Small acts of hope: a map for these difficult times

By Jill Segger
August 22, 2019

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. The words are generally attributed to the 20th century Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. He certainly used the phrase many times in his writings during the years in which he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime, although he ascribed them to the novelist Romain Rolland.

Whatever the source, one would be unwise to take lightly the chosen expression of a man incarcerated for many years under fascism. But I worry a little about the baggage which the words may carry.

The aphorism, with its faint whiff of the self-consciously cerebral, has become something of a cliché and although a cliché is simply a truth which has gone stale in expression, it does seem to me to blur the everyday challenge of living an ordinary life without illusion whilst striving not to become disillusioned: to walk a sometimes uncertain path between Pollyanna and Eeyore rather than to be always able to select from clear cut and opposing choices. There is also, post Leni Riefenstahl, something a touch uncomfortable about the second clause. Neither an easy binary nor a leaning towards the grandiose offers a map for negotiating these difficult times and may blind us to the possibility of experimental acts of hope: the small, the simple and the kindly which alone have the capacity to sustain us and form the bedrock of peaceful resistance.

That we need to resist is beyond doubt. The division, uncertainty, anger and fear generated by the massive mishandling of Brexit is mounting daily. Living with such unstable conditions over the last three years is taking its toll on all of us. The harm that will be done by leaving the EU without a deal will hit the most vulnerable first and worst, but none of us, except the disaster capitalists and wealthy off-shorers, are ultimately going to escape. We have lost trust in our legislators and increasingly fear that there is no remedy. This is rich soil in which the least scrupulous will plant further oppression to increase the fear felt by so many of their fellow citizens.

In order to sustain others, we must find the best means of keeping ourselves well in mind, soul and body. For most of us, these best means will be the taking of small and personal actions which may seem puny in the face of the wretchedness we dread, but are nonetheless powerful in their potential for binding us in compassion and building community.

What these actions may be will differ according to our means and capacity, but they will – by the simple act of taking them – manifest something counter to the current sense of angry despair which is taking hold of us. Whatever reduces isolation and enables us to approach the possibilities of being creative are starting points.

Isolation quickly becomes destructive. Making contacts and friendships beyond our own bubbles may be unexpectedly enlarging and empowering, if initially difficult. Most of us, even if we have not experienced depression as a chronic condition, will at some time in our lives have known periods of low mood and deep anxiety which touch the hem of depression. Our own brains quickly conspire against our well-being by keeping us from the very contacts and experiences which could lift us. The effort made in going for even a short walk and connecting with the environment beyond our own walls, takes the rusty blade out of the hand of those who benefit from lowering us to a condition in which we have no resources left to push back against their agendas.

Creativity is similarly liberating. Planting a few seeds or bulbs, knitting for peace or for premature babies, sitting in a park with pencil and paper, learning a musical instrument, writing a story – there are so many roads to growing in self-confidence and refusing limits on imagination and possibility. They break the transfixing glare of malignant fatalism; they give us a toehold in better.

We are makers. We are made for each other and also for being a part of making. This will not always be clear nor can it be solely contained in neatly turned phrases. But the heart knows, even where the tongue may be uncertain, and together, mind and soul have the power to find a way that will turn aside what threatens to crush us. What is true is often humble and we have it on good authority that it will set us free.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.