Driving home the other day I tuned into the end of a radio program featuring various religious leaders discussing how they were helping their congregants cope with the myriad of social, physical, political and environmental stresses impinging on us all. A comment by a Rabbi caught my attention, “despair is not a strategy,” she remarked bluntly.

But we despair because we care, I thought. Yet, I know that true despair is a signal that our caring has reached a dead end. When despair is strong we stop believing in our ability to do anything productive. Despair is different that letting go. Letting go brings a sense of freedom. Despair is a prison from which we can see no exit. That is why it is not a strategy.

As I pulled into my driveway I wondered what the Dharma had to say about not just despair, but the opposite emotion, hope. And as usual, it’s complicated. In a recent “Ask the Teachers” column in Lions Roar magazine, (Aug 2020) Oren Jay Sofer relates that, “The Buddha’s teaching is fundamentally hopeful. It affirms that there is a reliable way to release ourselves from suffering, to protect other beings, mitigate harm, and build a better world.” Buddhism demonstrates that although we have little control over the external world we are, nonetheless, powerful beyond measure. This is extremely hopeful. What we do have power over is our mind. We can train ourselves to be present to our despair and hopelessness. Presence, not turning away, has the power to transform even the most terrifying emotion.

And yet hope is a trickster emotion. It can show up in the form of blind, happy optimism based simply on desire. When our hope is fueled by craving, despair is not too far behind. When we cling to the belief that we must have a particular outcome to be happy or even content, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Nothing brings lasting happiness, that is the basic lesson of anicca or impermanence. When we get what we want, and then it changes we are disappointed. We cannot rely on getting something to create a permanent sense of inner peace or happiness. When we hold our hope and optimism lightly, when we believe that we have the internal fortitude to face life’s vicissitudes, no matter what they are, only then can we find peace.

Acceptance of how things are unfolding in front of us does not mean accepting them passively. In the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, we are instructed do our best at whatever it is we are called upon to do. And then we let go of all attachment to the outcome. For that outcome is not under our control. What we choose to do, how we do it, and the attitude with which we meet each task is within our capabilities.

Ayya Yeshe, a Tibetan nun who founded a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping women and children in the worst slums in India, looks at hope as something different from desire. Hope is part of resilience, she says, “a necessary part of the courage, strength, and endurance needed to become bodhisattvas, to become enlightened, and to create a more just world.”

We are all called upon to rise to the challenges in our world. Despair is not an option. It is not a strategy. It may appear that the stakes are very high right now in terms of our environment, our democracy, the very humanity of our society. When despair arrives let it be a fleeting sensation that passes through your heart. Our mindfulness practice is here to teach us not to sink unskillfully under the weight of this emotion. Equanimity means resting our expectations lightly between what we want, and the way life is in this moment….and being ok with that. What we do have control over is how we respond.

Despair is Not a Strategy