Roshi Joan Halifax reflects on the idea of “wise hope” and why we should open ourselves to it.
A good part of my life has been spent relating to situations that might be deemed hopeless—as an anti-war activist, a civil rights worker, a caregiver of dying people. I have also volunteered with death row inmates, served in medical clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas—where life is hard, food is scarce, and access to health care is nil—and worked in Kathmandu with Rohingya refugees who have no status, anywhere. You might ask, why bother? Why hold out hope for ending war or injustice? Why have hope for people who are dying, or for refugees fleeing from genocide, or for solutions to climate change?
I have often been troubled by the notion of hope. But recently, in part because of the work of social critic Rebecca Solnit and her powerful book Hope in the Dark, I am opening to another view of hope—what I call wise hope.
As Buddhists, we know that ordinary hope is based in desire, wanting an outcome that could well be different from what will actually happen. Not getting what we hoped for is usually experienced as some kind of misfortune. Someone who is hopeful in this way has an expectation that always hovers in the background, the shadow of fear that one’s wishes will not be fulfilled. This ordinary hope is a subtle expression of fear and a form of suffering.
Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them.
Wise hope is not seeing things unrealistically but rather seeing things as they are, including the truth of suffering—both its existence and our capacity to transform it. It’s when we realize we don’t know what will happen that this kind of hope comes alive; in that spaciousness of uncertainty is the very space we need to act.
Too often we become paralyzed by the belief that there is nothing to hope for—that our cancer diagnosis is a one-way street with no exit, that our political situation is beyond repair, that there is no way out of our climate crisis. It becomes easy to think that nothing makes sense anymore, or that we have no power and there’s no reason to act.
I often say that there should be just two words over the door of our temple in Santa Fe: Show up! Yes, suffering is present. We cannot deny it. There are 65.3 million refugees in the world today, only eleven countries are free from conflict, and climate change is turning forests into deserts. Economic injustice is driving people into greater and greater poverty. Racism and sexism remain rampant.
But understand, wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now. “Do not find fault with the present,” says Zen Master Keizan. He invites us to see it, not flee it!
The Czech statesman Václav Havel said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” We can’t know, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And that we will be part of it. We move forward in our day and get out the vote, or sit at the bedside of a dying patient, or teach that third grade class.
As Buddhists, we share a common aspiration to awaken from suffering; for many of us, this aspiration is not a “small self” improvement program. The bodhisattva vows at the heart of the Mahayana tradition are, if nothing else, a powerful expression of radical and wise hope—an unconditional hope that is free of desire.
Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.” His words remind us that apathy is not an enlightened path. We are called to live with possibility, knowing full well that impermanence prevails. So why not just show up?