The Problem With Hope

Photo credit: Sharon Tate Soberon

We just finished up the Christmas season and are diving headfirst into yet another year. With that new year come the countless resolutions that people will make to try and improve their lives – lose weight, save money, let go of bad habits, rock the world.

We who follow Jesus as a teacher often look to Christmas as a time of hope; we see it as an annual event to remind us that a savior was born who came to confront the systems of the world and show us what God is really like. We reflect on the birth of Jesus in that quiet hidden place, the manger surrounded by calm, adoring animals, and we try to extrapolate our imaginations of that event on to our lives and our futures.  Jesus came, and all will be well.  We just have to keep holding on to our hope that things will be made right one day.  We just have to make it through whatever is going on right now.

I’m a big fan of hope – the idea that there are forces working alongside me and within me for my good – it’s certainly gotten me through some difficult times in the past.  However, I’m beginning to think that many of our current understandings of hope can get us into alot of trouble and maybe cause us unnecessary suffering in life.

Consider the following Bible passages that, at least in English translations, include the word hope:

  • Isaiah 40:31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
  • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
  • Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

These are just a few verses containing hope; there are many more.  Having grown up in the church, I am very familiar with the way these verses tend to get interpreted for our lives. Usually, it is along the lines of “Life may suck right now, but just hang on and God will bring better days.”  Or, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket but if we just hang on until we get to heaven all will be OK.”  Or, “Just hold it together through this period of [insert whatever life circumstance you don’t currently like – singleness, marriage, a bad job, potty training of toddlers, whatever], and God will bring something better, circumstances that you are happier with.

While we all want our futures to be brighter and “happier”, I really believe we get ourselves into trouble when we take on these kinds of attitudes of just trying to get through right now in order proceed to where we really want to be, or fervently believing that somewhere down the road all of our problems will suddenly be fixed, or believing that one day we will get our crap together and live in a state of static perfection.

Here are a couple of problems I see with this way of interpreting hope, where we perceive a God completely external of ourselves who we believe/think/hope will swoop in and save the day or change our situations:

  1. We are denying our humanity – Life is right here, right now. The past doesn’t exist, and neither does the future.  They are illusions, dream-spaces. We have no control over what happened in the past, and the future is just conjectures of what could possibly happen, created by our minds. The only thing that is real is this very moment that we are in.  When we are constantly thinking about what we want to happen tomorrow, or in a month, or in a year, we are not living our lives.  It’s like we step into a virtual reality game in our minds to avoid being fully present now.  If we spend all of our time constantly mulling over what has already happened or what we want to happen, we could very easily reach the end of this material life and discover that we never really lived it fully at all.
  2. There is no hard and fast guarantee that our life circumstances will improve- Some people seem to do everything right, and shit still happens to them. I’ve known several people in my life who I thought were really dealt a horrible hand – no matter what they did, it seems like they’ve been assaulted from all sides time and time and time again with really hard life circumstances.  It appeared so completely unfair that they could be struggling so much while other people I knew (who had questionable ethics) could be sailing along smoothly. But going back to the master teacher, Jesus – being a stellar human doesn’t guarantee an easy life. Just being good to others, and healing people, and living simply and unselfishly doesn’t ensure that you won’t be crucified at some point.
  3. When we sniff or moan at our current circumstances and focus only on escaping them, we are ultimately declaring that Life (God) is bad and we know better.  This is one of those difficult arguments to make because someone will invariably come back and be like, “Well, are you saying that slavery is good, or injustice to the poor is good, or abuse of children is good? Shouldn’t we strive to end them?” There are people who can definitely explain this argument far better than I, and may I humbly suggest reading works by Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Ram Dass, and Thich Hhat Nahn on this idea.  But I’ll try here to explain how I see it:  in my mind, God is the Ultimate Reality, or Life, or simply, What Is.  I don’t believe that Life at its best is all about rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust.  Life is not about being ecstatic and comfortable every single moment.  However, I do believe that Life (God) is good, and that only by accepting everything that happens can we be in a solid place of understanding to institute change for the problems mentioned above. [Now, do I in practice accept everything that happens to me without complaining  – absolutely not, but I’m practicing a little more each day.)
  4. If you’re not happy with your circumstances right now, you won’t be happy with your circumstances when they change.  Buddhist teachings remind us that everything is temporal and relational. Nothing is static and everything will eventually change in form and expression.  And as Richard Rohr likes to say, “Its heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.” The point he is making is that if you can’t find happiness where you are right now, you won’t find happiness when you get the life situations you think you want.  You can find contentment and peace in any situation, or you can find hell and misery in any situation.  Which ultimately means that happiness is in your mind, not your external environment.  I don’t need to prove this to you – think of all the people you know who finally got that expensive car, or fancy house, or promotion, and are still just as miserable as before?  Or think of the people you may know who are dying slow horrendous deaths from disease and are still positive and joyful? It is not our situations that make us happy or sad, or bring heaven or hell – it is what we think and believe about them.

So, now that I’ve attempted to philosophize a bit, I will offer a tentative description of how I view hope: hope is not horizontal, but rather, vertical.

We tend to understand hope in a horizontal, linear, time-bound fashion.  But this, as I’ve described above, is not helping us out because it bases our happiness on what is going on outside of us or the changes we think we need to be happy. I think that hope should be understood vertically – maybe like a deep well within each of us.

Hope is our ability to look deep within ourselves, to our core, where we connect with the Divine, or Life, or God within us and know that all is well and all will be well.  It is the conviction that we are OK as we are now, and we will be OK when our external circumstances change.  It is the trust that what Reality brings us each moment is good and trustworthy. It is the belief that what we see with our eyes or perceive with our five senses is not the end of the story and is not the ultimate truth.

So, now, when I look at the Christmas season and remember the birth of Jesus, I don’t long to be gathered from this earth and carried to heaven. I have a different kind of hope – where I see how Jesus lived – not bound by the circumstances of his life – and recognize that the same can be true of my own life. His example shows that I can live well without feeling the need to manipulate and control everything around me. I can trust that what comes my way, no matter how difficult it is, will be for my good. This understanding, then, completely reframes how I read verses like Jeremiah 29:11, mentioned above. Plans to prosper me no longer means a guarantee that I’ll be financially successful, or have a brilliant marriage, or that everyone will love and respect me. Instead, it means that I can trust that everything that I encounter in my life is good for me and comes from the hand of God – that includes the hard stuff as well as the exciting and fun stuff.

Christmas, for me, is the reminder to stop wishing circumstances would change for me…to claim peace…and to relax into Life. 

“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” – Julian of Norwich

How To Save the World All By Yourself


Photo credit: _Teb holes

Yesterday, at church, I sat next to a dear friend whom I haven’t seen much lately because we both live crazy lives. As we hugged and she asked how I was doing, I gave the obligatory “Oh, I”m fine!”  I was raised in the South, this is what you’re supposed to say no matter what is really going on in life. My friend, on the other hand, was more honest and admitted life was really hard for her at the moment.


“You’re right, I’m not really fine, either,” I confessed.

“You do know what FINE stands for, right?” my friend asked me.  I shook my head.

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I laughed, because this is very true. We offer our “fines” when it doesn’t feel appropriate or sacred enough to drop f-bombs on Sunday morning, or when we’re trying to keep up the facade of “I’m rocking it at life right now, thank you very much” when the opposite really feels more authentic.


Do you ever feel like you have to save the world by yourself, or at least die trying, in order to be accepted by God or to win at life or whatever?  I know with my higher level brain that this is not the case, but I swear I live my life every day like it’s all up to me.  I’m not really sure where I got this tendency; it might have had something to do with all the pressure I felt as a kid and young adult to get as many people to Jesus and heaven as possible.  Some preachers can really make it feel like the success of God’s whole agenda is in your court and you’d better not drop the ball because hell is on the line.

I’ve been watching myself very closely over the last few months, and specifically the mad driven-ness I have in certain areas of my life. Here is my list of craziness, things that plague me on a daily basis.  When you see me sitting around doing nothing, or at work taking care of people, or driving my kids somewhere, all of these things are simultaneously churning through my mind: [Note to self – maybe these are why I always have resting bitch face….I can never just relax and chill out]

  1. I have to eat plant-based perfectly because doing so is the best for the environment and our resources.  If I don’t eat vegan perfectly every day I will single-handedly be the tipping point that pushes our climate beyond redemption.
  2. I have to keep my home energy use significantly less than all of those around me because I don’t want to be the one who caused an electricity grid blackout or used the last remaining stores of propane on the Earth.
  3. If I don’t figure out how to parent perfectly then my kids will automatically become addicts, slobs, purposeless vagrants, or writhing heaps of fetal-positioned therapy clients who hate me because I couldn’t get it together as a mom.
  4. I must listen to NPR and all other credible news sources daily so I know what is going on at all moments in Zimbabwe, and Peru, and Liechtenstein, as well as the big news making countries that are constantly in the headlines. If I’m not aware of EVERYONE’s suffering, then I must not care for ANYONE’s suffering.
  5.  I must read every book ever written because I have to be cultured and be able to reference all of the experts so that I have something worthwhile to say.
  6. I have to be an activist – for EVERY worthy cause.  Civil rights, women’s rights, child slaves on chocolate plantations in West Africa, clothing makers in Bangladesh, migrant food workers in the Pacific Northwest, etc ad nauseum.
  7. I’m aware of my ego, and aware of the real “me” that lies behind that ego.  As such, I have to constantly be aware of all of my motivations and work as hard as possible to keep waking up.
  8.  And finally, for now at least, I have to be a super well-rounded person all of the time – working full-time, while freelance writing, while doing graduate school, while parenting three kids [one of whom is special needs], while trying to do all of the above list perfectly.

When I write all this down, it really seems ludicrous. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time.  But honestly, I don’t think I”m the only person in the world who is like this.  Yeah, I have my own special kind of crazy and ADHD and core wounds, but I know plenty of people who are out there thinking they have to save the world, too.


The fact is, I can’t save the world by myself.  Whether or not I live perfectly vegan and plastic free, or have the tiniest carbon footprint ever, or be the most amazing mom that ever lived, life is really out of my control. When I have my wits about me, I recognize that I really only have the tiniest bit of control over the most trivial things. The big stuff is ultimately out of my hands.  I might be able to offer influence, but that’s about it.

It is very unlikely that little old me, or little old you for that matter, will ever be the tipping point for the climate, or political systems, or global food production.

And the fact that I obsess about this huge list of really big things on a daily basis begs the question: am I really trying to save the WORLD, or am I just frantically trying to save MYSELF?

Furthermore, what am I trying to save myself FROM? Am I really putting all my cash into this one pot of Earth, or do I think that life and meaning will extend well past whatever ultimately happens to this planet?


I”m in another Eckhart Tolle phase.  I usually cycle back to him at least two to three times a year, and each cycle feels like a spiral.  I pick up something new from him that I wasn’t previously able to understand or grasp.

Right now I’m thinking about the spaciousness that he teaches on – how we need to accept what life gives and let there be space around those things. Because, it is this space from which new things can spontaneously manifest.

Another point of Tolle’s that I”m mulling over is how we don’t really do LIFE, LIFE does us.  Life is dancing US, Life is playing through US, not the other way around. Life is expressing itself through a variety of different forms, and we can see that through all that is created.

I don’t tend to leave much space in my life, mainly because I’m frantically trying to save the world. I’m going to run out of time, I tell myself. I get too caught up in forms (including the form of time), trying to make them perfect and thinking that we will be saved through the saving of form.

What would it be like I wonder, if my hero journey in life is not to set out and find the things I need to save, but let life bring them to me? Do I trust life to bring me what is mine to do, and trust that it will take to others what it has for them to do?


There is a Jewish concept that I really like called tikkun olam. Now, preface here, I am not a Jewish scholar so don’t tear me apart if I misrepresent this a little. I love how it was once described by Rachel Naomi Remen in an episode of the podcast On Being:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

And then another quote:

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
― Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist


This idea of tikkun olam, as I understand here, changes everything. No longer is it about me trying to find EVERY SINGLE BROKEN piece in the world, sorting through them, and putting them all together.  The pieces are not outside us – I am a piece, you are a piece, and so on. We are looking for the light inside of each other – or, Namaste…the divine in me is recognizing the divine in you.

We as the broken pieces in humans and the broken pieces of creation are to come together and unite once again. But this can’t be done by us frantically running around smashing into each other and saying “By God, we will make this fit. This puzzle will come together right now in this way. This is what the one Light is supposed to look like!”

No, this is where Tolle’s space comes in. We must sit, be still, and allow the space, allow the brokenness that exists without fighting it. Then, perhaps Life will break through in the space and bring the right pieces to us, bring us to the other pieces that are right for us, and the Light will begin to concentrate.

I am one corner of the puzzle.  I can’t fit together all the pieces on the other side of the puzzle.  But I can be part of the healing in my little place; I can join with the pieces that the God/life brings to me.  And if I miss a corresponding piece the first time around, that same God/Life is trustworthy to bring it back again. [I’ve got more than enough evidence of this regarding tough life lessons.  :)]


As one final thought, largely to myself. The greats in history, the ones I look up to and sit [figuratively] at the feet of, didn’t try to save the whole world.  Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and countless others…..they only did the work that was in front of them. They didn’t take on work that was not for them to do.  Yet, the willingness to piece together their little parts of the world enabled that piecing to spread outward.

So, how can you save the world by yourself?  How can I?  We can’t save the world. All that we can do is say yes to the Life that is dancing us, welcome it, let it lead.  That is the very most, and best, that we can do. And this joining with Life, and God, and Light…this is how we are saved.