A Different View of Hopelessness

I am a Christian, with a rather colorful religious background. To Jewish people, I believe I am considered Jewish, due to my mother’s family heritage. To Christians, I am a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, baptized and ordained as a Deacon in the Presbyterian Church. In my own eyes, I am a former Christian Scientist who left that religion, was drawn through a “new-born” experience of Christ into membership in a community, who left that community and am at present not a church-goer. See what I mean by “colorful?”

I read, study and pray, attend worship and seminars occasionally, and do the best I can to honor my relationship with God by being a loving, grateful daughter and servant to Him. My faith in Him is sometimes shaky; my attitude is not always trusting. I am doing the best I can under the circumstances.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Though I am a Christian, my journey has been enhanced and enriched by other teachings than Christianity: Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish and other schools of thought have helped to balance and stabilize my walk on the path. Two Buddhist teachers have had a great impact on me: Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. I have been reflecting lately on Pema Chodron’s writings and how they contrast with the Gospel. They take me back into paradox, the land of “both/and” describing truth, “rather than either/or” being true.

Buddhist teachings give us tools for getting comfortable with discomfort, for learning to accept what we think is unacceptable, for making peace when we want to fight, for “surrendering,” even when surrender looks like death. The teachings offer an alternative to looking for healing, change, and help…and yet, paradoxically, they can be agents for healing and change. Let me give you an example.

This passage appeared in my inbox from a Christian devotional. I loved it, and found it comforting:

“…we are called to die to various ways of life in order to follow Jesus. The pain of some losses is much greater than others, but having experienced his own losses and death, Jesus is always there to understand, support, and love us. It is in experiencing the pain of our losses that we become stronger followers of Jesus, increasing in our knowledge, understanding and love for Him.” – Susan Tinley, quoted from Creighton.edu in A Daily Spiritual Seed

Now compare that with these words (taken from various pages) in Pema Chodron’s book, “When Things Fall Apart:”

“The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell…Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly…

“Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together…we long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us…

“To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–this is the spiritual path. [This is also a very good description of learning to survive as a parent of a patient in the cancer ward of a pediatric hospital]

“…Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that it’s not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient…

“The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move…

“If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation…Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness…

“Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out. As the years go on, we don’t call the babysitter quite so fast…

“Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on…we can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are…

“…the source of wisdom is whatever is going to happen to us today. The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.”

For some reason, to me, this teaching is permeated with the unconditional grace and acceptance of Divine Love, or God. But to a Buddhist, it is apparently non-theist (please note that she does not say “anti-theist”). Whatever. It is a peace-giving and healing teaching, which seems to me not hopeless at all, but on the contrary, very hopeful indeed. The hope is that we can stop punishing ourselves and learn to live with compassion, for ourselves – in whatever the present moment has to teach us – and then, for others, as well.

2 thoughts on “A Different View of Hopelessness

  1. The message is a good one! I think you being so ‘colorful’ is nothing but a positive….I like to take different messages from different areas and blend them into MY life.
    It’s a good thing for us all.

  2. What a thought-provoking post, Karen. I, too, have come to appreciate Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh’s words in difficult times. You are so very right when you write that we need to learn to live with compassion for ourselves and for others. That is what it’s all about. Thank you my friend.

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