Active hope in the face of overwhelming despair…

Let me start with this image, of recovered migrant boats gathered together in Gran Canaria (From The Guardian. Full story here.)

Can I suggest that you take a moment to ask yourself what emotions this picture evokes.

On the one hand the image churns in our fearful underbellies, into that dark part of us so easily exploited by proto fascists like Trump and Orban of Hungary. It is visual evidence of the hoards of ‘others’ massing at our borders wanting to take what is ours, or to come in such numbers as to overwhelm our culture and replace it with something alien and foreign. Something should be done, right?

But each one of these boats represents a story of human desperation. Undoubtably some (perhaps even many) of the passengers on these boats did not survive their attempts to reach Europe from Africa “…Caminando Fronteras, which has spent 14 years tracking and helping to co-ordinate the rescues of people who come to grief en route to Spain from Africa, estimates that 1,922 people died or disappeared while trying to reach the Canaries by sea between January and the end of June this year. (2021) By their calculations, the Atlantic route claimed 1,851 lives last year…” (Again, from The Guardian.) These are vast numbers, on just one of the routes used by people desperate to escape from all those usual evils that circumstance and growing global inequality has inflicted upon them. Men, women and children. Families setting out on a perilous journey with one aim- to be able to live lives of peace and prosperity, like we do. The human tragedy is hard to grasp, and then impossible to bear.

So, if you are like me, you feel yourself being sucked downwards in a vortex of powerlessness and despair. Our social media feeds highten this experience, constantly bringing us click-worthy extremes and promoting the most hateful and reprehensible voices, because there is nothing that captivates and invigorates our ego like our own outrage. Ultimately however, because there is nothing we can do about the state of the world, no wonder that we turn away and seek numbing distraction.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on

Thinking again about our individual responses to the picture above, it is clear that most of them must inevitably be passive responses. These might still be important, as clearly ‘public opinion’ is still shaping international responses to the so called ‘migrant crisis’, but on the whole, most of us have no direct influence on the complex circumstances that force people out on the open sea in small boats, beyond charitable giving or signing petitions. Where then do we look for hope? Surely these are not our only possible responses? Surely our hopes for the world used to amount to more than this?

I am working on a new book at the moment, which will be a collection of poetry, with art work from the outrageously talented Si Smith, which has the working title ‘After the apocalypse’. The project began about 5 years ago, in different times before we ever thought of face masks and social distancing. Back then, it seemed like the world was being dragged down a different sinkhole by Trump and his ilk. It felt important to resist in any way we could and for me this meant writing a lot of poetry. For Si, it meant producing and curating art. As the Trump/Johnson years have unfolded, it has been hard to hang on to the spirit of resistance. The set backs and defeats have mounted. Protest poetry began to seem like an indulgence, or an affliction of yet more misery on people who had seen enough of that already.

Then came the pandemic. The great disruptor. The great leveller (or so we thought). The killer and seperator. The window through which we look at things differently. The point at which the old normal is no more.

The project then took another shape, in which it was necessary not just to look backwards, but also to look forwards. But how is this possible, without hope? To conceive of a new world we have to hold an image of it in our minds. To work for good means that we have to have some idea of what goodness looks like. This is a huge challenge because most of our aspirations have been individually curated for us by our consumer culture. Instead of protest poems I began to write things like this;

Joy 2

Joy is not a bauble

Not a bubble, too soon burst

Never manufactured cost effectively

It is not bought or sold

It is not gold


Joy is not a jacket

You pick from a handy peg, it is

Never something worn externally

It is always a surprise

Like sunrise


Joy requires no skill

Its practice is not taught

It is not being ‘happy’ or content

It is just being open, to the

Beautiful and broken


Joy is an ambush

Hidden in plain sight

Wrapped up in the most unlikely things

It often comes with grief, not even

Promising relief


Joy is a squirrel

Transcending a tree

It is music played directly on the spine

You do not need to look, because

It stabs you the gut

I read recently about this thing called active hope. This has nothing to do with blind optimism or pie-in-the-sky positivity, rather it refers to a process by which we might reset our lives towards meaning and that elusive sacred thing sometimes known as goodness, or grace, or dare I say it, holiness. Yes, I think it is time to reclaim the word from the religious bigots and apply it instead to something less dualistic and a lot more ordinary.

Active hope is a concept put forward by Chris Johnstone and Jo Macy, as a way to help those of us who want to make a difference to reconnect with… hope. Perhaps we should start with a story;

Shambhala. Does it remind you of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke so much about?

Writing in this months Permaculture magazine, Chris Johnstone describes active hope as a three step process, something like this;

  1. Start from where you are, with an honest appraisal of how you think and feel about your immediate world. Perhaps it might be time to re-callibrate your hopes and aims, or to let go of things that need to be let go. He describes some of thee as like ‘carbon-heavy hopes’ that might be no longer fit for a world plagued by climate change.
  2. The next step is about choices. He suggests that from wherever we are, even if it currently feels like a difficult and hard place, there are always a lot of different ways that things can develop, a lot of different versions of how the story can go. This step then is to choose the one you hope for. As long as we are able to make these choices, then we open up the possibiity of allowing hoped-for futures to act through us.
  3. The third step is to take actions that might make those hoped for futures more likely.

Johnstone suggest too that when we face worries about the world we are living in, we contrast the usefulness of these two questions- ‘Are we hopeful?’, and ‘What are you hoping for?’. The first might be self defeating. The second one is anything but.

There is another important thing here, which was also part of the story of the Shambhala warriors, and that is the idea that small actions, taken by many, then amplified by the connectivity between all things, have a power beyond our immediate understanding. This takes some imagination in a culture that has glorified individualism.

This is where I am today, looking for active hope.

4 thoughts on “Active hope in the face of overwhelming despair…

  1. How interesting I have this book Active Hope, and it’s only two down my pile of books to read yet. It was recommended to me about 6 months ago. This will spur me on to get on and read it. God bless x

  2. Thank you for this, Chris – been trying to frame a way forward in the midst of all this malarkey; ‘active hope’ sounds like what I’ve been trying to articulate myself. Will follow up on it, thanks again!

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