hope. Evil will still flourish. Corruption will not go away. We may find we still need “peace officers” to protect the weak and vulnerable.
We have a history of trying new things and failing. Utopias are a good example of this, as was our attempt to deinstitutionalization mental health patients. I doubt we can eradicate the greed, lust, and supremacy that destroy so much of what we create. After all, in every change there will arise an opportunity for profiteers to appropriate systems for their own advantage.
Besides, to take something apart is quick and easy. To put it back together again, especially to do so in a compassionate and ethical way, is very hard.
Lost In Cynicism
So where’s the hope? Must we get lost in cynicism?
Though love continues to be the frame from which I see the world and the rallying cry from which I show up, in as much as I do show up, I see the world as a stark place and us humans as flawed. For T. S. Eliot, whose own cynical view of the world led him to retreat to a stillness empty of hope and love, there remained faith in the Christian promise of redemption and resurrection.
Somewhere, somehow, if we are to carry on, we must have hope.
The Courage of Hope
But perhaps the positive hope, the “wise hope,” the hope we need to show up and transform our world, is more like courage. Perhaps what we need is simply the willingness to move forward. Through a courageous hope, we seek to right wrongs, though our lives be at stake.
Of course, righting wrongs is a tricky business. After all, everything we do has unintended consequences, and history has shown that when the oppressed become victors, it is hard for them to avoid becoming oppressors themselves. But together, we can move forward with the intention of building a society based on love and equality, of avoiding the addiction to greed and power that have destroyed so many.
Thus, we need to temper our hope with humility. As they unfold, even grand ideas can become twisted. We ourselves are not immune to twisting our dreams into nightmares. Let us not let hope blind us to our own iniquities. To look truly and honestly at reality takes courage. To look at ourselves this way takes even more courage.
Of course, if we let internal reflection paralyze us, nothing will get done. Reflection and action are somewhat antithetical. Yet action without reflection got us into the mess we’re in. Before we can make a change that increases freedom and fairness, we must watch, listen, pay attention to that still small voice. There isn’t a “right” way to change a culture, but we can be thoughtful and careful. We can do better than our parents or grandparents did. At least, we can hope to do so. We can hope.
In faith and fondness,
- See, for example, Bhikshu, Kusala, “A Buddhist Approach to Patient Health Care,” Urban Dharma, http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma8/health.html, accessed 6/13/20.
- From Payutto, Phra, “Buddhadamma,” posted by Robin in Buddhist Teachings, August 16, 2013, https://buddhistteachings.org/the-buddhist-outlook-on-hope/, accessed 6/13/20.
- Halifax, Joan, “Yes, We Can Have Hope,” Lion’s Roar, March 10, 2020, https://www.lionsroar.com/yes-we-can-have-hope/, accessed 6/13/20.
- Obama, Barack, “Presidential Proclamation – Flag Day and National Flag Week,” June 14, 2011, https://www.army.mil/article/59591/presidential_proclamation_flag_day_and_national_flag_week, accessed 6/12/20.
- Reagan, Ronald, “Proclamation 4846 – Flag Day and National Flag Week, 1981,” The American Presidency Project, June 1, 1981, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-4846-flag-day-and-national-flag-week-1981, accessed 6/12/20.
- Havel, Václav, Disturbing the Peace, New York,: Vintage, 1991,182.
- Eliot, T. S., Four Quartets, Quartet No. 2: “East Coker,” New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
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