The Good News of Hopelessness
Presented as a Sunset Talk at “The Point,” July 2018
Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford
Hope is tightly woven into Unitarian Universalism. The doctrine of universal salvation was referred to as “The Larger Hope.” In 1886, when describing the “Five Points of the New Theology,” Unitarian James Freeman Clarke affirmed his hope in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” James Luther Adams said that one of the key points of liberal religion is an optimism based on the resources available to us. And in some UU church somewhere, every Sunday, a congregation sings, “I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find …”
If Unitarian Universalists were to do the theological translating we often do, to the evangelical idea that “God is good, ALL THE TIME,” we would probably translate it into “Hope is good, ALL THE TIME.”
Is it? Is it really? Could it be that you bringing me hope is the LAST thing I need; that in fact, the hope you bring could be holding me back from making a needed change?
Many of us are, I believe, actually afraid of hopelessness. We feel it is a vampire outside our door, asking for entry, and we must be unequivocal in never issuing an invitation. Hopelessness will suck us dry, it will kill us.
In the book, Necessary Endings, systems thinker Henry Cloud suggests something daring: invite hopelessness in. Look for, in his words, “the lifesaving virtue of hopelessness.”
Hopelessness can be a virtue, when we allow it to show us the areas in which we need to lose hope, so that we can move into something healthier, wiser. You see, there is bad hope. And there is good hopelessness. The key element lies in facing what is real.
When we believe in something with absolutely no evidence for it, and much evidence to the contrary, that is probably bad hope. The abused spouse who keeps hoping their partner will stop hitting them. The parent of the addict who keeps hoping their child will heal.
Is the abuser getting therapy? Is the addict in a recovery program? That is fair hope. But without any plans for change? It is bad hope. It is not based in reality.
There are things we need to become hopeless about, and number one on the list is the idea that we can keep doing (or not doing) the same things, and achieve a different result.
I’m a Gen Xer and grew up on Sesame Street. What a wonderful show. It gave us a joyous picture of what Beloved Community could look like. The neighborhood of Sesame Street was diverse on many levels, and diversity was always treated as a value. Luis and Maria taught their friends Spanish. Linda the Librarian, who was deaf, taught sign-language. We were enriched by our differences.
But like so many other stories and shows, Sesame Street gave us the unrealistic hope that Beloved Community could just happen. That it was automatic, without effort, without sacrificing privilege.
We have, most of us, rejected James Freeman Clarke’s hope in the inevitable progress of humankind, understanding that it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to make progress happen, and that it’s not a straight linear line upwards. The pendulum swings and we find ourselves re-fighting battles we thought we’d already completed.
Now it’s time to take the next step. To actively seek out “good hopelessness,” the areas in which we need to be hopeless in order to change and grow. As Cloud points out, that means examining not only the broken areas, but also the areas where right now, everything is working well.
Visionaries are able to look into the future and see that though something works successfully now, it will not in the future. In business, the examples of those who did not embrace hopelessness early enough provide a virtual graveyard of failed corporations: Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders books.
But there are also the examples of companies like IBM who were willing to become hopeless that what gave them success would continue to work. IBM began as “CTR” – Computing, Tabulating, Recording. Again and again, they have lost hope in their success product -- tabulating machines, punch card machines, typewriters, personal computers – and moved on to something new. Today, they make billions of dollars selling not machines, but services, to businesses.
Hopelessness is a tool.
Hopelessness is a visitor. You allow it to stay a couple of days for a visit, but then hustle it out the door. Don’t let it move in and set up permanent residence.
Hopelessness is a stepping stone, never the end. Hopelessness in your life must always be followed by a comma, never a period, and it is there to lead us to a new hope.
When we decide to be hopeless about what holds us back, what keeps us from growing, then we can welcome in expansive, lifegiving, challenging, realistic hope. Hope that compels us to take faithful risks, to leave what is comfortable in order to be an active partner in building Beloved Community.
Where is the lifesaving hopelessness in your life?