For decades, I’ve been talking publicly about the gathering catastrophes of climate change and social injustice, and about the decline of the Society of Friends. Sounds pretty gloomy, I know. My day job as a palliative care chaplain at a large urban hospital entails sitting at the feet of those very powerful teachers named in Buddhist tradition: old age, sickness, and death.
Optimysticism is the force of God-as-Love, which John Woolman refers to when he writes, “Love was the first motion.” When we surrender enough of our fears, resentments, judgment, and control to heed Isaac Pennington and “sink down to the seed,” we find that we rest in Spirit so completely that we cannot help but rejoice and hope. Ours is an optimystical faith.
Despite a very early childhood knowledge of nuclear weapons, racism, poverty, war, sexism, and environmental degradation – thank you, fully engaged Quaker parents – until 2008, I deeply believed that the world was solving these problems. Although the situation was really problematic and dire, I was blissfully able to ignore it. That is what is called false hope.
Today, many young people are in a state of despair. A record number of twenty-somethings say they don’t want to have children. And suicide is on the rise among young people. The young folks know that the time for pat answers is long past.
So, let’s talk about sorrow, grief, and lamentation. This is the secret place where the road to hope begins.
When we elect not to feel our grief, we attenuate all feeling, all passion. To be without feelings is to be apathetic, to be flat. We cannot hope if we will not grieve.
Deep activism, soul activism, encourages us to connect with the tears of the world. Grief keeps the heart flexible, fluid, and open to others. So, we start this journey toward hope with grief.
Now, obviously things are not all bad. The system provides citizens of developed countries very high-quality bread and circuses. Charitable gifts of food and gruesome entertainment were part of how the Roman emperors tried to keep their populace complacent. Excessive discontent, you see, creates inefficiencies in the system of wealth and power concentration.
And although technology is a child of ecological exploitation, it brings us really important real things like medicine, transportation, and communications. Every day. It hooks us into the Industrial Growth Society project and tricks us into believing that without the Industrial Growth Society, these good things would be impossible.
Joanna Macy writes about The Great Turning away from the Industrial Growth Society, toward the Life Sustaining Society, and she says that the Great Turning starts with the Great Unraveling. So, that’s where we are now – in the Great Unraveling. We are transiting the apocalypse. But “apocalypse” doesn’t actually mean “catastrophe.” In New Testament Greek, the word “apocalypse” simply means to uncover, to lift the veil, to see what is within. It’s a revelation. When the jack pines cones are opened by fire, and a new tree takes root, that’s revelation.
There are four essential characteristics to understand about this trans-apocalyptic time, this Great Unraveling, or what I also simply call, “The Crumbles.”
First, there is really no longer the possibility of a non-chaotic transition from where we are now to what Macy calls this Life Sustaining Society and what our Quaker religious tradition calls the Peaceable Kingdom or peaceable kin-dom. We cannot get there from here easily. We have passed too many off-ramps.
Second, our ways of knowing are out of date and won’t always accurately describe or predict reality during The Crumbles. We should be ready to course-correct faster. The bumper sticker I love that reminds me of this reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Third, failure IS an option. If we’re paying attention, we see that disaster is on the menu.
Lastly, this is a generative time. Individually and collectively, we do not change until things become uncomfortable enough to warrant change. The Great Unraveling makes a change trajectory more possible precisely because systems are beginning to fail.
And that brings us to wise hope. Hope is not wishing. We should respect wishing enough to give it its due. I love wishes. As a palliative care chaplain, accompanying people who have serious illness, I see that the “hope” that many people have in the beginning of their illness isn’t really hope, it’s just wishing. Wishing that the chemotherapy would work, wishing for a transplant they are too sick to survive. Then, with acceptance of the approach of death, wise hope appears.
“I hope to be at my nephew’s graduation.”
“I hope that my estranged daughter can hear my heart’s apology, for being too caught up in my addiction when she was young.”
Well, The Crumbles is an era when things are too chaotic for us to be certain about many things, including doom and gloom predictions. We need wise hope to cut through the smoke and pall of negativity. There’s big, bad stuff going on: the sixth great planetary extinction event, the dying oceans, the rise of autocracy, wealth inequality, increased hate crimes, wars and rumors of wars.
But here’s the thing: Awesome stuff is going on, too. Take Jackson, Mississippi. Cooperation Jackson is an umbrella organization which is sponsoring what they call municipalism, which is a kind of direct democracy for towns and cities. This has given rise to development of a People’s Grocery Cooperative that will put a dent in the food desert there. In this time, wise hope turns our attention to the groundswell of new ways of being – which are peaceful, inclusive, subversive, and celebratory.
In a very complex system, things are often not clearly good or bad. Superseding binary judgment is wise hope, it’s taking a spiritual approach to our earthly conditions – acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know, acknowledging that there is a love force working in the world. We must wait, wait, wait for the Still Small Voice. Love is that first motion to engage in the work that Spirit lays particularly on our heart. We must carry that love into our work and into how we do that work.
So, back to the optimystical. This is when we arrive at a mystical awareness, a cosmic consciousness, God-mind, the peace that passeth understanding. Here we have transcended even deep hope. It’s an inbreaking of Spirit.
Margaret Shepherd says, “Sometimes the only available transportation is a leap of faith.” That’s where we are – in The Crumbles, which invite us to apply this lesson we learn when we go through a transition that is a kind of death.
Quakerism itself is not immune to The Crumbles. Our numbers are dwindling, meetings are being laid down, our work is sometimes inward and mundane. Death is part of life, and perhaps Quakerism will die. I don’t know. But death is only an apocalypse, a revelation of something new.
We have to be ready for change. Quakerism has only ever been a means to an end. It’s not an end unto itself. That end is direct communion with the Divine. If Quakerism is not serving that purpose of drawing us into Godness, then perhaps it should yield to some new revelation.
We are freed up by being able to entertain that possibility.
Optimysticism is the profound hope that comes from surrender, the right-sizing of the ego, and the direct encounter with God. It reframes entirely both what hope is and what we hope for. It enables radical witness. Ours is an optimystical faith. Quakerism has The Crumbles, but it may just be on the cusp of a profound transformation. We are the inheritors and stewards of this gift, and that may be a great adventure.
This article is an assemblage of excerpts from a complete transcript of a keynote talk, which is published online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/deep-hope-optimystical-times-unabridged