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Finding Hope in a World Gone Mad


It is not a big challenge to build an argument that the world has gone mad - the global financial meltdown, a house of cards in a high wind, if ever I saw one; wars, famines, hunger, poverty, global warming, climate change, growing shortage of drinkable fresh water, ... the list goes on and on. All this in a world which has - or claims to have - greater total wealth than at any time in history. (Though, according to a recent news magazine, $6.5T has been lost in world markets on October 6 and 7.) Hopelessness is an understandable response. Partly because of our increased interconnectedness with and awareness of the rest of world, all these problems have a feel to them which says we are too small to do anything about something so big.

First Nation spirituality and tradition contain the suggestion that every decision be made with awareness of its effect on the seventh generation forward. We are discovering (very slowly!) that the decisions we make now do indeed have long term consequences. DDT was one of the greatest advances in agriculture the world had ever seen ... until, much later, we began to notice its effects on every living thing it touched, including but not limited to human beings. When our great-great-grandchildren greet a silent spring, they (not we) will realize only too well that our (not their) decisions lacked wisdom. Even now, Monsanto and other companies continue to develop genetically modified seeds that choke out natural crops, companies and research institutions patent various life forms, in this money-obsessed world we spend vastly more on devices and systems to kill people than on those which would feed people, ... we are indeed a world gone mad. If we cared only for our own welfare and only in the short term, we might be able to muddle through. It would be like following the Civil Defense mentality which reared its ugly head when I was in primary and elementary school in the US: Build a shelter in the back yard, stock it with 2 years of food, hunker down, hoard, look for private advantage at every turn ... And make sure your shelter contains a gun so you can ward off neighbours who weren't smart enough to build their own shelters.

But that is not who and what and how we are. We have laid claim and made commitment to affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; ... the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Opting out of the world, no matter how mad it may have gone, is clearly not an option. We are in it for the whole ride, simply and specifically because we are a part of it for the whole ride. In the face of lunacy on this scale, what do you and I do? Is living hopefully a sure sign of terminal insanity? Can we, as some would suggest, leave it to God? I would say No, and quite emphatically.

Hope is an elusive quarry. Ernest Thayer, about 130 years ago, wrote of that hope which springs eternal within the human breast. (Casey at the Bat). I think he was a little off in that description. I do believe we need some degree of hope to keep us moving. Sysiphus was a character in Greek mythology who, according to Wikipedia, was avaricious and deceitful, violating the laws of hospitality by killing travelers and guests. ... He seduced his niece, took his brother's throne and betrayed Zeus's secrets. ... As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down again, forcing him to begin again. Sisyphus, eternally rolling his rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again, was, I believe, worn down less by the endless physical labour than by the sheer hopelessness of his situation. (Whether that finally taught him some manners we don't know.)

I believe that we need hope in order to continue functioning in the world, most particularly if functioning in the world involves, to some extent, working to change the world. Hopelessness in that task will ultimately wear us out, and leave us incapable of motion. Hope is essential sustenance for us as we seek to live out our commitments and aspirations. Lose hope, and living loses its luster. It is not hope for something specific. I may hope everyone will have adequate and safe drinking water within the next three years, and that is a good and laudable hope. But the hope I am talking about here is a more general one, along the lines of: I hope that creation unfolds in life-giving and sustaining ways.

This hope that I am talking about is not something I, or we, can simply generate from within ourselves. For me, hope arises from an internal connection with an external reality. I believe, to the marrow of my bones, that there is an interconnectedness that spans all of creation. I believe that, even as I acknowledge that I don't know the extent of creation. It is this underlying connectedness that grounds my hope, and which, along with the human ability to think and to reason, grounds my spirituality. I cannot solve the current financial insanity. That is beyond my capacity as an individual. (But I might have a suggestion or two for a few government types.) I cannot single-handedly arrange to have potable water available for everybody, nor to have adequate food, nor to have peace, nor a host of other things, no matter how much I may desire them. I cannot stop, or reverse, global warming. But what my sense of connectedness with all of creation does do for me is to help me understand that I don't have to do all these things by myself. Whatever I may do in any one area will be complemented by what you or someone else does. It isn't essential that we do it together (though I do believe that this kind of shared effort can bring very substantial returns). It is only essential that I take some action. It also is not essential that I see the results of whatever action I take. It took me a long time to learn that social action is not so much about results as about doing. If we become attached to the outcomes of our actions, we are setting ourselves up for a loss of hope, of motivation, of the willingness to engage fully with life. It is the understanding of our place in the seamless web of creation which motivates us to work for the good of creation (none are free of hunger until all are fed, none have enough water until none are thirsty). This understanding also assures us that our actions, no matter what their scale, do matter. It matters if I drive at 105km/hr, rather than 120. It matters if I make it a priority to favour food grown close to home over that imported from around the continent or the globe. All of these things matter, though I will never see the results of these actions directly. What we do connects in ways we will never see with what others do. It has always been so, and always will be. (It is true, by the way, for both good and evil - the evil done in one place by one person connects in unseen ways with that done by someone else somewhere else.)

Mother Theresa was a woman of great wisdom, great faith, and, as we have come to discover after her death, great doubt. While I have some substantial differences with her theology, I believe she grasped the same essential truth that I am talking about when she wrote these words (which are based on The Paradoxical Commandments, written in 1968 by Dr. Kent M. Keith). I will change the word God in the final line to creation, partly because that fits better without substantially altering her meaning, and partly because I'm preaching today and she isn't.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and [creation] God. It was never between you and them anyway.

It is precisely this hope in a world gone mad that can keep us going on the journey of health and wholeness for all.

Original Words by Kent Keith:

The Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent M. Keith

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

© 1968, 2001 Kent M. Keith

The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent M. Keith in 1968 as part of a booklet for student leaders.

Story for all Ages - Cogwheels

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a group of people. They were all bound together, connected to each other like cogwheels. They weren't physically bound together; what really held them together was the fact that they lived by just one law - the law of mutual love. They moved together, everyone looking out for everyone else. For them, this was true happiness.

But gradually, everything changed. They began to get selfish, and the happiness they had always had gradually disappeared. They began to live by very different laws. These were the laws of egoism, where everybody tried to put themself first, ahead of everybody else. They wanted to dominate other people, to use them in order to get some kind of pleasure. They wanted honour and fame. They started trying to get more knowledge, thinking that knowledge would give us more control over other people. They tried to get more power, so they could make other people do whatever they wanted them to. They tried to get more money - the more the better -- because with it, a person can get just about anything they want (or so they thought).

But all that, as it turned out, really didn't make them any happier. In fact, it made things much, much worse. They started to distrust each other, and even to hate each other. They became very unhappy indeed, and all their energy went into doing things that only seemed to make their lives more miserable.

It was only when they became really desperate that they remembered. Their parents and grand-parents had told them stories, old, old stories, of a time when everyone was truly happy. According to those stories, people way back then were all connected with each other, just like cogwheels. The more they remembered and told these ancient stories, they more they longed to go back to that state. ... And so they did. It wasn't easy to give up what they gotten used to, even though it had only made them miserable, but gradually they did. They were all reunited together, like many many cogwheels all turning together, and then they understood what the really happy life is.