Hope and Hopelessness: centre your life in the practice of Active Hope

DoriMidnightSpiralFaced with strong, overwhelming feelings of hopelessness I’ve been asking myself how do we sustain ourselves in dark times?

Last week, I responded to a tender for work with a failing organisation: I felt I could offer nothing. Later that day, after a conversation with my wife, who offered a listening ear, I remembered that I should take my feelings of hopelessness seriously, but not personally.

I reflected on what I had been blind to earlier, which now seemed obvious; a narrative, set out in 300 pages in the tender documents, assumed that a clear vision, confident leadership, cascading communications and a rational blueprint plan would move this  troubled organisation in a linear fashion to the desired destination.  The failure in the tender to acknowledge the brutal facts of the current situation lay at the root of my feelings of hopelessness: we first have to acknowledge we are lost if we are to find a path out of the wasteland.

Wherever you look in the public and private sectors our organisational challenges are enormous: how do we create innovative, healthy organisations that act responsibly and sustainably with respect to their customers, employees, wider society and planet? Many of our taken-for-granted ideas about governance, organising and leading are bankrupt.

In the practicality of everyday living and with the complexity of the challenges it is tempting to collude with Business As Usual and sink into either denial – there’s little I can do, it’s not that bad, it’s all their fault – or hopelessness.  Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in a new book, make a rallying cry for Active Hope, grounded in a deep commitment to creating the kind of world we long for; it’s a practice we continue with even when we feel hopeless.

Active Hope is distinct from everyday understandings of hope, the optimism that things will turn out well; the confident assumption that we can always be successful.  In the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, noted it was the optimistic campmates, anticipating early liberation or setting their hope on a particular outcome, who died early, broken by despair and hopelessness.

In the settings we find ourselves, how do we carry on and do the work that is needed?  I’ve drawn out five cairns from Joanna Macy’s book, Active Hope and from Meg Wheatley’s new book, So Far from Home. They are primarily shifts in being – how we are –- rather than a list of doing actions:

1. Being open to outcomes not attached to them: if we rely on immediate results and affirmation from others to sustain our work we will quickly end up feeling hopeless.  If we let go of personal ambition we also liberate ourselves from its Siamese twin, fear, which when it sees no results, cripples our ability to move forward. I re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the Christmas holidays; it demonstrates beautifully both the crippling paralysis of fear, and the possibility of transcending it. The films also illustrate three critical aspects of leadership:

  • The collective nature of meeting great challenges, at different times each member of the Fellowship, a somewhat unlikely, motley collection of characters, stepped forward and played their part.
  • Fallibility is an inherent part of the human condition and this weakness allows opportunities for others to contribute.
  • With complex challenges, we cannot see the solutions at the beginning nor the way ahead. We must learn to rely on hope “not as the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Vaclav Havel)

2. Practicing gratitude is the art of appreciation and thankfulness: it brings us into the here and now and an appreciation of what is sustaining us. It moves attention beyond self-absorption to notice what is supporting you. The practice of gratitude is related to appreciative inquiry in organisations, noticing what is already in place now and creating value. It is also related to asset-based approaches in community settings: identifying the gifts, resources and talents that are present rather than mapping, yet again, the deficiencies.

  • Review the last 24 hours: what are you thankful for? These can be small, ordinary items of your work and life.
  • Take a moment to feel your gratitude and acknowledge who or what contributed to these moments.

This isn’t a pollyannaish fluffy practice; even in, and perhaps especially, in the bleakest of situations we need to connect and ground ourselves in what sustains us.

3. Honouring the pain:  we manufacture hopelessness when a large gap opens up between what we feel and experience and what seems possible to say. We are social creatures; it requires courage and skill to interrupt the unspoken rules that set the narrow bandwidth for the content and emotion that is acceptable in a conversation. In conflicted situations we have to engage with the experience of current reality: this includes allowing feelings of anger, grief, hopelessness and blame to be heard if we want to make progress.  This also calls for the cultivation of compassion, for ourselves and others; that sense of fellow-feeling, to be ready to open to the experience of the other and walk in their shoes.  The priority is to cultivate this inner capacity and develop our skills in holding more ‘real’ conversations, where we can hear what is dysfunctional, stuck and destructive, as well as what is working, healthy and life-sustaining.

4. Seeing through new eyes:  In organisational settings, we need to be clearer about what can be planned up-front and what emerges as we start the work. The fog often lifts as we start the work; small actions have a cumulative power, new possibilities emerge as we bring the parts together, which were not present when the system was operating in isolation.  Meg Wheatley in So Far from Home, names two capacities that are necessary for us to see with new eyes: compassion and insight. Wisely, Meg says that we don’t need to insert compassion into people, “we need to create the conditions for it to arise.” Whilst we live in a story of our small selves: our job, our promotion, our group, our tribe, our country, there is little commonality with the other because fear and self-protection are to the fore.  What new possibilities emerge if we broaden our story? Our personal story of seven or eight decades is a brief burst of conscious life, which sits within a human story of 250,000 years and an earth story of 3.5 billion years. If we locate our stories within this wider, evolving story, different questions and insights arise. I am not responsible for everything, I can’t sort everything out, but what is the unique and particular contribution I can make?

 5. Going forth: are we willing to take the next step without the blueprint, fail-safe master plan? This seems the only viable option with complex challenges: we know the stakeholders disagree, sometimes violently; we know the past is no longer an adequate guide for the future; we know we have to create the path as we walk it.  And in acting, Meg Wheatley adds an additional challenge: can we act without adding to the fear and aggression in the world, both of which she predicts are likely to increase. This calls for a new higher level of self-examination and cultivation of our way of being.

Enough thinking. I have a proposal to write but first…a few moments of gratitude…

19 Responses to Hope and Hopelessness: centre your life in the practice of Active Hope

  1. juliafell says:

    Thanks, John. You have put into words what many of us feel from time to time. It’s good to have something at the start of the new year to remind us to know ourselves and understand both our responsibilities and our abilities to contribute constructively,

  2. Zoe Nicholson says:

    Wonderfully insightful, an amazing New Years gift.

  3. helen bevan says:

    John, this is profound and beautiful. It ties in really strongly with the NHS nursing strategy which focuses on compassion. I’m going to tweet the link to some of the key nurse leaders in the NHS. Please keep writing like this! Helen

    • John Watters says:

      Helen, Thanks for the encouraging feedback. I’d be interested to see what the NHS nursing strategy is saying on compassion. Is this a public document? Could you share the link here as others may be interested.

      What struck me as very helpful from Meg Wheatley’s latest book is how she couples compassion and insight as the two capacities most required in these times. Insight or discernmnet, she says, is “the capacity to see clearly, to become aware of all the many elements and dynamics that are at play and then use knowledge and skill to find right action”. However, insight without compassion, leads to cold analytical obersvations and an unhelpful detachment which fails to engage people. Compassion without insight lacks the awareness of how best to intervene skilfully; we may also miss the deeper patterns that are play, in ourselves and in the situation. Pleased to be back in conversation with you. John

  4. bobjbrown says:

    Thanks for this very insightful and appealing blog post John. I am reminded of my research on loneliness at the end of life when I described a continuum between hope and hopelessness, with despair beyond hopelessness. Whether in work, family life or in illness, we have a responsibility to nurture hope, thus I am particularly interested in your views around ‘how we create the conditions for compassion to arise’? If we can place ourselves in the ‘others’ shoes and demonstrate compassion, hope can be enabled and nurtured?

    • John Watters says:

      Bob, Thanks for your positive feedback. The question of how we create the conditions for compassion to arise is a major question and needs another article to answer it adequately; it probably should be my next blog post. This is clearly a central question in health care. I’m interested in how we awaken compassion. I’ve seen this re-awakening of compassion in my organisational consulting work as well as in community settings. What conditions help to awaken my compassion and what cuts it off? I’m in favour of first, second and third person action research approaches to this question hence my use of ‘I’ as a starting point. Two quick thoughts:
      1. I want to experiment more with stories as they are multi-levelled, rich in content and context and engage the whole person (speaker and listeners): stories of how are we a making a difference and how are we unwittingly create suffering and distress for others? How do we create the conditions for all of us to hear the positive and negative impact we are having? I’m thinking broadly about impact: including the processes of care operated by people, that do or don’t connect laterally and vertically, as well as interpersonal relations.
      2. In terms of approach I’m struck by the following quote from Richard Rohr: “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” If there’s truth in this perspective we need an action inquiry based approach to awakening compassion in health care.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts and experience on how we awaken compassion in the health care sector? Best regards, John

    • John Watters says:

      Our capacity to expand our compassion is integrally connected with developing our insight; the latter takes discipline and a commitment to reflect. The following points are taken from Meg Wheatley’s book, So Far From Home. I find her question of how can we be/act and not add to the amount of fear and aggression in the world compelling. I saw only this morning in two conversations, an hour apart, the striking contrast of how my attitude, my words and tone of voice can add to, or reduce, the amount of aggression in the world. Here’s some of Meg’s encouragements/pointers with which I am working:
      1. Identify your biggest hot buttons- the predictable words, behaviours and situations that trigger you and arouse instant and strong emotional responses. Notice the physical early warning signs that this is happening.
      2. Notice your reactions: seeing that you are getting angry frees you from anger as the only reaction possible.
      3.Extend large doses of patience and forgiveness to yourself. The measure of success is not that we stop getting provoked but that we notice when it happens sooner and get over it faster.
      4. Develop a regular practice of quieting and watching the mind.
      Do the above with a spirit of compassion and curiosity (note to self)

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  6. Hi John. I really enjoyed your blog having been directed to it from a Helen Bevan tweet. You have helped me see the link between compassion and host leadership and also how often I forget the simple act of being grateful when working appreciatively. Your comments on working appreciatively while honouring the pain are very close to my heart. Please see publication referenced at http://t.co/5Eh0DjGE and do share your thoughts if you get a chance. I have also referenced this blog at various points in something more extensive I am writing today. Again please do take a look if you get a chance at http://www.onyett.org/?p=1000. You feel very much like a kindred spirit.

    Thank you again for sharing your wise and compassionate perspective.

  7. Irene Hayes says:

    Hi John, this is an excellent blog and I agree with other comments: perfectly timed at the beginning of the new year.
    I’ve found that practicing gratitude has transformed my inner thought-life – my daily routine has been helpful. My challenge is to practice this within my organisational interactions.

  8. terryhaskins says:

    Dear John,

    firstly my very best wishes for a fulfilling and agreeable year to come.

    Thank you for this piece; you have managed to bring together in a succinct and elegant manner several strands of thinking that have been bouncing around in my thoughts over the last few weeks. I have been doing some work with a senior local government team over the last few months. Reading your brief article has crystallised some thoughts about the context. The scale and depth of change the sector is facing is enormous. Their experience of change is mainly one of successive programmatic “blueprint” interventions, their tolerance of ambiguity low. The one thing that has really moved them forward is discovering the power of meaningful conversation in the present as a way of building trust, connection and confidence in each other. It is amazing to me how much that had been lacking, and indeed how obviously it generates the beginnings of hope.

    Thank you for helping me enter the year more hopeful!

    All the best,


  9. Silvia Prins says:

    Thank you John, for yet another interesting newsletter. Comforting in times when you see ‘ordinary’ people getting hit by the crisis and many seem to have little hope for better times. Wish you a hopeful new year!
    Warmly, Silvia (from Belgium)

  10. David Chard says:

    Wonderful. Sent chills up and down my spine. So happy to see this first thing in the morning and I am going to share it widely. Yes, from the Buddhist perspective, hope and fear are twinned..as soon as you hope for something, you have the potential to be in ‘fear’ of not getting it. And, we also need to remind our selves that our ‘fear’ is a reaction to an Internal Representation of the expected unwanted future…and that image, very often, has nothing at all to do with what eventually transpires. Staying focused on our images of Possibility (because they DO make sense!) while noticing the representations of negative outcomes (they are only trying to help, with the best of intentions, but occur for our busy Top Mind as “stuff!”), smiling at them and continuing to march into the fog…is the best way to fuel our hopes and bring them closer to actuality. That’s my story anyway! Thanks for writing this piece!

  11. David Chard says:

    ps There is a Tibetan tradition that says one should “smile at Fear” which is a wise way of listening to a perhaps unwelcome message but at the same time not getting hooked on the reactive emotions. As Don Miguel Ruiz says in “The Fifth Agreement”…”be skeptical, but listen.”

  12. Stuart Reid says:

    John – thanks so much for sharing this – very thought-provoking.

    I blogged on a related theme the day before ( http://www.stuartreid.org.uk/index.php/2013/01/change-in-organisations/ ). I wrote there about some ideas I’m working through at the moment – the difference between a machine view of organisations and a conversational or relational view – and what it means for my role as a consultant. Your post has given me a sense of what some of the answers might be to the questions I’m sitting with at the moment – so thank you for that.


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