Holding on to Hope and One Another in a Wounded World

By Fred Richards-Daishi, Ph.D.

Here’s the scene. It is 1916. The German army is launching a gas attack against the Russian defenses. A moving wall of yellow fog envelopes the Russian troops. The German infantry advances, breaks through the barbed wire barriers and then disappears.

The winds shift and both armies are engulfed in the deadly cloud. Birds drop from the sky. Flowers, trees, grass, bees turn black, decompose. German soldiers, many naked, crazed, and blind, flee the carnage, carrying Russian soldiers to safety. Imagine dying soldiers, some barely older than boys, lying together in trenches, desperately clinging to one another. Germans and Russians, boys and men at war, reaching out in the dark, wanting to be held as they die.

I write this sitting in my small study at home, sheltering in place, on my desk a mask and gloves I will wear when I venture outside. The soul-wrenching account of men at war is found in Lazarus by André Malraux, written as he struggled with a serious illness and the specter of his own death.

I have, for many years, sat quietly, closed my eyes, and meditated on my own decline and death, and the deaths of those I love. Realistically, it’s a kind of preparation, a way of rehearsing for the inevitable losses and finalities that are part of living. I want to do as well as I can when I say goodbye, to my life and to others. The death meditation I do has, it appears, helped me to prepare for the pandemic now moving across the world.

Some believe my practice of death meditation is morbid, but it is not. When I open my eyes, I’m struck by how beautiful the world is, despite all the heartbreak, loss, cruelty, violence and despair that is part of the human condition. An object previously unnoticed seems to shine. I know how amazing it is to be alive. I want to jump up and tell others I love them, maybe even cry while saying it. I feel the urge to hug a lot of people, even people I barely know, or say to them something crazy like: “Do you realize we’re all going to die? Celebrate being here now. Don’t wallow in your misery. Take hold of those you love and let them know how much you love them, how glad you are they’re in the world.” I want to ask, with the words of Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

When I open my eyes, I’m struck by how beautiful the world is, despite all the heartbreak, loss, cruelty, violence and despair that is part of the human condition. An object previously unnoticed seems to shine. I know how amazing it is to be alive. I want to jump up and tell others I love them, maybe even cry while saying it.

Some of the people I encounter in the dark times may understandably experience my joy as naïve and even inappropriate. They may not realize my enthusiasm is actually a self-controlled version of what I feel. I have had passing moments when I felt my heart was big enough to take in the suffering of the world and pour out love in return.

Novelist and poet Carolyn Houghton, writes that “we skate on hot blades over thin ice.” Sometimes the ice breaks and we fall through; we confront the pain and suffering that is often concealed underneath the surface of everyday life. Therapist and author Mark Epstein wants to free us to live so he keeps reminding us it is necessary to face the trauma that is simply a fact of life. Trauma “does not go away. It continues to reassert itself as life unfolds.” Right now, this revelation is probably not “breaking news” for any of us.

Epstein further tells us that traumatic events do not have to destroy us. They can help us to discover resilience and strength we did not know we had.  They can awaken in us, while we are still here, the realization that life calls us to choose to be among the truly alive rather than the walking dead. Facing the trauma of everyday life, particularly when living in the midst of a pandemic, we can discover more deeply who we are, what truly matters, what we value the most.

Joan Halifax in her book, The Fruitful Darkness, reminds us that “our personal suffering is also the world’s suffering.” The truth is this: we are not really alone in the trenches of life. Everyone who suffers is here with us. We are not just an “I.” “I” and “You” are actually a “We.” Sharing our suffering, Halifax writes, brings forth “the fruit of compassion, the fruit of joy.” And yes, the fruit of hope as well. She sees catastrophic events as potentially “sacred” or “holy failures,” capable of helping us to see that we are a part of everyone, everything. In the trenches of life, despair can morph into hope when we reach out and hold on to one another while we are still here, still alive! In Joy, Inspiration, and Hope, author Verena Kast writes: we are capable of being creatures of joy and not defeated victims living “our lives in tragic resignation” during the darkest times. Healthy, responsible joy gives birth to hope and hope allows “us to find shelter in life,” and trust “in the future in spite of knowing better.” To be a bringer of hope is to “turn toward a light that does not yet exist, though we have the impression that it must.”

One of my favorite poems is “A Ritual to Read to One Another” by William Stafford. In this circus we call life, it is crucial we hold on to one another so we don’t lose our place in the human community. The poem depicts a chain of circus elephants parading through town. Each elephant is holding another elephant’s tail because “if one wanders, the circus won’t reach the park.” In many ways, the park represents where we all want to go to be. It’s the place where we get to play and be happy, connect and communicate, and be with and for one another. Stafford cautions us to slow down, wake up, pay attention and see what’s happening. He tells us to hold on to one another so our “mutual life” is not “lost in the dark” because he warns: “[t]he darkness around us is deep.” His poem is one to read to each other as we huddle together in the trenches of the global pandemic.

I am painfully aware of the unimaginable suffering persons are experiencing around the world and in my own community. My intention is not to minimize this suffering in any way. I also consider the possibility that some persons may be troubled or offended by my encouraging them to earnestly try to bring joy and hope to others overwhelmed by death, loss, heartbreak and fear. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in The Theology of Play, also struggles with how it is possible to laugh, be joyful and rejoice when all of us, some more than others, are weighted down with worry and depression, when so many are traumatized and tortured by the dark state of the world. “Is it right,” he asks, “to laugh, to play, and to dance without at the same time crying out and working for those who perish on the shadowy side of life? … How can we laugh and rejoice when there are still so many tears to be wiped away and when new tears are being added every day?” Is it really compassionate and life-affirming to say yes to life in the presence of all this suffering, when the life we took for granted has disappeared and the future is uncertain and unknown?

In my best moments, I answer the latter question with a heartfelt YES. I shout, even when I myself am sad and fearful, amor fati! (love one’s fate), strive and affirm the gift of life, even in, perhaps especially in, the dark times that can wound us the most. All the spiritual traditions I’m acquainted with proclaim it is possible to live life without being dominated by the fear that just comes with being human. They tell me we can become persons capable of bringing authentic hope to even what appear to be hopeless times. We can bring joy and hope in times of despair. They teach that practicing justice, again and again, is a way to become a just person. Practicing kindness, again and again, is how we become kind persons. In the words of psychologist and author, I. David Welch: “Every time we act we increase the chances of doing the same thing again … We are as likely to act ourselves into a new way of thinking as to think ourselves into a new way of acting.” Every one of us, no matter who we are, can choose to make it our ultimate concern to strive to do no harm, to be a healing, hopeful presence in our own unique, imperfect way. I say imperfect, because those of us who seek to heal ourselves and others, are also the wounded. Those of us who seek to be whole are broken as well.

My wife, Anne, and I have a friend who, with an IQ of 52, is described as intellectually challenged.  When asked what he could do at work to make customers feel appreciated, he answered: “Smile, wish them a nice day, ask them how they are doing or feeling, be nice, and ask them if they need help.”  We are, of course, all challenged in one way or another. I continue to believe that most people, perhaps close to everyone, have the capacity to learn and know the difference between being kind and unkind, between harming others or seeking to do them no harm.

We don’t need more advice, more information to know what to do and be in order to hold on to hope and one another. To live, for ourselves and others, a more meaningful, fulfilling life we must earnestly strive to bring what offerings of hope, love and joy we can, for “[t]he darkness around us is deep.”

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