On that ill-fated night last November, I stepped out of an election party that had gone south to call my 12-year-old son and learned something that feels ever-more-important today — in the wake of the rising threat of nuclear war with North Korea; and Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria’s in-your-face demonstration of a radically changing climate.
I was standing in a backyard garden, finding solace in the full moon overhead, which suggested a gentle constancy in the world, no matter the madness unfolding below.
But with my son’s “hello,” I sensed something I had never heard in him before. This boy is, after all, the most positive person I have ever known. I occasionally tell him to make a sad face because he is so incapable of it, it turns out funny. He was once asked a routine question by a doctor–Do you ever feel depressed?–and looked incredulous. The surest way to challenge him to rise to something is to tell him he can’t do it.
Now, he was beyond disappointed that his woman lost. He was despondent that this most ill-suited man won.
After several minutes of commiserating, I heard myself say: “But it’s not the end of the world.”
“It may be,” he responded.
My heart sank, and I did what a mother does in such circumstances. I told him that bad things happen but people all over the world have always risen to right wrongs, and we would, too. I followed this with a string of what felt like platitudes even as I said them.
Still, part of me thought his words were those of a young person who did not yet have the experience to know that people really do overcome travesties. That human nature is inherently good. That there truly are more of us who do our best to lead with kindness — not with the cruelty, mendacity, vindictiveness, and titanic self-centeredness of America’s newly elected president.
And then came Trump’s speech this week to the United Nations in which he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. In a year of relentlessly reckless rhetoric, this was unprecedented and truly frightening. It brought back my son’s response to my then somewhat flippant “It’s not the end of the world.”
In less than one year, this man has brought us closer to the threat of nuclear war and turned his back on the cataclysmic threat of climate change. There is reason for children and adults alike to worry that, unless others powerfully intervene, he could bring us to the brink — if not of the end of the world — of the end of the world as we know it.
That is the reality of where we are at. Now here is the good news and a few ideas about how we might talk with children about it:
First, we must ask children how they are thinking and feeling about events in the world.
Surely, it’s right for young people to spend most of their time engaged in other things. And quite likely, many children will brush off a question like this. But they need to know that they can talk to us about it when they are ready, and asking them signals that.
Second, we must recognize that acceptance of reality is not fatalistic; far from it, it is the precursor to change.
In The World We Have, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn observes that when people learn they are about to die of cancer or some other illness, their first reaction is often to deny or otherwise struggle against that reality.
In their struggling, they create yet more suffering. But when they give up the struggle and find acceptance, they begin to find peace and relax — and, in that new place, they sometimes have a better chance to overcome their illness.
And so it is, he suggests, in our relationship to the natural world. “We have to learn to accept the end of this civilization of ours,” he writes. “If we can accept it, we will become more peaceful… We touch the truth of impermanence and then we have peace. When we have peace, there will be hope again. With this kind of peace we can make use of the technology that is available to us to save this planet of ours.”
The same truth applies now: When we become brave enough to accept the reality of the threats that face us today, when we come into a right relationship to our own vulnerability and courage, we can find a different kind of peace — and then act neither from a willfully blind or anxious place but a more clear-eyed and wiser one.
So while there is plenty of reason to be afraid today, let us not stop there: Let us move to the acceptance that leads us forward to the next (and here) final essential step.
Third, we must understand, embrace, believe in, and teach radical hope.
The difference between optimism and hope has been widely noted. One of my favorite characterizations comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who has said: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”
But what is radical hope?
In a recent brilliant conversation on the topic with Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, on Krista Tippet’s On Being, Diaz makes several points that are worth quoting at length:
“If today, the last few months, or the Trump administration is all you’ve got, it sure looks bleak. But when I think about me, when I think about my family — hey, I always say this, but it’s true — people used to own me. White people used to own bodies like mine. And when I look at what my community has done to change that, when I look over what my community has done to make democracy possible, when I look at what my community has taught this world about justice and about humanity, in the face of abysmal inhumanities, well, I’ve got to tell you, that alters the calculus of hope. And it gives me hope.”
Then he goes onto say: “In other words, my love of life, my belief and faith in my people’s liberation doesn’t come from the obstacles that hegemonic formations throw up. It comes from my ancestry, from my communities. And therefore, yeah, there’s an obstacle in front of us. We’ve seen these before. Might be a bit terrifying, might be a bit unusual, might be a bit new, but onward we go. We have broken every chain this society has tried to throw around our necks. They don’t stop trying. We will break them again.”
Finally, in what cuts perhaps most closely to something we can all relate to now, he says: “… I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people.
“But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.”
This too is what gives me hope now–something that is much deeper than any given moment, any given words or action or person. It is a trust in us, in the goodness of our most deeply human nature, and in that simple proposition: “I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible.”
The very idea propels a wholesome curiosity: What will you or I or, better, us bring forth today?