The Place Beyond Hope and Fear

By Margaret Wheatley, 2009
First published in the Shambhala Sun 

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Hope and fear have been in the news—and in our experience—a great deal of late. We had watched for years as the future disappeared under disabling clouds of fear. Then suddenly, we again could see the sky, bright with hope and the possibility of change.

President Obama’s election was heralded as the triumph of hope over fear. But since that glowing dawn of last November, the world’s dilemmas and terrors have again cast their long shadows. We continue to be confronted by the complexities of our interconnected fates, resisting solutions. Our hearts continue to be challenged by the terrible things that humans should not be doing to other humans. Our Western worldview of material ease and endless progress has been shaken. Economic failures have worsened life not only for ourselves but everywhere in the world, among those who knew abundance and those who knew only poverty.

Many of us have worked hard for many years to create a better world. We have worked for a world where more people would be free from suffering—the physical suffering of poverty, disease, and loss, and the emotional suffering of ignorance, mis-perception, and invisibility. In this time of rekindling hope, we must also acknowledge that suffering everywhere, both material and spiritual, has increased.

For me and most of my colleagues, life these days is a roller coaster ride between hope and fear, oscillating wildly between what’s possible and what is. Like all roller coasters, this one is both exhilarating and terrifying, often simultaneously. We are fully engaged in being part of the solution, and then we plunge into despair at the enormity of the challenges and the fear that our efforts will fail.

And yet, such a wild ride between hope and fear is unavoidable. Fear is the necessary consequence of feeling hopeful again. Contrary to our belief that hope and fear are opposites where one trumps the other, they are a single package, bundled together as intimate, eternal partners. Hope never enters a room without fear at its side. If I hope to accomplish something, I’m also afraid I’ll fail. You can’t have one without the other.

Those of us raised in Western culture were never taught that fear is the price of hope. Rather, we can’t envision life without hope. Hell, according to Dante, is the place devoid of hope; he warned Christians condemned there to “abandon all hope, ye who enter herein.” The Hebrew prophets warned that without vision, the people perish. Hope is what propels us into action. We’ve been taught dream of a better world as the necessary first step in creating one. We create a clear vision for the future we want, then we set strategy, make a plan, and get to work. We focus strategically on doing only those things that have a high probability of success. As long as we “keep hope alive” and work hard, our endeavors will create the world we want. How could we do our work if we had no hope that we’d succeed?

Motivated by hope, but then confronted by failure, we become depressed and demoralized. Life becomes meaningless; we despair of changing things for the better. At such a time, we learn the price of hope. Rather than inspiring and motivating us, hope has become a burden made heavy by its companion, fear of failing.

So we have to abandon hope, all of us, and learn how to find the place “beyond hope and fear.” This is a familiar concept in Buddhism, yet little known in Western thinking. Liberated from hope and fear, we are free to discover clarity and energy, but the journey there demands behaviors we’re not familiar with or have actively avoided. Here are a few markers of this journey, blessed wisdom gleaned from the experiences of those who have persevered and maintained steadfast focus even when their efforts have yielded little or no results.

Rudolf Bahro, a prominent German activist and iconoclast, describes the first step: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Bahro offers insecurity as a positive trait, especially necessary in times of disintegration. Yet is it conceivable to think that feeling insecure would increase our ability to stay in the work of creating something new?

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