Christchurch's reasonable hope

Sande Ramage
By Sande Ramage
24 Feb 2011

Christchurch Cathedral stood proud on the square that carries its name. Sitting at the heart of the city, this Kiwi icon has developed a tradition of welcoming all comers, religious or not.

When the tower of this beloved, gothic church crumbled in the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that rocked Christchurch this week, it was more than just another building down. Without that distinctive spire to connect to, Cantabrians lost one of their traditional points of reference in a world that is becoming, as one of my friends said, absolute hell'.

Christchurch has experienced nearly 5000 quakes since the 7.1 shake that raced through the city in the dead of night last September. Although there were injuries and significant damage to buildings and city infrastructure, there were no deaths.

This time it was different. The quake struck at lunchtime when pedestrians were in full stride and schools back in full swing after the holidays. So far, 75 people have been confirmed dead while Christchurch hospital is overflowing with casualties, which are transferred to other centres as needed.

Buildings have collapsed and emergency services are progressively freeing those trapped inside while others wait for news of loved ones. The long haul of recovery beckons.

Living with uncertainty is the reality of existence. Pretending otherwise by constructing systems and traditions that look reliable is a human preoccupation, until we are stopped in our tracks by disaster such as that which has struck Christchurch. At times like this when all our usual reference points have disintegrated, people can react in unusual ways.

Trawling the blogs, Facebook, media reports and tweets I've been interested by how many times the phrase, "our thoughts and prayers are with you", pops up. This from people, including our Prime Minister, who claim no religion, though appear to be edging towards some form of spirituality.

When trouble overwhelms us it is instinctive to call out to God. It matters little what your theology is, or if you believe in God or not. What matters is the ability and freedom to express powerlessness in the face of tragedy and ongoing uncertainty. It's like yelling to the universe, I have no hope. Help!

Kaethe Weingarten, an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School distinguishes between 'reasonable' and 'unreasonable' hope.

Hopelessness thrives, says Weingarten, when the future is known, certain and bleak. Expressing hopelessness in the midst of rolling earthquakes is normal because hope requires ready access to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which trauma and stress diminish. Somehow, enough quiet has to penetrate the limbic system to stem the chemical cascades that set off hyperarousal and fear.

Great cathedrals, their magnificent processions and choirs come into their own at times of community chaos. They unfold rituals that promote stillness and which suggest a way of holding the untenable, the overwhelming and the incomprehensible. This is their raison d'etre.

This is why the people of Christchurch love their cathedral even if they'd never dream of hanging out there. Sometimes, as we get on with coming to terms with our despair, it is enough to know that there's a place that has been prepared for people to sit in the mystery and hold a place as sacred.

Despite our best efforts, hope can remain elusive unless we downsize expectations. As Weingarten explains it, reasonable hope is a smaller but more attainable version of the impossible dream.

Unreasonable hope is when we think God will save Christchurch or that anything is going to be the same again after thousands of quakes. Reasonable hope means we become realistic, sensible and moderate, directing our attention to what is within reach instead of what is desired but unattainable.

Bob Parker, Christchurch's mayor is operating with reasonable hope when he acknowledges that more deaths are likely, that he is worried about his folks just like you may be and that while life is so disrupted it's important to stay where you are to care for yourself, your family and your neighbours.

Be as still as possible in a quaking world, down size expectations, narrow down geographically and take smaller steps while still giving of your best. In this way, says Weingarten, we practice reasonable hope, a profoundly creative process through which the future emerges.

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(c) Sande Ramage, from Wairarapa, New Zealand, is an Anglican priest who explores spirituality in a way that is "not restricted by institutional religion". She is an Ekklesia partner. This article is republished with grateful acknowledgements from her blog: http://www.spiritedcrone.com/ Sande can also be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/spiritedcrone

This article also appears on Eureka Street (http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/), a publication of Jesuit Communications, Australia.

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