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When Will We Give Up Hope?

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Is our hope for a better world getting in the way of the better world we are hoping for?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has its roots in the transformational experiences of its two founders, who were involved in The Oxford Group (OG), which later became Moral & Spiritual Rearmament (MRA), which today is called Initiatives of Change (IofC). The practices of The Oxford Group significantly contributed to the sobriety of the two founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they used these practices to develop the 12 Steps of AA, which are a particular codification of the Oxford group methods and practices. Many recognise Frank Buchman, as a key person in influencing all the above to take shape and gain momentum.

The first step, step 01, in the 12-Step programme is: 

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The idea is that the addicted person has probably tried everything to free themselves from their addiction and has failed. They have tried all sorts of self-help approaches and they have finally accepted that their own will power will not work, they are powerless in the face of their addiction. They have surrendered to the fact that they are not able to find their way out of this situation. They have given up their agency, their control, they have reached rock bottom, their limits, they are hopeless.

Interestingly, when a person reaches this stage of authentic powerlessness, and totally gives up on their agency and belief that they can change themselves and manage their addiction, something unexpected can happen. When powerlessness is accepted, admitted, and surrendered to, a new kind of agency and empowerment emerges, one that was not available before, one that can only be found on the other side of hopelessness and surrender. This journey can not be manufactured, it sounds like a paradox, it is counter-intuitive.

I wonder whether we are in a similar situation globally. Let me attempt to explain what I mean, even though I am still trying to understand it myself!

Most would agree that the present global situation is on the edge of collapse in every sense, environmental and human systems show horrifying levels of extinction and poverty, violent wars continue to kill thousands of people. Some are calling all these interdependent issues a polycrisis. Some believe there is something deeper and more fundamentally wrong, and are calling it a metacrisis

Most would agree with some version of this analysis, and yet in most of the spaces, communities, and groups I find myself in, there is a belief that we can change, and we can save the world. The common narrative is that ‘I have changed during my lifetime, I have changed my thinking and behaviour, and so change is possible, and there is hope for the future if we can all find a way to change ourselves, and our global systems’. There are many approaches that are trying to find a way forward - systems thinking, complexity, changing the narrative, global transformation, moral imagination, the inner development goals, the sustainable development goals, impact investing, trust-building programmes, etc. I am sure they all have something to offer, and I myself am involved in some of them!

At an online group meeting, I asked the question “What if we can not change ourselves, and there is still hope for the world?” After a few minutes of silence, most people rejected my suggestion and continued to push the idea that they had found change and so there is hope that people can change, and therefore hope for the world. 

At some level this belief in personal change places humans in the middle of the problem, and therefore humans in the middle of the solution. There are others who are taking a post-humanist approach to the world, this does not mean when humans are gone, it means not putting humans in the middle of all thinking and all narratives, and instead putting for example the Earth in the centre. In some religions, god is placed at the centre. Placing humans at the centre is a way of thinking, one that has partly led to this ‘geological time period’ being called the Anthropocene. 

Gregory Bateson believed that our conscious purposefulness had become a pathology, a disease that was separating us from millions of years of evolutionary wisdom. He believed that our calculating minds and use of language allows us to name things in ways that remove them from their contexts and their relationships, and allows us to exploit them. Buchman saw something similar in human thinking, a selfishness that he connected with ‘materialism’, which can be found in a number of his speeches.

What if this is the fundamental issue, that humanity believes and hopes that it has the power to get itself out of this polycrisis? What if the problem is that this polycrisis is a result of humanity’s addiction to a way of being, doing, and living where it places itself at the centre? If it is an addiction, then humanity will first try to do everything it can to get out of this addiction, and of course continue to make it worse as it continues to fail, and as it fails, the attempts will become more and more desperate. The solutions and imagined futures that give hope are generated from a place of addiction, often unconsciously, and so they become part of the problem, not the way out.

What if the way forward is to go to the place that many fear, which is step 01 of the 12 Steps, to give up, to admit our powerlessness, to become hopeless, to believe that our own will-power will not get us out of this, that we can not change ourselves and change the world?...

Hope can be part of the addiction. We hope for a better future, we imagine a more sustainable future, and we take action to make it possible, we try to change ourselves and the world. Sounds like a good thing, right?... but what if this hope is actually a way to avoid the present, to avoid the reality of the world in front of us, to avoid the heart-breaking and soul-destroying pain we would have to face, to avoid accepting our deep entanglement and liability in the violence inflicted on many so that some, like me, can have the lifestyle that I have…

When I have shared this idea with most people who are trying to make a difference, they get depressed, some even angry, and do not wish to talk anymore about it because it makes them feel hopeless. They want to know what is the alternative, what is the solution? When I tell them that I don’t know, I can not imagine it, and maybe none of us can, because the unimaginable future lies beyond step 01, they look at me as someone who is lost, and I agree with them! Maybe getting lost in the cracks of our thinking could help us…

I realise that there are a lot of people who may already be there, who believe change in themselves and the world is not possible, that they are powerless and insignificant, and observers watching the world collapse.

However my point is that whether you believe you can or can not change, the starting point of the thinking process is the same, it places you, or humanity at the centre!

Step 01 of the 12 Steps is reaching a point when this very idea of putting ourselves at the centre is no longer valid, we lose belief in it, we accept, admit, and fully embrace our powerlessness, we give up hope in ourselves and our will-power… 

… and from there maybe a new kind of agency becomes available, a new kind of hope emerges, one that has something else at the centre, one that arises from a different place and a different us, one that allows us to continue on to the other 11 steps!

For Frank Buchman, as a Christian, that was putting god’s will and god’s guidance at the centre of his thinking, at the centre of his life, and at the centre of the group’s life, at the centre of ‘nations’, a world guided by god. I am not making a case for god, I am more recognising this idea of de-centring the human!

The paradox is that step 01 is not a conscious choice, not an enlightened choice, not a rational intellectual choice, it is the total opposite, it is a breaking of the heart and mind, a breaking down when the pain of the planet and millions of people is truly felt, it is about entering despair and hopelessness. 

Joanna Macy recognises the two sides of this despair, she writes “we discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity” and “when we stop distracting ourselves by trying to figure the chances of success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment”.

Frank Buchman developed a daily practice of de-centring himself, of trying to listen and be guided by the more-than-human world. He believed that groups of individuals could take this journey collectively and individually, to accept their powerlessness, to give up hope for the world they wanted to see, and instead search for the next step of action towards a future they could not imagine or design, and yet a future which they could have faith in. He talked about discovering not who is right, but what is right.

What if hope in ourselves is our biggest barrier to finding a way forward? 

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