Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2016 - Volume 16, No. 2
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The Human Condition (Part 3): Hope

In Part 1 of this series, I began exploring the question of “the human condition” - whether of itself it’s innately good or innately bad. In that first part, I wrote primarily from within my religious background. In the second Part, I approached the question from a more secular (psychological and humanist) tradition. Both parts were distilled from within my own variety of heritage and traditions.

And now, to wrap up this exploration, I consider the question: Given our existence within what is variously called “the human condition”, what is human hope?

To Live “as if”

I’ll begin by giving my own a functional answer to the question. Hope is the ability to live “as if” in the face of “what is.” And now to further flesh that out.

The essential ubiquity of hope.

Many will say there is always hope. (And I hope they are right.) We just need to know where and how to find it. Whether this is a blessing or an hallucination, it has a certain universal appeal (especially among those of us who do have hope).

Many years ago (1970) I was privileged to attend a series of lectures at the University of Michigan Medical School by the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and death and dying expert, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004). In her extensive study of dying cancer patients, she discerned that hope went through a number of stages, but there was always hope. At first there was the hope that the diagnosis was mistaken. That failing, the next level of hope was that a cure would become available. That failing, the next level of hope was the individual would have sufficient time to finish important business. A next level of hope was that he or she would be able to remain at least relatively pain free in the face of dying. The final hope was to not be alone at the time of death.

I was young then. And for many years I’ve held onto that model, basically for the “there’s always hope” comfort it offered (me).

About a decade later, I encountered a new stage in my understanding of personal hope. A friend was stricken in her early years with a crippling form of arthritis. One day when I asked her how she was doing (her usual answer was a curt “I’m fine”), she told me “I’ve decided to own it.”  Asking for what she meant, she said, “If I make it my own, it’s fully mine.” It meant she couldn’t  blame anything or anyone else for it. It also meant is that she had no room available for anger or fear. To this day she lives in constant pain. But that ‘ownership’ became her form of hope - even though it contains no apparent ‘getting better.’

The Betrayal of Hope

I make my home and my livelihood about 20 minutes drive from Flint, Michigan - now much in the national and international news due to bureaucratic decisions that have poisoned thousands by allowing lead and other contaminants in the city’s public water system - decisions which have apparently doomed hundreds of children under the age of 5 to decades of cognitive and emotional disability.

Where is hope here, especially for parents of young children?  Initially it was the ‘hope’ of saving some money in an already desperately poor municipality by deciding not to pre-corrosion flush the water system in preparation for another ‘cost saving’ move almost two years ago to use the caustic Flint River as the city’s water supply temporarily while awaiting completion of a new pipeline from Lake Huron.

The city of about 100,000 residents itself is majority black and about 40% poor. This situation seems obviously the result of a political and bureaucratic cast-off. And it’s the poor and the children who can least protect themselves. Where is any hope for them?

Of course the rest of us hope we can find someone to blame (and there are lots available) so we can see some heads roll. (Keep tuned, that story is currently moving rapidly.)

My local suburban newspaper quickly published the hope that it can’t happen here - we have our own wells and a relatively new water plant. Yea!

Little by little we are beginning to actually see these folks - they don’t remain invisible to us. What can we say to them?

An additional problem for businesses in Flint is that we avoid going there - merchants and restaurants especially suffer because we are staying away.

There are those myriads of refugees from the Middle East. And now there’s a mosquito that can cause birth defects all over this side of the planet. We have in the US a prisoner population that dwarfs other nations. And there are those who’s personal economic condition is irrevocably crumbling. Often we can avoid any personal connection - somehow protecting ourselves from direct knowledge and perhaps from being overwhelmed.

The Question of Hopelessness

How do we find hope in the midst of such hopelessness, of such desolation, of such despair? What can we say or do to help those who’s hope in life has been betrayed my non-caring others?

And there are always those many hidden “who live lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau).

What in my past two months’ Newsletters about the human condition can speak here?

This has been a difficult Newsletters to write. I have pages of notes in preparation. It would seem there are so many voices out there that speak of and use the language of hope. Hope encourages. Hope binds people together. Hope builds community. Hope is the message of religion. Hope sells merchandise and keeps the economy alive. Hope keeps marriages and families together through numerous difficulties.

Hope is supposed to work. That’s the rule. There is supposed to always be hope somewhere, you just have to know where to look for it.

Much of my professional counseling work is based on my own hope in the enduring and growth of the human spirit, and in hard work.  In the context of much of my work it does.

So What’s the Secret?

What’s happening is I’m being led to find a new place to begin the conversation about Hope.

We could begin with an external referent for hope. This can be a religions referent - such as to “hope in God” That’s generally a hope that “He’s” in in charge of the universe and that ‘His’ ordering of things will save us. For example the great hymn “All my hope on God is founded.” For many that is essential and for a believer it usually works. But for a non-believer, this can also exclude and perpetuate the ‘splitting of the world’ for which religions are all-too-frequently guilty.

Another external referent could be the government, or the economy, or the gates surrounding one’s neighborhood, or in the freedom to carry a gun, or the diligence of one’s financial advisor, or the local police.

We could begin with an internal referent for hope. This can refer to the essential goodness of humanity, and a trust in the natural human spirit. We can like this, but to look around at how often this is betrayed by others as well as ourselves tends to be a flaw this ointment as well.

A ‘Third Thing’ - The Language of the Human Heart

In the space between the external referent and the internal referent is a third thing. It’s not a combination of the two, but something new that emerges when the first two can begin a creative conversation. What can emerge is the place of the Human Heart.

A parallel is the relationship that begins between two people, such as in a marriage. This third thing, marital love, becomes greater than either or both of the two. Here one plus one can equal three. It’s the place our government seems unable to accomplish these days. It’s the one place a broken marriage can begin to transcend the brokenness. It’s the place in religious services for confession and forgiveness, which opens up the possibility of a mystical union with the divine and each other. This isn’t just a religious matter, but it does have to do with a transcendence from within the current place of difficulty.

It’s the place in our literature where a betrayal begins to birth healing, transcendence and a higher level of living. This is why the only literature we really want to read or engage (TV, movies, classical novels, opera, romance novels, etc) have a betrayal at the center. This is where art engages the heart - and the heart rejoices in its healing. And it’s the place of sacrifice - self sacrifice.

The Language of Love, and of Sacrifice

When the heart speaks, it’s the language of love. When the body speaks, it’s the language of giving, often getting the self out of the way - the language of sacrifice.

In the Bible, in St. John’s gospel (Ch15, v13) Jesus says,

“No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”

That’s how Jesus teaches his disciples both who he is, and how they are subsequently to live in the world. He is teaching them the fulness of love.

In the best of the psychotherapeutic art, the individual can arise to a greater life lived to the fullest, which can become a gift to the community, to the larger world - and without fear.

I’m reminded of those who have had near death experience - they no longer have a fear of dying, and in a sense have no fear of anything in this world. That is total hope, the freedom to be fully present to and for the lives and needs of all.

A couple specific examples: I find it in Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), in some of our military and police forces, in many of the healing professions, in many quietly working public servants, and in some of those quiet good people who live just down the block, or even next door. In most or at least many of Stephen King’s writing, this is the quiet good person who is able to somehow almost unnoticed  pull together again all the terrible forces that foolish people have unleashed (that ‘horror’ narrative for which King is so well known).

Hope doesn’t solve all the problems of the world, but it makes life beautiful and deep and rich, and it gives us the right kind of longing, by which we can erase barriers between each other and also for those in need and despair.

So as ever,

Pay attention


It was my mother, when I was in high school, who gave so much of herself to manage the connections for me and others so I could be an AFS exchange student. She did this primarily because of her enthusiasm for their work and their slogan: “Walk together, talk together, all ye peoples of the earth, and then ye shall have peace.” That was the way she lived, and ever the prevailing hope of her life.

Comments (3)

  • Bill

    What a worthwhile reflection! Thank you!

    — denise kleiner, 2/1/2016
  • Enlightening

    Bill, this touched my heart and soul. Your mother was a wise person.21

    — Marilyn Mazanec, 2/1/2016
  • Bill, significant thoughts and examples where hope must be found. Particularly enjoyed your closing paragraph and reference to your mother’s ideals.

    — Carol Pettipher, 2/1/2016

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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