Monthly Archives: June 2015

Life Without Hope

Over the years I have come across authors who decry hope as an unnecessary setup for human unhappiness. They fault it for pulling the focus of concern away from present reality and projecting it into a fantasy of the future that never quite arrives as expected. Perhaps because so much creative energy has been invested by humans in unproductive wishful thinking, which presumably includes religious pining after Paradise, these well-meaning critics of hope suggest that we’d all be better off without its distractions and disappointments.

I get their point, in one sense. Hope is a setup of sort, and what human beings hope for rarely “comes true.” And yes, hope can siphon precious energy away from the challenges of real life, sometimes even persuading us to let opportunities pass or even trash what’s real for something better later, on the other side. Because baseless, unrealistic, and otherworldly hope has been used as an accelerant of violence (in the name of future hopes) as well as a justification for emotional detachment from the pressing issues of contemporary life, the solution is to discredit it in the hope that we will live more fully, and more responsibly, in the present.

But as I have a sympathetic affection for our inherently conflicted species, I’m going to take a different slant on this matter of hope. Seeing as how depression is the malady of our modern age, could it be that living without hope – or, following the sage advice of these authors, forsaking hope in the interest of a more reality-oriented mindset – is at the root of our problem? Maybe we shouldn’t confuse hope with mere wishful thinking, with longing for something away from, different than, or after the challenge presently upon us.

As animal organisms, humans are anchored by physical needs to the living earth. When these basic needs are met – assuming that our pursuit of them hasn’t gotten tangled up in the complications of emotional insecurity (which is a generous and entirely unrealistic assumption, I know) – the satisfaction we feel is a key ingredient in the happiness we seek. Happiness is more than the satisfaction of our needs, but I’m ready to say that it isn’t possible unless our survival and health are supported in some adequate degree.

Perhaps it was to seduce us into satisfying our basic needs, that nature sprinkled the fairy dust of pleasure on the things we require to live, reproduce, and flourish as a species. This, I will say, is the second key ingredient to happiness. We don’t need pleasure to live, but the pursuit of it tends to get us involved in doing what is necessary for life to continue. If apples weren’t sweet to the taste, if sex didn’t bring convulsions of ecstasy, or if reading a good book was utterly devoid of pleasure, there’s a decent chance we wouldn’t bother with them.

If satisfaction is mostly about our physical and developmental needs, then pleasure might be the evolutionary bridge from an existence oriented on survival to one that’s virtually preoccupied with enjoyment. The pursuit of pleasure is probably at work in our tendency as sensual-emotional beings to be both gluttonous consumers (it feels so good, we just can’t stop) and wasteful stewards of resources (when we get sick or bored of it, we just leave or throw it away). Entire industries prosper on our relentless, at times reckless and imprudent, desire for pleasure, enjoyment, and indulgence in what feels good.

So is that enough? Can we close our theory of happiness on these two key ingredients – need satisfaction and the allure of pleasure? If we just put up a strong moral fence to prevent theft, murder, exploitation, and bad business – and throw in some incentives for recycling and getting out to vote – human beings should be happy, right? No, that’s not right. Why? Because humans also require hope to be happy.

I will define “hope” as Holding Open a Positive Expectation for the future (see what I did there?). Most likely it has to do with the part of the brain most distinctive to our species, the prefrontal cortex, which gives us, among other things, an ability to grasp the Big Picture and take the Long View on things. This part of our brain isn’t fully online until sometime in our early to mid twenties, but once it is online our happiness depends henceforth on our belief in a promising future. Holding open a positive expectation for the future can keep us going when we are languishing physically, scratching the ground for satisfaction, having to cope daily with chronic pain or the absence of what once brought us deep enjoyment in life.

Young children are often idealized for their spontaneous and innocent engagement with present reality. They don’t worry about tomorrow. They don’t get caught up in their plans for the future, making strategies for what they want their lives to be like in some distant future, and then worry over what they can’t control. Oh, to be like that again! Please, just lop off my prefrontal cortex and let me revel in the limbic fairyland of my freewheeling imagination.

promised landHope doesn’t have to be either the escapism of wishful thinking or palliative therapy for a life in general decline. Holding open a positive expectation for the future is an essential human activity, and is, I would argue, the third key ingredient of happiness.

By holding the future open, we add cognitive aspiration to the emotional inspiration and physical perspiration of daily life. In believing that today is even now opening up into tomorrow, that this world and our life in it are already passing into the not yet of what’s still to come, we are liberated into our responsibility as co-creators of the New World.

And if, like Moses peering into the Promised Land but unable to enter, all we can do is hold the future open for our children and their children, hope is ultimately what makes life meaningful.


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A Religion That Matters

Two SystemsMy last post ended with the suggestion that what we call religion might best be understood as the way we manage the balance of love and power in our lives. The two systems of supremacy and communion which act like great attractors in the patterns of culture throughout history, also pull on our individual lives, causing us to lean more one way than the other in our personal choices and lifestyles.

The question I’m exploring is whether it is legitimate (and useful) to speak of this management of power and love – the particular set of rules, disciplines, methods, and practices we employ to “hold it together” (from the Latin religare) – as our religion. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then the salient features that get packaged together in our conventional definition of religion – sacred stories, communal rituals, devotional practices, belief in a supreme being, and the hope of an afterlife – end up as secondary to its principal function.

This would help explain not only why religion looks so different from culture to culture (i.e., its features are more locally dependent), but also why all religions can be classified as either oriented on supremacy (the love of power) or communion (the power of love). Even within a single religion (e.g., Christianity), this balance of power and love can shift from one generation to the next, from one community to another, even as the surface features remain ostensibly the same. What we find is a change of focus in the myths, doctrines, liturgy, and morality as one system recedes and the other moves into dominance.

At the heart of religion (as I am redefining it here) is the priority and challenge of trust, which is where power and love are held in balance or fall apart. In a sense, the whole two-system “mega-system” of supremacy and communion comes down to how we manage – cultivate, nourish, repair, and renew – the trust we have in reality, the earth, each other, and ourselves. This is the sacred bond that holds everything together. It will serve us well to appreciate what’s at stake in the management of trust.

As my diagram illustrates, the systems of supremacy and communion interact along two parabolic arcs that converge in “trust” and diverge again into their opposing values. Farthest out from center are the oppositions of virtue/competition and equality/cooperation, which is where the peculiar accent of a religion will be most obvious.

It’s important to remember that virtue is not about “being good” in the moral sense, but refers rather to the unique power (character strength, creative talent, uncommon intelligence) that makes the individual something special. In a supremacy system, priority is given to the discovery and development, typically in competition with others, of what makes us exceptional. On the other side is equality, where exceptions are downplayed in the interest of what makes us similar, of what we have in common. This common ground becomes the basis of cooperation and partnership in a communion system.

We can understand how major ideological differences would be easier to defend and maintain the farther out from center we identify ourselves. In a sense, it’s safer out there: we can stay in our heads and keep our distance from those “glory seekers” or “bleeding hearts” on the other side of the scale. But our religion only works for us at that point where we find ourselves face to face with “the other” – the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. The question of whom we can trust, whether we can (or should) let down our guard and open ourselves to the other, take a risk and be vulnerable for the sake of a genuinely human-spiritual interaction – that’s where it really matters.

Jesus understood this with laser clarity, it seems to me. What you may believe about God, or whether you even believe in one; whether or not you are a confessing member of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; whether you can recite scripture or pray before meals; whether you are preparing your soul for immortal beatitude in the next life or just living from one day to the next – none of this really matters if you close yourself off from others, if you refuse to build trust where it’s missing, or repair trust where it’s damaged or broken.

Ironically (and tragically) much of religion today has become a means of escape, not just from this coil of mortality at the end of life, but from the proving circle of exposure, vulnerability, and risk where so much is at stake. Our churches and denominations are protected memberships where we can sit alongside like-minded believers, feel confirmed in our truth, and carefully plan our engagement with the world outside. But if my theory holds, none of this is religion that matters. True religion – if I can dare use the term – has nothing to do with either monastic escape or strategic outreach to “save” the world.

Lest my readers who are former churchgoers, enlightened nonbelievers, or independent post-theists are thinking that religion can and should be left behind, I’ll remind you of my working definition, which has to do with the way you manage the balance of power and love in your life. How you cultivate trust and negotiate its challenges, how you use your influence to nourish connection, how you fulfill your responsibilities in the covenant of relationship – that is your religion. Leaving the church and giving up on its god doesn’t set you free from religion; it may indeed have been a necessary step in getting you more seriously invested in a religion that matters.


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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.


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