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THE WORLD IS F**KED (AND OTHER HOPEFUL THINGS)

I recently found myself standing next to a river close to home, admiring the glassy waters and early morning mist after weeks of living like a hermit.


Finally, exams were done, and I could breathe again.


It was a beautiful moment. I enjoy getting up early to admire the stillness of the morning, the various smells and sights coalescing to form the experience of beauty so often associated with being out in nature. The thought that occurred to me on this morning - after having locked myself up for many studious weeks - is that the beauty and peace I was breathing in so deeply would have been elusive to me even just the day before.


The stresses of life often make simple moments of transcendence hard to access. The general business of life often consuming opportunities to stop, rest, and see things differently.


It’s the same feeling we get on holiday, or when we retreat somewhere away from the ‘hustle and bustle’ - the first glorious breath of air that signals a momentary pause from the frenetic activity of life suddenly opens our mind and hearts to the beauty that is all around us. But curiously, that beauty is always there, isn’t it? It’s just that so often we struggle to see or feel it.


I find it hard to breathe in beauty when I feel stressed, or sad, or angry, or fearful. Perhaps you do too.


John O'Donohue once wrote that “every life is braided with luminous moments.” As I read these words I was captured by the sentiment. The word “braided” is important. It implies, not that life is filled to the brim with beauty, but that there is a thread of luminescent beauty that runs through everything, and that perhaps part of being human is to learn to pay attention to that thread, especially in seasons where life can be characterised as anything but good, or beautiful.


I had a conversation with a friend recently and they got to a point in the conversation where they felt it necessary to proclaim a sentiment I hear all too frequently these days: “the world is fucked, isn’t it?”


Our conversation had weaved its way through many topics, from the political to the theological to the general experiences of modern life. As I spoke, and listened, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. I listened to the argument being made, as to why the world wasn’t right. You might think it was a conversation filled with the common tropes of mindless hysteria but it wasn’t. It was a calm and thoughtful conversation, lacking some of the hallmarks of the kind of frenzied, mimetic rhetoric that has come to characterise modern ‘dialogue’. What I heard was a fierce but rational presentation of many of the very complicated things a person has to think about in order to exist in the world today, and why they were problematic to anyone wanting to navigate life with some kind of integrity, decency and thoughtfulness.


The problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the premise of concern. In fact, many of their comments about the challenges we face these days I agreed with. What made me uncomfortable was the abandonment to despair that is a necessary corollary of believing that the world is completely fucked.


I often describe myself as a cynic in recovery, and an optimist in training. When I was younger I was quite taken with the work of Martin Seligman, one of the early pioneers of positive psychology. It was through his book, Learned Optimism, that I first discovered the idea that committing myself to positivity, or optimism, was a choice. Despair and cynicism come so naturally to most people (especially people like me) that it often doesn’t quite feel like a choice. Learning to see the good, or the hope in something often requires a conscious choice to go in search of it.


Now, whilst optimism and hope are different, they both at times require the same thing: a choice to see things differently.


What I have found to be true is that if we go in search of beauty we very quickly discover that it isn't far from us at all. Like the glassy waters of the Swan River most mornings, all that the world requires is for us to open our eyes to what is all around us. As my parents used to say about the mysterious old man that drops off presents once a year: you only see it once you believe it exists.


Of course this isn’t quite true of beauty: it exists regardless of whether you believe it or not. But what a shame it would be to get to the end of our lives having convinced ourselves into despair, only to realise that we could have experienced things very differently indeed.


When I speak like this I have often been accused of being naive. “Just look at the world, Jon, look at what is happening.” Fair enough. But perhaps a conscious pinch of naivety is an important ingredient in the cultivation of hope?


When I first learned to drive a car my instructor told me not to look at things on the side of the road because people unconsciously steer the car in the direction of their gaze. I have found this to be true in life as well. The more we focus on the things that terrify us (and let us be clear: a statement like “the world is fucked” is nothing more than an attempt to articulate how scared we are of some things) the more they take on the spectre of our worst intuition. The more you focus on something, the more you see it.


This doesn’t mean that we need to avert our gaze from concerns that present genuine challenges needing our attention. But we will never navigate the complexities of modern life well with the cynical insistence that under every good thing is a nefarious intent. We must at some point choose to be more hopeful about things.


Hope doesn’t require us to be blind the reality that life presents us with challenges more complex than our minds and hearts can often handle. Being open to experiencing beauty certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t be honest about the experiences of suffering that leave us bruised, and sometimes shattered. But there is a fundamental difference between believing that these things are all there is to life; and knowing that there is far more than what might be accessible in ordinary moments.


You see, things can be true and not true at the same time. I couldn’t really argue with my friend against their “the world is fucked” thesis, except to say that I didn’t think that it was true. When faced with questions like “well what about this [issue] then” the most coherent response I could come up with is often “yeah, that’s hard. But there are other other ways to see it too.”


If I am being completely honest, there are a million reasons to think that the world is in trouble. Whether you find yourself leaning right or left, you will have a long list of complaints and concerns that, at times, feel so suffocating and confusing that you wonder what on earth the point of it all really is. I feel this too, more often than I care to admit. But despite there being a million things to be terrified of I only need one reason not to be afraid.


And yes, the reason is Jesus.


I’m aware that for many reading this, that is an anti-climactic revelation. But I wonder why?


Perhaps it’s because of the endless tirade of thoughtless and unhelpful responses to complex issues that simple put forward solutions like “have faith” or “trust God.” For much of my own life the only advice pastors or friends seemed capable of giving was “I think you need to spend more time praying or reading your Bible.” Neither helped, if I’m being honest.


But Jesus is no anti-climax.


The story of God in human form is one riddled with complex suffering; social displacement; issues of identity, power struggle, death and disease. It’s also a story where not every ailment ends in healing and not every pain is alleviated. People still die, cities still fall, families break and dreams sometimes come to nothing. There is no fundamental promise of ''all things working out” in the course of our lives and, despite the many books lining the shelves of God-awful Christian bookshops (yes: I’m an optimist in training), there is no paradigm for living a good and happy life. I spent most of my life following a fairly orthodox life path and it’s still been riddled with troubles I never anticipated. Regardless, the story of Jesus is one that is braided with the beauty of resurrection hope.


If there is a single message that the Christian story holds to it is this: there is no darkness more powerful than the hope offered through Jesus.


No darkness.


Whatever you see in front of you right now that fills your heart with dread, or makes your skin tingle with worry, you need to know that whilst there is no promise that it will all work out, there is a truth more important than that. That all said and done, God is with us. With you. And whilst we often think that what we want is resolution; sometimes what we need is simply presence. Someone there with us along the way.


The hope of the Christian faith is the product of a slow and painful death; which means that even if all of your worst fears are made manifest, you will still be on the right path.


A commitment to the hope of Jesus allows us to open our eyes to the beauty that is already all around us, even in moments of great challenge. It allows us to see the good that is unfolding, even in the midst of that we find difficult to accept.


It also, importantly, allows us to see beauty in the people who are around us.


It is easy to see goodness in the people we love or admire. It is much more difficult to see it in those we disagree with or despise. If you believe a person is advocating for something you find evil, it is near impossible to look through that difference to the beauty that might present itself. But nevertheless, it is always there.


Padraig O’Tauma says that a good way to live life is to assume that most people are doing what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time. I have found this to be a helpful framework. People are not required to do what seems reasonable to me. They are only required to do what seems reasonable to them. After all, we are all responsible for this life we have been given, but I have often found it helpful - rather than trying to convince them of why their actions or thoughts are wrong - to attempt the curious work of discovering why it is that they think this is a reasonable thing to think or do.


The vast majority of the time, if I am courageous enough to see past my own selfishness and afford others this kind of grace, I am surprised at where this journey leads.


David Foster Wallace opened his now famous 2005 speech at Kenyon College with an analogy about the goldfish who was so used to swimming that it didn’t know what water was. So it often is with us. We are often so used to experiencing the things we experience on a daily basis that we forget to stop and look deeper, searching for those braids of luminescence that not only remind us that beauty exists in the world, but also that it exists in each and every person around us as well.