As we head into our third … or is it our fourth? … week of pandemic social distancing, our local Big Stone Arts Council is challenging us to promote something so severely needed throughout our souls and communities: Hope. A church in town has those four letters prominently displayed in windows facing our main street of commerce.
Unfortunately, for some, fear has become an overriding mental hurdle that seemingly overshadows a sense of hope. Some cannot pull themselves away from the constant news and propaganda channels, hanging onto numbers, breakouts and disgruntlements of the political arena. Some feel locked in with few, if any, avenues of escape either physically or mentally. Some are virtually paralyzed by fear … that they might contact the coronavirus and die; that life as they knew it will never be the same; that there are family members they’ll never hug or touch again; that financial ruin and joblessness awaits each and every one of us, and perhaps even for mankind, world-wide.
All are valid concerns, and I have them as well. Yet I’m also feeling hopeful, and much of that hope has sprung from our artist community. Poets are posting themselves reading poetry. Painters are displaying some of their works since being sequestered. Many musicians are posting videos to cheer us up daily with free, online songs and music concerts. Away from the worldly touch provided by artists via social media, Spring is coming to life outside our windows and walls. That outside world is still vivid, valid and real, or as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Feathers and perches! Songs without words! Out past our windows a Wood Duck drake and hen returns to the grove. Goldfinches appear at the feeders in full mating plumage. Swans and geese continue to fly over, and out beyond us are reported sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes. A single Pasque Flower was seen sprouting on a nearby hill. Ah, yes, beyond fear is a world of life continuing. A natural world showing us hope!
Fear and hope are both rather basic to our human spirit. And, yes, it’s natural to feel fear in such a time of uncertainty. Hopelessness didn’t limit the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who penned a book after he was exiled in the early 1960s during the devastating war in his native Vietnam called “The Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” It’s theme? Hope.
Thich Nhat Hahn, known affectionately to his followers as “Tay,” led a remarkable life in exile. Shortly after leaving his birth country Tay taught Comparative Religion at Princeton University in 1961, then spent the following year teaching and researching Buddhism at Columbia University before heading to Paris. Eventually he formed the first Buddhist temple in the “Western World” in the Bordeaux region of France he called Plum Village, which still exists. Teachings continue today during this worldwide pandemic via social media, and, yes, “hope” is still the basic message.
Tay is also an artist, and was once a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King was among his close friends. His life was full of both immense challenge and incredible success, surrounding his visions of peace and hope, starting in his youth at 16 entering the monastery to his eventual return after 39 years of exile to Vietnam following a massive stroke in 2014. And, yes, he was intimately aware of the perils of politics. “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us,” he wrote.
Yet, there was always that four letter word. “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Our worldwide human society is now in uncertain times. We are both mandated and encouraged to practice social distancing in hopes of “lowering the curve” on a pandemic that may cost hundred of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone. We have been asked to remain homebound with prospects of having a completely different “normal” if and when the Covid-19 crisis is abated and/or controlled. We face this uncertainty with fear, for we have no model to look toward in searching for a future. Right now hope is a thread we must grasp.
Said Tay: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”
Here are a few more thoughts from Thich Nhat Hahn as we edge along in our quest for a hopeful future:
“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”
“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”
“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”
Here on our little piece of the prairie we grasp threads of hope within our well of fear. We often find it in the little things. Prairie Smoke poking up through gray winter fallow in our small native prairie garden. Those Wood Ducks, that even just days before I’d given up hope of seeing in our woods this year, are seen perching on a heavy branch. Even two promising buds on the mum plant on the kitchen window sill. Waking each morning knowing we here for one another for another day.
“Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thanks, Tay, I needed that. So now we spend unprecedented time with our families, sequestered in homes some of us return to only to escape corporatism. We are becoming acquainted with our children, schooling them in ways we hadn’t imagined, and rediscovering the whys and ways of our closest relationships. We are not spending what is really unnecessary cash in bars and restaurants. And collectively, worldwide, we are rarely driving anywhere so we’re giving the planet a bit of healing time. And, more than all of the above, we are finding within ourselves a stout resilience and a real sense of compassion and care. Adding hope to those simple traits are perhaps our “lotuses in this sea of fire.”