(from THIRTY YEAR PLAN: Thirty Writers on What We Need To Build a Better Future; Great Barrington MA: ORION Books, 2012)
The reality is this. We are going to die, and everyone we love and care about will die too. Whatever we have, we’ll lose, to time, to Heraclitean fire and flux. A few planetary breaths ago, much of a then-thriving biosphere vanished, by asteroid strike or some other climactic catastrophe. Some billion or so years from now, the sun will begin its change into a red giant, first heating, then consuming the inner planets, including Earth. Meanwhile, scientists now believe, an ever-expanding universe stretches toward a diaphanous thinness equally unfriendly to what’s sometimes called “life as we know it.”
From the point of view of that “we,” it’s quite certain: all will come to a bad end—creeks and cloudberry bushes, planktonic diatoms and blue whales, six-toed sloths, giant squids, bowerbirds, physicists, soldiers, pacifists, sweatshop workers, shamans, dragnet fishermen, CEOs. Even that sturdiest of higher life forms, the 100-million-year-old cockroach—gone, by fire or ice, whatever we do or don’t do, however it goes in the meantime.
But, ah, that meantime. Which exists now, which will have existed even after it’s vanished. In whose fragrance and flowering we live. Meantime whose end we humans seem unfathomably hellbent to hasten, in ways by now quite familiar.
There’s a Japanese saying: “Even the reverse has a reverse.” Might our human rush toward disaster have one, too? Mind says, “Not likely”; heart answers, “Perhaps.” The fulfillment of that “perhaps” depends, in part, on the presence of some ground-note of optimism in us, some sustaining and buoying hope. As a poet, I have always turned in difficult times to an impractical curative: to the hope that some image, some word might know more than I do. To poetry’s own resourcefulness, when no other rope seems near. To seek beauty amid calamitous circumstance feels in itself an act of resilience and liberation. This buoying sense that change is possible, that the world is malleable, is the beginning of art. It is also despair’s reversal, a way to keep grief’s blackout curtains from closing entirely. Without a grain or two of optimism’s antiparalytic, however irrational, who wouldn’t give up, facing the next hundred years?
In darkest prospects, optimism wicks enough light to see by, enough hope to move by. As we contemplate diminishing diversity, wildlands, and freshwater, as we face climate instability, population growth, toxic soils, it’s clear that human ego and will alone cannot undo what they themselves have caused. A realistically chastened sense of human limitation is simple, springboard sanity, in an age of hubris; a sane optimism cannot be arrogant or certain of its own outcome. We do, then, need a tectonic change within our own psyches. We do need a renewed communal compact, at the level of species, at the level of planet. But we need also—as the mythical Psyche needed the help of ants to accomplish her own impossible task—the trees’ and mollusks’ resourcefulness, the scouring assistance of evolution.
To retain some trust in the earth’s own reservoir of resilience, along with awareness of its frailty, is an essentially spiritual sustenance and inner enzyme. Yet all life, it seems to me, is somehow hopeful. A seed sends out its first root in vegetal hope of water, nutrients, light. A newborn’s lungs open in animal trust of breathable air. Hunger itself is hopeful: it leads us to search.
Though I use the words optimism and hope almost interchangeably here, they’re not the same. A friend once defined the difference: “I find optimism a state of mind, hope a state in time.” Hope is event-specific, and sometimes appropriate, sometimes not. T. S. Eliot wrote in his wartime “Four Quartets,” “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope of the wrong thing.” “Hope,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is the thing with feathers.” Both are right. Hope unnuanced, over-simplified, invites wrong action or inaction, yet life without hope’s feathered heart-lift would be unbearable.
Unforeseeable good as well as unforeseeable harm is part of the palette of the real. If the Gulf of Mexico appears to have healed in some ways unexpectedly quickly after an event as brutal as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it is because unknowable actions by creatures beyond our power to harness did their own digestive, transformative work, all around and under our polyester booms and questionable dispersants. Blind optimism makes us stupid. It would mean depending only on that unforeseeable assistance, or, equally unrealistic, believing in human ingenuity as inevitable savior. Pessimism untempered would mean giving up, letting the inertia of powerlessness run its toxic course. A sane optimism—the between ground—may be part of the psyche’s own life stock of unaccountable bacteria and plankton, transmuting petroleum darkness back into the carbon-based life that was its source.
The capacity to hope allows for effort in any circumstance, even the worst. It also allows a resilient joy, past logic, past reason, to come forward and graze the heart’s pastures, when logic and reason would lead only to grief. Above the oil-slicked Gulf each night was the glimmer of stars, and the gold skim of light each morning. A heart still able to take joy in these, to believe that children and cormorants may be here to take joy in them a century, five centuries, from now, gives reason a reason to want to go on.
Causes Jane Hirshfield Supports
International Campaign for Tibet