Many years ago, I took Merton seriously and abandoned all hope of ever saving the world. This was extremely heart-wrenching for me, more difficult than letting go of a love relationship. I felt I was betraying my causes, condemning the world to a terrible end. Some of my colleagues were critical, even frightened by my decision. How could I be so irresponsible? If we give up saving the world, what will happen? Still today, I have many beloved colleagues who refuse to resign as savior. They continue to force their failing spirits and tired bodies back into action one more time, wanting angry vehemence to give them vigor.
I didn’t give up saving the world to protect my health. I gave it up to discover right action, what I’m supposed to be doing. Beyond hope and fear, freed from success or failure, I’m learning what right action feels like, its clarity and energy. I still get angry, enraged, and frustrated. But I no longer want my activities to be driven by these powerful, destructive emotions. I’ve learned to pause, come back to the present moment, and calm down. I take no actions until I can trust my interior state—until I become present in the moment and clarity emerges undimmed by hope and fear. Then I act, rightly, I hope.
Merton spoke truthfully. It isn’t outcomes that matter. It’s people, our relationships, that give meaning to our struggles. If we free ourselves from hope and fear, from having to succeed, we discover that it becomes easier to love. We stop scapegoating, we stop blaming, and we stop being disappointed in each other. We realize that we truly are in this together, and that’s all that matters.
I know this to be true from my work, through The Berkana Institute, with colleagues in very desperate places. Zimbabwe has been the most compelling teacher—watching our friends and colleagues there deal with the descent of their country into violence, terror, and starvation, the result of a dictator gone mad. We’ve stayed in close contact by e-mail, phone, and periodic visits. We’ve learned that no matter how despairing the circumstance, it is our relationships that offer us solace, guidance, and joy. As long as we’re together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we can persevere. A Zimbabwean, in her darkest moment, wrote: “In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving-kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.”
Thomas Merton was right. We are consoled and strengthened by being together.
We don’t need specific outcomes. We don’t need hope. We need each other. Liberated from hope and fear, we find ourselves receiving the gift of patience. We abandon the pursuit of effectiveness and watch as our urgency fades and patience appears. Patience is, perhaps, this journey’s destination. St. Augustine taught this infuriating truth: “The reward of patience is patience.” Years ago, the Dalai Lama counseled a group of my colleagues who were depressed about the state of the world to be patient. “Do not despair,” he said. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so.”
Can we do our work without needing to see results? Can we be content that our work might bear fruit, but not in our lifetime? Can we cheerfully plant seeds with little concern for the harvest? Consider the visionary leadership of Moses and Abraham. They carried promises given to them by their God, but they also knew they would not live to see these promises fulfilled. They led from faith, not hope, from a relationship with something greater beyond their comprehension. T.S. Eliot describes this better than anyone, in “Four Quartets”:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
My heart holds the image of us journeying in this way through this time of disintegration and rebirth. Insecure, groundless, patient, beyond hope and fear. And together.