When hope was chosen as the focus for this month, I was reminded once again of a time and place, more than half a century ago. I discovered what hope means for me when a Freshman at the University of Tennessee. I suffered what many would call a mental breakdown. In clinical terms it would be known as severe Major Depressive Disorder. What happened was that I lost all hope. Life became meaningless and I basically just gave up. In truth I remember very little from what happened during that time. My memories are quite fuzzy, as if I wasn’t there.
What did happen was told to me by those who observed me and helped me to recover. The most important of those people were my grandparents. On getting word from a friend that there was “something wrong with Richard,” they drove 500 miles to pick me up. Not knowing exactly were at the university I was, they drove up to the university stairs, and saw me walking down them. My grandmother told me to get into the car. They then took me to their home in Loraine, Ohio, near Cleveland. Being with them in their home made me feel safe once again. And the several months in that home, surrounded by my grandparents’ love, formed the basis for my recovery, both short and long term.
Synonyms often given for hope are words such as, aspiration, desire, wish, expectation. Buddhism teaches that, along with ignorance, the primary reasons for suffering are craving, desire, attachment. You might notice the similarity between the synonyms for hope and the sources of suffering in Buddhist teaching.
When I lost all hope, what I lost was not the belief that my actions could be effective. What I lost was the belief that my actions had any effect. I felt that nothing I said or did had any effect whatsoever. As I experienced it, my actions just dissolved into nothingness. My existence didn’t, and couldn’t, make a difference, even accidentally.
It is easy to confuse having an effect with being effective. Being effective assumes that there is a effect that you want to achieve, that is, a desired effect of your action. But your actions can, and I believe do, have an effect without achieving any goal you may have pre-set for them.
I am a Jew who studies the Dao de Jing. My Chinese name is Qi Wu Wei. Among the meanings for Qi is the life force. You may have heard the term Wu Wei, which is sometimes translated as a Buddhist koan, “actionless action.” The full expression is Wu Wei Wu Bu Wei. A fairly reasonable translation would be, “do not act purposefully, yet do not not act.” So how can you act without acting purposefully? A Daoist answer is to cultivate a mental state in which our actions are in alignment with the force of life, Qi. It isn’t about outcomes, it is about being in alignment with life. As should come as no surprise, I am not always successful in being able to do this.
But how do you choose to act, if it not on the basis of wanting something? Perhaps look inside, how do you want the world to be? Try and be the way you want the world to be, let that vision guide your actions. Don’t expect the world to change in any particular way. Being able to act doesn’t mean that you can choose how things will change. We can’t know the outcome of things. Like the farmer, we can’t really even say, without question, whether something is good or bad for us. What we can do is choose to act or to do nothing. There are times when our actions will produce an effect that we would desire. But don’t expect it, let yourself, be surprised. May Qi, the force, be with you.