Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2011 - Volume 11, No. 9
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Where is Hope?

Recently I returned from a retreat/vacation on a small Lake Michigan island.  But more than in past years, I had difficulty with the reentry.  Purposefully I had waited a day or so (apparently not long enough!) before engaging the news of the world, but somehow it still hit me harder than I expected.  The mythical world of Pandora’s Box, from which all the troubles of the world had been (carelessly) released, lay bare before me - and for a moment I began to understand what it felt like to live in a world where there was virtually no hope.  

It’s as if I no longer felt safe here.  The worlds of business, banking, politics, media and even psychology all retreat to an “I’ve got mine” position.  Our rights and freedoms are reduced to bicker-points and partisan sound bites.  Jobs for so many are still scarce, and the poor, the sick and the elderly are being callously abandoned.  

I do trust the general thinking and values of our president (though there are times when I wish he’d think more like me).  He tries to stand in the middle in order to hold it all together - as a good leader should.  But it’s a very empty place these days, an almost middle-less middle.  On every side, his contenders know only to send their lackeys to the quarries to gather more stones to hurl against him.  It’s no longer a question of gun control, we’ve regressed to stones for our president, and knives for throat-slitting of anyone who would stand for meaningful change.  No wonder I don’t turn on the TV.  Everybody just wants to demonize somebody else.     

I also came home to a Flint Journal headline that it now costs a University of Michigan - Flint undergraduate, living at home, over $10 grand a year to get an education!  In a world where debt and deficit spending are the new demon buzzwords, we insist that to get the key to any meaningful livelihood, a student today must commit to decades of student loan debt.  Anyone around who still has rich parents?    

When I attend local events (my town’s pretty good at it), I see lots of folks who seem generally happy.  But then I realize there are many who aren’t around any more.  And nobody seems to know what happened to them - they’ve just disappeared.  I got a glimpse of an answer when I learned of a young couple I’ve known who with their children now live in the small basement of her parents’ home.  I used to assume there were “safety nets” that would kick in.  I recall Marie Antoinette's famous comment about baked goods.  When told “the people have no bread” - she responded “well, let them eat cake.”  

So what’s the score-sheet with us?  Education is being priced out of range, at the same time teachers, who (along with fire and police personnel) have a basic ability to pull things together locally for us, are being marginalized.  (Again, I don’t know where they are going, but many are leaving Michigan.)  Politics has become ideology and self-interest without any self-correction - especially the traditional self-correction that comes from honest dialogue.  Psychology seems primarily interested in stress, personal happiness and (medicated) well-being.  More and more many of our religions are simply ‘waiting for the magic.’  God will rescue, and in so doing will (1) divide (judge) the world very soon, and (2) all one has to do now is attend to one’s own salvation, and perhaps (3) preach to others (it’s called ‘evangelism’).  Forget the world, and forget your neighbor.  The strong biblical injunction that God will judge us in terms of how we treat those of lesser means than ourselves, seems more lost than ever.  No, the bread-less poor have only themselves to blame, and will have to do with “cake” (maybe leftover from coffee-hours). 

My own unscientific gut-level research estimates the actual percentage of the poor who genuinely abuse social welfare resources to be very small.  But it still feels satisfying to hate them!  My own professional field of psychology has as its greatest offense (and value) an understanding of how much we distort reality in support of our own ego needs.  

My percentage of really evil rich people isn’t much higher.  (I’m talking about people here, not institutions.)  But it takes an even smaller percentage of such people to rule the world in a way that can destroy it.  The poor, and even the abusive poor will never destroy the world.  But they can provide the false excuse for the 2% (my own estimate) who with their own unchecked greed and power can destroy us all.

And then there’s business.  With the collapse of law and respectful debate as the foundation stones of  government, now the business model with its top-down vision, has gained the political ascendency.  People are reduced to an economic model, which makes it much easier to both balance budgets and cloak greed.  Also its own success indicators can be antithetical to the real issues of public welfare.    

Nothing here really cares about the world and it’s welfare.  Nothing here takes people or community seriously.  Nothing here even has a future!  Once ‘I’ve got mine,’ then its time to build a wall, and/or stockpile guns.  Pay attention folks, it’s real people we’re throwing away!     

This could easily become a rant and an invitation to cynicism.  And that may be satisfying and even accurate, but actually not useful to my subject. 

So, back to Pandora.   

A box was prepared by the gods, into which all the ills and calamities of the human world were contained. Pandora, the first created woman, and therefore known to be a very curious creature, was given this box and instructed to never lift its lid.  Now any storyteller knows, as with her myth-sister Eve, that no person, woman or man, with any worthy human soul, can long resist that temptation of being told not to do something.  To be human is to be curious.  But once she realized what she had done, she quickly re-closed the lid - yet too late to prevent the host of afflictions that rapidly spread across the surface of the earth.  

However, the old myth adds one more element.  There remained in the box one single item that didn’t escape - Hope.  All the pain and calamities had to come out first. The last prisoner of Pandora’s box, residing now just under its fast closed lid, is what’s missing.  What she did was to separate hope from all other reality.  That box has to be opened once again!   And in doing so, we may have to risk everything!   

Michael Meade, a gifted mythologist and story-teller, as well as a guide and mentor to me for some decades, says it like this:

It's as if all the ills and ailments, all the scandals and betrayals and the rampant skullduggery must be faced before the hidden hope of life can be found again. It's as if things must become hopeless before a deeper sense of hope can return from the depths of the human heart. This "second level of hope" includes a darker knowledge of the world and a sharper insight into one's own soul. [1]

Hope re-emerges from within our willingness to go deep into the struggles and despairs of ourselves, our neighbors and our time.  That abrupt and painful contrast between my vacation retreat and my re-entry is the key - at least for me.  It feels right, as if I’ve known it all along.  That’s what the old stories (the myths) have taught me.  It’s also the core and substance of the Christian story.  It’s the full form and substance of the Mass, the Christian Eucharist.  It’s probably the story deep within every mature religion.  It’s the story of life.  When you live it fully, it takes you down, down deep, into our individual uniqueness and purpose - which in turn feeds the soul, and and then each other - reviving the world.  Life lived to the fullest.    

Where does hope go when things collapse?  When leadership fails, when the structures we depend on are threatened, where can we look?  Look under the lid, deep into the human self, into the story we were each born to live. 

To open that box again is not an easy task.  But there it is - waiting for us.  And each and every one of us may need to change our lives as a result.  There is hope.

Pay attention


   [1]Four days after my return, Michael Meade’s first blog in the Huffington Post was published online.  This, his first installment (as of 9/1 there are now three), was titled “The Hidden Hope of the World” - from which I take this quote.  It was the breath of fresh air I’d been seeking - and allowed me to finally begin integrating the richness of my vacation retreat and the painful reality of the world in which I live.  I heartily recommend reading it.

Michael’s own website, Mosaic Voices, gives intriguing samples of his more recent work.

His recent book Fate and Destiny, The Two Agreements of the Soul (2010), has proved rich reading for a number of my clients. 

Comments (7)

  • Having just returned from an educational work trip to the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua, I resonated with the sentiments you have expressed here. I did, however, have to go back to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology book to review the Pandora myth because as I had remembered it, “hope” was the only good thing released by her curiosity. I discovered – somewhat to my chagrin – that my memory was faulty; and so, once again, you’ve given me something to ponder: how to both treasure and release the internal hope available to us.

    Geoffrey Boyer, 9/6/2011
  • Bravo, Bill. Echoes of last Sunday’s Epistle “ is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

    — Cynthia Garman, 9/6/2011
  • I fear this may be misconstrued as the selfish focus on personal happiness about which you caution, but I’ll take the risk so I can tell you how much I really needed this reminder right now!!! Defininitely ‘thinking outside the box’--only to remind us to go back inside! Again, you seem to hit it right with which flavor 'Marie’s cake' I need for the month! So, let’s ‘hope’ that you instead focus on the nice thing I am trying to do in giving you the KUDOS you deserve for such a lovely dessert you served--and to think it’s from the Soup Kitchen!

    — Mouthful of Hope, 9/8/2011
  • Out of the chaos will come renewal. A new foundation for our world
    is being created and we are watching it happen. Everything we have
    become dependent on is changing and we aren’t quite sure how to
    evaluate this new situation, embrace it, repair it and move on.
    This president is ahead of his time and He knows how to lead. We
    may be too dependent to understand how to follow this kind of leadership. What is hope? We may be seeing hope in action
    around the world everyday.

    — Dawn, 9/7/2011
  • I AM hope..

    Like Geff (Boyer) I too experienced some shock of re-entry returning from our time in Nicaragua this August. After seeing both the devastation of poverty and the beauty and resilience of the poor; after learning more about the role of US policy in violently creating and sustaining that poverty, I was briefly unsure I wanted to live here any longer. And, my experience in Nicaragua is a living thing, dwelling somewhere deep in me, wordless, full of images and love. I miss the simplicity, the manual labor, the “silence” of birdsong in the steaming tropics. I miss the Spanish that I struggled to understand, the routine of doing one thing at a time, surrendering to the rhythm of community living. And what a hopeful gift it has been to come back so much more awake to the reality of the impact of my culture, my politics, my government, my economic choices on so many others. Rob Voyle says that compassion is tender in the face of suffering, fierce in the face of injustice and mischievous in the face of resistance. I feel more fierce, more tender, and more “tricksy” looking for Jesus' paradoxical stance. I’m hopeful.

    These words came to me many years ago and seem pertinent:

    I AM the wellspring of the universe,
    I AM the source of Life in you,
    I AM the fire, I AM the crucible,
    I AM creating all things new.

    — Susan H Boyer, 10/21/2011
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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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