I don't know about you, but I need to let go of exhaustion and worry about Covid. I am really done with Covid. That does not mean I am going to stop wearing a mask, washing my hands, being aware of distancing in public settings. It just means I am acutely aware of the limited mental and emotional resources I have due to two years of Covid. I am aware of the sadness, anxiety, and social consequences of Covid. I continue to limit some of my activities, keep my proof of vaccination with me, and double mask in some situations.
I am in a spiritual place where it is hard for me to even consider what I might learn from my life during Covid. Part of me doesn't care what I might learn, I just want move on. If I might discover, I've learned something, I am going to need some emotional space before even considering how to make any sense of this Covid time.
I know I sound like I am whining. But fortunately, Lea Morris reminded me as I listened to her song, "anything is possible." I don't want to focus on all the possible negatives during 2022. I want to hold onto hope, as irrational as some people might think this is right now. I need hope. I think we all need hope regardless of whether Covid wanes this year or not. So how do we keep the light of hope before us? How do offer hope to others?
In his book You are not so smart, David McRaney wrote: “The misconception [is]: If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can to escape it. The truth[is[: If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.
Before I share some of the research on this idea, I offer a warning—bad things were done to animals during this research. In 1965, a psychologist named Martin Seligman started shocking dogs. He was trying to expand on the research of Pavlov—the guy who could make dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring. Seligman wanted to head in the other direction, and when he rang his bell, instead of providing food, he zapped the dogs with electricity. To keep them still, he restrained them in a harness during the experiment. After they were conditioned, he put these dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. He figured if [he] rang the bell, [the dog] would hop over the fence to escape, but it didn’t. It just sat there and braced itself. They decided to try shocking the dog after the bell. The dog still sat there and took it. When they put a dog that had never been shocked before, or had previously been allowed to escape, in the box and zapped it—it jumped the fence. [McRaney asserts:] You are just like these dogs…The leading theory as to how such a strange behavior would evolve is that it often springs from all organisms’ desire to conserve resources. If you can’t escape a source of stress, it leads to more stress, and this feedback loop eventually triggers an autonomic shutdown. At its most extreme, you think if you keep struggling you might die. If you stop [struggling], there is a chance the bad thing will go away.”
Based on this research, we should all just give up, let go of hope whenever things get too hard. Hope is just irrational. So what about Victor Frankl, who in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that the way he stayed alive in a Nazi prison camp was to cling onto… “my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.” What about the Nicaraguan women fighting both against the Somoza government and against their culture, for a free and fair democracy, and to "abolish the detestable discrimination that [Nicaraguan] women have suffered with regard to men and establish economic, political and cultural equality”? They did so because they believed that change could happen. They continued the fight for years despite the lack of any discernible change in the Sandinista government and despite the entrenched machismo culture of their country. And what about Martin Luther King, Jr.? His family was shot at, his fellow African Americans were harassed and some of them murdered, yet he continued his fight for equal rights because he believed “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.”
Victor Frankl concluded, "It is a peculiarity of [humans] that [they[ can only live by looking to the future.” So, what about hope in the face of tragedy, disaster, pain, failure, or suffering? Some might call this irrational hope; Victor Frankl referred to this as “tragic optimism.” What is it that causes some people to embrace irrational hope?
Does “tragic optimism” have a place in Unitarian Universalism? “We live, we die, we laugh, we cry.” Each of us will experience tragedy, disaster, pain, failure, or suffering. What is your theology about suffering, tragedy, and failure? Do you try to remain detached, holding the belief that suffering is just part of the natural cycle of life? Or do you think that there is a reason for suffering and failure? What is it? Or do you choose to make meaning from suffering, from failure? Is suffering fertilizer for new personal growth? Do you believe that suffering and failure are random? Meaningless? Just things to be coped with and endured? What about suffering, tragedy, and failure as relationship builders? As community glue?
What about we rational Unitarian Universalists? We pride ourselves on our rationality as a denomination. Does this concept of irrational hope, of “tragic optimism” have a place in Unitarian Universalist theology? I think of our denomination’s ceaseless, decades long work for justice and equity, and of the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee all over the world in the face of so many humanitarian crises and environmental injustices, and I have to say “yes.” But what about on a personal level?
Years ago, I talked with a nurse at the burn unit at the University of Texas Medical Center in Galveston Texas. When a person comes in with third degree burns, a process ensues which entails extremely painful scraping of the burn tissue to allow new healthy tissue to form. This debriding occurs daily, and sometimes multiple times daily. Some of the adults on the unit were so frightened of this process that they would tense up for hours in fear of the inevitable excruciating pain. With their muscles rigidly tense for hours on end, the skin tissue healed with less flexibility, and the patients ended up with limited mobility after their treatment. These adults seemed to have learned helplessness very much like the dogs in Martin Seligman’s experiments. If they could just be still enough, long enough, maybe the pain would stop, and maybe they would survive.
David McRaney, remember him, if we stop struggling, may the problem will go away, does observe some hopeful coping strategies for the stress-related positive feedback loop that can lead to learned helplessness: “Every day you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate—your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money. So you stage micro-revolts. You customize your ring tone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.
Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back … and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable. You are not so smart, but you are smarter than dogs and rats. Don’t give in yet.”
McRaney affirms these micro-revolts. Micro-revolts are choices, even small choices, like Frankl clinging to his wife’s image, which became more present to him than the rising sun. Was his hope, based on his ability to imagine his wife’s presence, irrational? Perhaps, but Frankl survived in part due to his choice to embrace tragic optimism.
We each face situations, while they’re not generally not as severe as a concentration camp or as dangerous as a dictator, these situations can still feel life and death to us. And we cannot judge what feels like life or death to another person; what causes feelings of hopelessness to another. Whatever those experiences may be that cause you to flirt with hopelessness or helplessness, there are ways to fight back; there are, as McRaney says, “Choices, even small ones, [that] can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back … and learn to fail with pride.”
And what is “learning to fail with pride?” I think it is essentially different than “being proud that you did your best” or “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I think it speaks to those times we attempt something believing we have no hope of succeeding. I think of the women of Nicaragua, fighting systemic oppression for equality. Every day they woke up—if they were lucky, if they had survived to wake up—knowing today, they would fail, just like they failed yesterday, just like they would fail tomorrow. Day after day, month after month, year after year, they failed with pride. 1,000s died, failing with pride, knowing that someday, somehow, the granddaughters of their granddaughters might someday gain the equality they had failed to win for themselves. And they were proud.
Frankl wrote: “tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action…It must be kept in mind, however, that optimism is not anything to be commanded or ordered. One cannot even force oneself to be optimistic indiscriminately, against all odds, against all hope.” Frankl believes that finding meaning in life, or in specific areas of one’s life, is how one can hold onto hope.
American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote: “nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” Faith, hope, and love. This is an irrational trinity Unitarian Universalists can embrace. This is an irrational trinity “more luminous than the sun beginning to rise.”
I invite us Unitarian Universalists to hope for a better tomorrow, whether that hope seems rational or irrational. For “Hope is shimmering under sorrow. Hope is sparkles when tears are in your eyes. Hope is a beautiful thing, and beautiful things never die.”