Be Still, and Wait Without Hope

Ken McLeod’s reflection, Something From Nothing, offers so much, and it particularly spoke to me in the day after the shooting in Tucson of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, 6 of whom have died. I followed the story when it broke yesterday, mostly on Twitter, also through some blogs and Facebook pages (Sarah Palin’s included), and was struck, in others and in myself,  by how much we want to make meaning of the shooting in terms of our (my) own beliefs. (More here, here, here, here, here.) That is, how much I want to validate what I already believe — such as that no one should legally be able to buy a Glock or similar gun in this country, and that words contain their own violence, their own ammunition for destruction, so easily ignited — by seeing the event as proof that my beliefs are correct.

McLeod writes about the difference between belief and faith, as he sees it:

We have a choice between two very different ways to meet what arises in experience.

The first is to rely on explanation. We interpret our experiences in life according to a set of deeply held assumptions. We may or may not be conscious of the assumptions, but they are there. Even when we explore our experience, we are usually looking for evidence that supports or confirms them. These assumptions are never questioned. They are taken as fundamental. A self-reinforcing dynamic develops that results in a closed system in which everything is explained, the mystery of life is dismissed, new ideas, perspectives, or approaches to life cannot enter and certain questions can never be asked. This I call belief.

The other way is to open and be willing to receive, not control, whatever arises — that is, not only allow but embrace every sensation, feeling, and thought, everything we experience. In this approach, we allow our experience to challenge our assumptions. Here, there are no fundamental or eternal truths, and some things cannot be explained; they can only be experienced. This willingness to open to whatever arises internally or externally I call faith.

Even things that can be explained — psychologically, politically, rationally, by punditry, etc. — perhaps cannot fundamentally be understood, except by experience …

An article in The Economist about the shooting ends:

“If it emerges that the attacker is mentally ill, is a gun enthusiast, a religious fundamentalist, or has any kind of political affiliation, the story of the terrible event that took place in Tucson on January 8th will take on a different meaning. Even then any explanation offered will only make superficial sense of the shooting. The killer’s motives are likely to be pathetic and banal and, therefore, unfathomable.”

On the contrary, I think that pathetic and banal motives are quite fathomable to most of us, because they are often our motives.

McLeod”s essay quotes T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets several times. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry and psychology, including this stanza:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

For me, this speaks elegantly of the prosaic concept of confirmation bias: we hold a belief about what to hope for, what is lovable, and when we hope and love in this way we are motivated to act, narrowly, towards what we hope for, what seems lovable, and we see its fulfillment as confirmation of our correct beliefs. But when we can wait, when we can receive without controlling, without making meanings, explaining, finding a way to fit events and experience into our beliefs, then we can live in faith and possibility, where love and hope are available (“in the waiting”), and where we can perhaps fathom banal, pathetic, and even monstrously cruel motivations, because we have experience of them ourselves, and we can have empathy for “the other,” who is more like us than not.

McLeod’s final thought — “there is no enemy” — is something we could all ponder during dark days.


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