I have a friend who describes me as a “glass half full” kind of guy. He says he likes that—he likes being around an optimist. I don't know if it’s an accurate description, exactly, but I know I like being around people who at least give lip service to the idea that things are going to be okay, so I try to do the same. It makes me feel better, too. But part of my friend’s comment is him saying that he's a “glass half empty” kind of guy, and that he sees the “glass half full” kind of guy as the rarer beast.
Over the year or so—since well before Covid-19— I have been struck at how many of my conversations seem to end up in a place of despair. Someone I’m talking with, almost inevitably, will make a point of mentioning how bad things are or how bad things are going to be. They'll ask, “Why are we even working on this project? The world's going to hell. What's the point?”
I’ve read articles pointing out that in the last three or four years, there's been a phenomenon of increased generalized anxiety. It's easy to point to politics or Covid or to say something has shifted in the culture, but it's not quite that simple. I think the political landscape reveals a deeper landscape—we’ve discovered, collectively, that things are not what we thought they were, or that things are not headed in the direction we hoped they were headed. It’s natural, then, that we find ourselves in a place of despair, where things feel less meaningful, where things feel like they have less worth, because the narrative that they're a part of is one that's unraveling or unstable.
I understand that. I think often about how my parents used to worry about me, how all parents worry about kids. But I was born at an optimistic time; when my parents worried about me, they were concerned that I would be unduly influenced by the lyrics of Purple Rain. I look at my own kids, and I speak with other parents who have kids, and we wonder, when our kids are old enough, will there be any meaning in sending them to college? Will they ever be able to have any kind of financial stability? Will they inherit problems that have gone past the tipping point, where no one can even pretend there’s a possibility of turning it around, of redemption? In that thinking, again, you can find despair. So I understand. But what I want to say—and I also want to say this to myself—is that this tradition, this practice, has no place for despair.
And I want to be clear about why. There are two reasons, as I see it, and they're kind of the same thing. The first is that despair is fundamentally dishonest. It comes from a place of knowing, or thinking that you know. But you don't know. If this tradition says anything loud and clear, it's that you don't know. Moment to moment, you don't know. Sometimes I wish it were otherwise.
By the way, hope is the same—this tradition has no place for hope, either. Hope, too, is knowing, or thinking that you know. It's a story that you use to anchor yourself. It's a story to make this present moment feel somehow safer or simpler or clearer, to say, I know it's going to be okay. Despair lets us say, I know it's going to go very, very badly. Both are places to rest. And there’s no place to rest, not really. Not if we’re being honest.
It may feel as if you have to choose one or the other. Maybe it feels more honest to say that it's all going to hell, because the other one, hope, feels so naive. So we can tell ourselves, even if we kind of buy into what I'm saying right now, Oh, maybe they're both dishonest, but one is more dishonest.
To be clear, it's not that despair is weakness—it’s that despair is a kind of delusion. And we don’t have time for delusion.
The second reason why there's no place for despair is simply this: vow is unconditional. Kindness is unconditional. Generosity is unconditional. Despair, however, offers an escape hatch. It's an excuse to let go of the present, of whatever it is that you're holding, of whatever responsibility you're facing. It’s a way of saying, in effect, that this responsibility no longer has meaning, because look—look what's coming. What does a bodhisattva do on the Titanic? She tries to save everyone. What about when the boat is tipped, and she knows there's no chance anymore? She still tries. And how about when the ship is completely submerged, what then? If there's a moment when you think to yourself, Oh, things are so bad, so inescapably bad, that I can finally drop this work—this job, this stance—then that wasn't vow. It was an idea, or an ideal. And it was conditional.
We have this cartoonish idea about the bodhisattva, what we're all taught in the beginning, that the bodhisattva let's everyone else go first. She encourages or assists everyone toward enlightenment; she holds the door open and says, no, you first, you first, you first. And at the very end, when everybody's gotten through, then she steps in and closes the door behind her. That's the story we tell of the bodhisattva. But that doesn't work. That's not a useful story, because at the end of it, that bodhisattva gets to be finished. At the end of that version of the story, the bodhisattva gets a gold star. In the final chapter, the bodhisattva gets to say, “All done.”
You cannot take up the work of a bodhisattva if you do it from a place of hope. Hope won't get you there. You don't see that work through because you're convinced it's all going to work out; you see that work through because you've already let go of the idea of what success is. You've moved past the idea that you might succeed or fail. You've moved past the idea that you might be rewarded, or that you might be ripped off, and you’ve decided that those things do not matter. They're beside the point. In the same way, the bodhisattva cannot work from a place of despair. How could she?
The end of your story, however you understand your story, is that you're going to die. The people you love are going to die. And in the best version—the most beautiful version, the version that you might want—everyone lives to exactly to the right age, and they feel really good up until the last day, and they die in a beautiful way. That would be so nice. But the truth is, they die, and on the way there they probably face terrible suffering, because that’s part of being alive. Either way, the ending is the same. Our relationship to it is the same. That's what we get to know, and in that knowledge is the freedom to let go of all the rest of what we hope it might be.
The reason the bodhisattva can face the pandemic—not just the virus itself, not just the isolation, not just the disruption, but everything that will follow in its wake—is because hope and despair have no place in it.
I need to remind myself of this every single day.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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