Hope, hoplessness and acting without expectations

By Kaspa Thompson

Recently I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s Regenesis. It begins by describing problems with our existing global food systems. Problems with how we treat the soil; with how we pollute the earth, rivers and sea; how we use far too much land; and so on.

Reading this first part of the book my spirits dropped. The problems facing the world are so large and complex, and the forces invested in keeping things as they are so great, is there any hope, I wondered?

As I began reading the second half of the book I noticed my spirits lifting. In the second half Monbiot is meeting and talking to people who are coming up with solutions, with alternative ways of farming, and so on. I try to keep in mind what he said about Feral, his book about depleted nature that proposed rewilding as a solution: how at the time rewilding was a concept that was laughed out of the door, and that now, a decade later, it’s now considered a viable option. Things can change.

It’s striking how much my mood and view changes depending on what I’m paying attention to, the bad news or the news of positive change.

In many of the activist spaces I’ve noticed more people moving away from thinking about mitigation and to thinking about deep adaptation. I have noticed a big shift in people’s thinking in this direction since COP26 last year. 

When I land in the view that things are definitely going to get worse and there is little I can do I have a mix of reactions. Sometimes, I feel real heartbreak at the suffering that people and other living beings are already experiencing, sometimes I feel such longing for things to be different, and a deep sense of despair at how little power I have in the face of the crisis.

And sometimes when I land in that view I feel relief and empowerment. Relief because there is something true about how awful things are, and coming into relationship with the truth ultimately brings relief, and empowerment because it leaves me with the question how can I live well in the midst of this crisis? (What does deep adaptation look like?) and that brings some energy for building strong communities etc.

“Act without expectations.” Many of you will have heard this teaching before. I heard it again from David Loy at an event on Buddhism and the Climate Crisis last weekend. Think strategically, use your wisdom to choose the best place to put your energy (as far as you can tell) take action, and let go of expecting any particular results. Trust that it’s good to act for goodness sake.

This is sometimes described as acting from hopelessness. Not the hopeless of despair that I can feel when faced with the impossibility of knowing what effective action looks like, but the hopelessness that is a deep coming to terms with that impossibility and leads to the energy to act anyway.

This acting without expectations is often held up as the more enlightened approach to activism. And there’s some truth to this, certainly if we act with expectations of particular results then we are inevitably bound for disappointment, and there is a genuine wisdom in not knowing.

And yet I do want to champion those other reactions as well: fear, despair, anger, even longing and hope. These are all natural responses to the crisis and it’s important to welcome and honour each feeling as they arise. I have lived with myself long enough now to know that they will come and go, and that while I shouldn’t treat any of them as holding the complete truth, there is some wisdom in every kind of response.

Can our Buddhist practice be large enough to encompass the whole breadth of our human experience and all the different kinds of responses to the crisis? I also  trust that the more of our feelings we can welcome and meet with compassion, the more likely we are to be able to take up the invitation to act without expectation.

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

2 thoughts on “Hope, hoplessness and acting without expectations”

  1. Pingback: Hope and Hopelessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis – Bright Earth

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