Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
At the dawn of a new year it’s customary to suspend our habitual cynicism about human nature in order to express joyful hopes for the year that lies ahead. While this practice helps to spread good cheer, at least for a day, it often seems to me an exercise with no practical consequences. How, I ask myself, can declaring my hopes to others make a dent in a world oblivious to our dreams? How can we expect the mere change of a date to alter the conditions under which we live?
The practice, I fear, may not be very different from a drug habit. Both seem to serve a similar purpose. If I find my life’s circumstances intolerable, I may try to numb my pain and frustration by taking a drug. If I perceive the world descending into chaos, I try to console myself and cheer up others by declaring that this year things will be better. In this way, hope may turn out to be little more than hype: a psychological hypodermic needle filled with a mind-numbing narcotic, a hyperbole that obscures the grim reality that engulfs us all.
Can nurturing such hopes for the future really make a difference? Or is the practice just an invitation to mockery? After all, human motivations have remained pretty much the same from the age of Babylon and Rome to the present. Greed, hatred, violence, lust, jealousy, and arrogance were rampant in those days and don’t seem to have diminished one iota even in our globally wired world. Thus I see little reason to believe that taking down my 2015 calendar and pinning up my 2016 calendar will usher in a golden age. Rather, I think the wheels of the new year will roll along their familiar tracks, from January 1 to December 31, leaving behind more streams of tears and more rivers of bloodshed.
A look at the map confirms my fears. I expect the wars in Syria and Iraq to continue, with horrific beheadings by ISIS and vicious acts of aggression by competing forces throughout the region. I expect helpless refugees to flee across deserts and seas, to be welcomed in some countries but rejected and expelled by others. I expect the US to continue to launch drone attacks, as crew-cut kids in Nevada take out militants in Iraq and Pakistan, in the process killing harmless kids in rags and generating more terrorists than they eliminate. I think it likely that conflicts in Africa will get worse, and that violent Islamist cadres will grow stronger across the continent, from Nigeria to Somalia, funded by our friends in Saudi Arabia. I see little reason to expect Israel to suddenly stop building more settlements, recognize the humanity of Palestinians, and end its campaign to annex the entire West Bank.
On the energy front, I do think there will be an increase in renewables—thus a reason for cheer. But I also expect that fossil fuels will continue to be extracted and burnt, incrementally driving up global warming–a reason for worry. Whoever wins the US presidential race—a dreary spectacle that now drags on for two years—I believe the victor will have to endorse American militarism, perhaps even more aggressively than his or her predecessors. There will be pushbacks against economic inequality, but unless a dramatic turn-about takes place, the gap between the super-rich and the rest of the world’s population will grow wider. The rich will revel in their mansions; the poor will struggle just to get a bite to eat.
With apprehension I expect that on a few days in 2016, I will read the shocking headline: “Mass shooting at shopping mall, schoolyard, movie theater, health clinic. Dozens killed and injured.” Then the cry will rise once again for curbs on gun sales, and once again every proposal in Congress for sensible gun controls will be shot down in defeat.
Perhaps passive resignation is the necessary prelude to positive change. Perhaps things must get worse before they can get better. Perhaps the little indignities that we suffer each day must blow up in our faces before we start to address their underlying causes. And if these violations of our dignity don’t explode, perhaps we’ll just go on being gradually boiled by our own apathy, like the legendary frogs in their cozy pots.
Nevertheless, there have been a few bright spots in 2015 that light up my field of vision. In Paris world leaders came together and reached an accord on addressing climate change; true, the accord is weak, beset by loopholes and omissions, but at least it testifies to global recognition of the need to do something before full-scale calamity descends. Pope Francis issued his encylical, “Laudato Si,” one of the most compelling moral documents to appear this century, a statement that dares to tie environmental degradation, poverty, and economic disruptions to the heartless greed of global capitalism. In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement came into being, challenging institutional racism, insisting on the need for police and other authorities to respect the lives of black people, far too many of whom have been killed while the offenders have gotten off without charges. The move to increase the minimum wage has gained momentum, and several cities have even pledged to move toward a $15 minimum wage. The campaign of Bernie Sanders has shown that people are aware our economy is skewed by shocking inequalities in wealth, that the political system is rigged in favor of the super-rich, and that Congress has become a puppet manipulated by mega-corporations and giant financial institutions.
Though the call to raise hopes for the new year may be futile, it may also be a necessary step toward creating a better future. However, hope on its own can be selfish and also ineffectual. For hope to initiate change, it must rise up and fly, and to fly it needs two wings. One wing is moral vision, the inner apprehension of a world in which justice, love, cooperation, and self-restraint prevail against the atavistic tendencies toward violence, racial and ethnic hatred, brute competition, and narcissistic self-indulgence. The other wing is a commitment to action, the determination to personally promote our visions of a different world.
The call for transformative hope is where religious faith and ethical idealism come in. While religions often exacerbate the problem—as agents of intolerance and violence—at their best they can inspire and sustain us in our quest for a solution. They hold before us the vision of the kind of world we should be working to create, and they keep on telling us that the task of creating that kind of world rests not with others but with ourselves.
Faith protects us from a plunge into despair. It spurs us on when we’re ready to succumb to defeat. Faith reminds us that there is a transcendent force for good at work behind the scenes, and it also tells us that the task of creating a better world begins with the effort to change ourselves. Success in this endeavor is not merely a matter of institutional reform and adopting more effective policies. Rather, it requires us to collectively embrace a moral point of view, a perspective that gives priority to the well-being, health, and happiness of the whole above the narrow and divisive claims of self-interest.
For our spiritual values to transform our shared reality, we need something more than a private spirituality that teaches us to become better persons. We need to be pushed to take responsibility for bringing the moral good into being—by resisting injustice, by rejecting cruelty and violence, by standing up for human dignity, compassion and love, and respect for people everywhere. We have to apply these values in the field of action. We must bend our institutions and policies away from corrupting influences and turn them around, in the direction of justice, human equality, and peace.
So, while mere expressions of hope can be just a psychic narcotic, they need not inevitably be mere hype. When equipped with moral vision and a pledge to action, they can infuse us with new energy. They can show us what unites us; they can bring us together in the task of creating a better world. And in this way such expressions of hope may indeed be our best hope—our only hope—for securing our common future.