In the Ancient Greek drama Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, Prometheus tells of the terrible mistake he made in giving humans self-awareness and enlightenment. The “gift”, he explains, turned out to be a curse because it made us humans deeply aware of our own mortality.
But while he can’t take the gift/curse away, Prometheus has taken steps to relieve the grinding, lifelong anxiety he’s caused. His remedy, he says, is to enable us to live in permanent denial of our mortal nature.
Prometheus: I prevented mortals from foreseeing their death.
Chorus Leader: By finding what remedy for this malady?
Prometheus: I caused blind hope to dwell within them.
Chorus Leader: In this you gave a mighty benefit to mortals!
Prometheus’s solution may have been workable when the stakes weren’t as high as they are today. But blind hope and optimism are not the best prescription when you’re entering a period of mass extinction.
A few weeks ago, the Audubon Society asked a group of seven conservationists and environmentalists how they stay positive when “reports of impending doom followed by frustrating inaction make it hard to find the motivation to keep up with it.”
The topic was on the minds of the Audubon leaders because they’d recently discovered that half of all North American birds are now seriously threatened by climate change.
Here are excerpts of how the group responded:
“I latch on to the successes we do have … and take hope in the fact that the world is a better place for nature than if we had done nothing.” – Ron Swaisgood, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
“I look at the pictures from around the world in the 350.org Flickr account. We’ve hosted about 20,000 rallies in every country but North Korea, and just looking at the images fires me up again.” – Bill McKibben, Chairman of 350.org.
“I draw inspiration from my colleagues in the climate community who … keep me focused on how together we can tackle this challenge.” – Heidi Cullen, Chief Scientist for Climate Central.
“For me, my music and songwriting are the main tonic, directing my energies to themes that journalism doesn’t cover much.” Andrew Revkin, the New York Times Dot Earth blog.
“Get outside and enjoy nature. In particular, it’s great to visit a successful conservation project that has allowed for nature to make a big comeback.” – Mark Tercek, Pres. and CEO, the Nature Conservancy.
“The way I de-stress is by running.” – David Yarnold, Pres. and CEO, the National Audubon Society.
“Consciously culture a hopeful perspective that is balanced by sound pragmatism. Time in nature enables me to better tune this conscious balance, as do activities such as yoga [and] meditative reflection.” – James Sheppard, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
Some of this is common-sense advice. And certainly it’s important to cultivate a positive frame of mind. But when you know we’ve gone over too many tipping points already, it gets harder to tell yourself and your followers that “together we can tackle this challenge.” Holding on to blind hope not only fails to address the real issues; it drains your energy as each hope fades and needs replacing with a new one.
And while big demonstrations can certainly “fire you up”, there’s little evidence that demonstrations are turning anything around.
In today’s world, the Prometheus formula of holding on to blind hope not only fails to address the real issues; it drains your energy as each hope fades and needs replacing with a new one.
What about faith? For many people faith and hope are the same thing (as in “I have faith that things will work out.”) But there’s another kind of faith, as described by author and peace activist Chris Hedges:
“Faith is about fighting for the good, in so far as we can determine it, and then letting it go. We believe that it goes somewhere even if all the empirical evidence says otherwise …
“Faith is accompanied by tremendous doubt. So one believes finally that the good attracts the good, but it may be that, within our lifetime, everything we see deteriorates. But that doesn’t invalidate what we’ve done.”
When asked about hope, he says:
“You can’t talk about hope if you don’t confront what’s real. Otherwise, hope becomes an illusion, and I’m not interested in illusions. The first step toward the capacity for hope is the recognition of where we are. If we refuse to recognize where we are, then everything we do is futile.”
Hedges is no optimist. A former war correspondent, trained in theology, he is today an activist for peace and justice in a world gone insane. And while he sees little hope for a positive outcome, he keeps going regardless, buoyed by the “faith” that the good we do is never in vain.
The same is true for thousands of people who work to protect our fellow animals, even in the knowledge that their efforts are not going to turn things around. Their work is not about trying to hold back the tide, but rather about promoting life regardless of what’s happening around them.
Faith isn’t about hoping for a better future; it’s about how we promote life today.If, for example, you’re working at the Elephant Orphanage in Kenya, you can’t help but know that these marvelous animals face extinction within a generation from now. But the orphans keep arriving, and what matters is their lives today, not what the situation will be 30 years from now.
It’s the same basic story of the old man walking along the beach picking up starfish and putting them back in the ocean. Asked what difference he thinks he’s making since more starfish are being washed up all the time, he picks up another one and says, “Well, I guess it’s going to make a difference for this one.”
None of us can control the past or the future. So faith isn’t about hoping for a better world; it’s about how we promote life today.
The basic laws of life still rule. They tell us that no act of kindness is ever lost and that no thought of love and caring is ever in vain. And that makes them the cornerstones of a true faith.