Hope is optimism with a broken heart

I wrote when leaving Cambridge in August 2021 how “Prior to the pandemic I was rapidly getting institutionalised into the university, pottering around the city over the course of the day between my office, college canteens, green spaces, coffee shops, college gardens and cinemas”. It was the first time in my life I had experienced a (reflective) congruence between myself and the niche I inhabited, leaving me with a sense that all I needed was to go on as Wittgenstein would put it; to live the life ahead of me in the context I was in to let my life develop the shape it would through the living. I persisted with that belief throughout the pandemic even as the components of that life unravelled, with friends leaving, secure employment vanishing and my then partner getting a job on the other side of the country. It was only when I couldn’t go on, in the quite literal sense that I couldn’t afford to live there without a permanent job which was not available, that I could see the cruel optimism with which I had clung to something which had already passed.

This led me to apply for jobs elsewhere and soon find myself in a professional environment which was even more congruent and a city which was differently congruent in the sense it involved coming home, even if it did not initially feel like it was a fit for my adult dispositions. It’s interesting to think back on my reluctance to leave Cambridge because it embodies what the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor describes as the quest for the ‘perfect situation’:

Confronted with a world composed of seemingly durable, essentially unchanging elements, we sense that real satisfaction must lie in manipulating these elements in such a way that we construct the ‘perfect’ situation. The situations we habitually find ourselves in are always to some extent unsatisfactory, yet it seems to us that merely certain modifications would solve the problems that happen to disturb or irritate us. But however much we reorganize this and change that, eliminate one thing and introduce another, the perfect final arrangement forever eludes us. An unexpected event suddenly interrupts, a previously unnoticed incompatibility starts to glare uncomfortably, we discover that we cannot rely upon such a person after all. Or if the external situation seems at last to be in order, a vague aching sense of boredom and uneasiness may fleetingly taunt us in the pit of the stomach. We may feel suddenly imprisoned and lonely among the frozen images of our own design. Whatever the case, we rarely pay any heed to these inconsistencies, but swiftly cover them up with the habitual screens of our mental and verbal chatter. We continue to insist that the final solution is just around the next corner, waiting for us in the arms of the salesman or perhaps the psychiatrist. In this way we mistakenly apprehend the manipulation of particular entities to be essentially capable of producing satisfaction, when in fact it is not so.

Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Pg 101

In retrospect I can see how I have treated that feeling of congruence as scarce, as something I must cling on to lest it drains away, rather than it being a condition I can reproduce for myself in new settings. I mistook that congruence for a ‘perfect situation’ rather than recognising it as a set of conditions which enables us to ‘go on’. What matters is what we do under those conditions, not the conditions themselves. It’s been useful to realise this because I find myself at the end of December 2022 in a new life, filled with new people and without the person I imagined at the start of this year would be my constant companion for the rest of my existence. It’s left me with a vivid sense of Neurath’s boat as an existential rather than epistemological simile:

What has kept me going throughout this awful year (beyond the pleasures of working in a place where I’m valued and given responsibility) has been the growing realisation that there are non-cruel forms of optimism which guide us. There are ways of orientating ourselves to the creative possibilities inherent in our situation that don’t involve clinging to a situation we fantasise is perfect or at least soon could be; whether this is a city we can’t afford to live in (but might soon if we get a better job), a university in which we are precariously employed (but offers unparalleled security upon receipt of permanent contract) or a relationship which has unravelled (but might be renewed if only we work through our problems). It’s an optimism which rests on the possibilities foreclosed by our attachments, highlighting the new situations to which we can go on, if and when we accept this is needed: beginnings are made possible by endings.

The challenges lies in recognising that disappointments will follow in any situation rather than hoping that renewal will bring the perfect arrangement of parts which Batchelor is pointing to above. This was perfectly captured by Nick Cave’s line I used as the title of the post: hope is optimism with a broken heart. Rather than a cruel optimism which attaches itself to a contingent situation in the expectation it will anchor us forever, hope is the expectation we will find ways to flourish in the spite of the imperfections of where we find ourselves and the regrets we carry with us from where we’ve been. This is how Cave describes it in his wonderful conversation with Seán O’Hagan:

Well, let’s just say we all have regrets and most of us know that those regrets, as excruciating as they can be, are the things that help us lead improved lives. Or, rather, there are certain regrets that, as they emerge, can accompany us on the incremental bettering of our lives. Regrets are forever floating to the surface, don’t you find? They require our attention. You have to do something with them. One way is to seek forgiveness by making what might be called living amends, by using whatever gifts you may have in order to help rehabilitate the world.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (pp. 267-268). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

Hope is the commitment to going on in a world which will always disappoint us; to create, to help, to connect, to cultivate and to care in spite of the darkness of the world, using the capacities we’ve accumulated through the journey which brought us to the reality we now confront. It means trying to reach a place where, as Cave puts it, “you can see that your day-to-day actions are making the world a measurably better place, rather than a worse place – that is pretty simple stuff, available to all – and to arrive at this place with a certain amount of humility” (pg 269). This has truly been a shitty year but it feels like it’s left me at the place he describes here. What matters in life is not finding a situation where we can rest but finding (and holding on to) a place where we can build – in the richest, most expansive and creative sense of the term – so that “on the day I die, I’ll say at least I fucking tried, that’s the only eulogy I need”.

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem. But the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and they fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen. Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy […]

When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretise. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. 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 […]

From this point of view the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rugs been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or put ourselves to sleep. Right now in the very instance of groundless is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness. […]

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition. If we could only realise it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-centre, in-between state is an ideal situation. A situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, non-aggressive, open-ended state of affairs. To stay with at 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 insecurity, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic. This is the spiritual path.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

3 responses to “Hope is optimism with a broken heart”

  1. Thanks that’s really nice to hear. I always feel a bit self-indulgent blogging stuff like this and doubt that anyone finds value in it other than myself, in the act of writing it. I’ve meant to read Hope in the Dark for ages, I’ll get myself a copy for Christmas I think.

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