Hope in a Time of Sadness

We live in a time of sadness, even despair. There are so many things wrong with our world, so many heartbreaks and tragedies, happening now and soon to be happening. Has it always been thus? Perhaps so, but what distinguishes our world from earlier times is that because of instant media and communication we know all about it, everywhere all over the world, probably way more than our poor primate brains can tolerate. I think this is one of the many curses of social media—sometimes it brings us more sadness and doubt than we can handle.
Let’s be honest: there has always been sadness; uncertainty and tragedy is endemic to the human condition. We are evolved for it and adapted to it. For most of our history, humans were one dry season away from famine, one new pathogen away from plague, one military campaign away from war. Think even of recent history: two world wars, a world-wide economic depression, the ever-present looming threat of nuclear annihilation, and most recently, the Covid pestilence that killed millions. Right now, today, there is a shooting war in Ukraine that is causing unimaginable suffering. Yet the Ukrainians, against all odds, persist. We might even say they are hopeful. How can that be? I believe it is because they are together, they are close, they share their agonies. They don’t need Facebook to tell each other what to do and how to think. They might not have electricity or even water, but they are shoulder to shoulder, close by, with each other. I think there is a lesson there.
That’s my theme today: despair is global, but hope is local. Hope is face to face, body to body, friend to friend and family to family, unmediated by technology or clickbait. I can read that some young person has “gone viral” due so some video they posted, and now has two million followers. This is supposed to represent some modern-day version of success, I suppose. Those followers can even be monetized and make that young person rich. But what use, really, are those two million people? It’s a number on a screen, or perhaps a headline in a news story, but can that vast anonymous multitude help you through a hard time, or comfort you in the despair you feel when the laptop closes down and nighttime closes in? When it comes to hope, two or three people you can be in the same room with to share your burdens is more valuable than two million or twenty million followers. With two or three close friends or family members you can get through a war, survive a life-threatening illness, be on drugs and come off them—do things that we as human beings have the power to do as long as we are together.
I think this yearning for direct, face-to-face contact played into the resistance to lockdowns and masking during Covid. At first I found it hard to fathom why anyone would risk dire illness or death by not wearing a mask, but as I pondered it more in hindsight I wonder if the comfort of seeing a person’s face—especially someone you know—is more important emotionally than the abstract risk of possible contracting an illness. When you wear a mask you look anonymous and scary, and others with masks look that way to you. It can catapult you into a dark place reminiscent of a nightmare. You just want to see a smile somewhere. During Covid there was a lot of denial, too. I remember reading about a server in one restaurant in the Midwest who, when asked by a reporter about Covid, laughed and said, “What’s Covid?” Everyone around her, hearing her reply, laughed too. The comradery of companions can’t scientifically protect you from a virus, but it can keep hope alive—which for many people may be more important.
In a recent article about the epidemic of depression in teens, the authors cited research that clearly showed that “the drop in teen well-being coincided with the rise of smartphones,” and that “there is no question of an association between the use of social media and the dramatic increase in suicidal behavior and depressive mood.” There it is in black and white. In the old days, before smartphones and social media, teenagers would hang out and talk face to face or on a landline phone—fulfilling their critical need for social interaction and peer intimacy.
It’s clear from all of history that human beings, when pushed to the brink, have an enormous capacity to endure and to remain hopeful—but only if they are within reach of each other in real physical time and space. So I’m all for a campaign (yes, perhaps on social media) to encourage people to step away from their screens and look at each other again, and touch each other. It may be our greatest resource as we face the ever greater challenges to come.

4 thoughts on “Hope in a Time of Sadness

  1. Dear Lew,
    I always find your articles filled with wisdom and I was especially touched by today’s article. I had to have my beloved Sweet Pea, who had at 16 had heart failure and kidney failure, put down today. I could never have done it if it hadn’t been for a dear friend who arranged for a vet to come to my house and also came to be with me. I found your words to be very true.
    I miss our sittings at CCC
    Hope all is well with you and Amy,

  2. Lew,

    I’d been thinking recently that the last 40 years or so have been a period of great dehumanization on many different levels. Maybe the only work we can do is to contribute to the rehumanization—and it seems to be that the only way to go about this is, as you say, “within reach of each other in real physical time and space”…

  3. ATT’a old tag line “reach out and touch someone” captured this need in pre Me Too times. No doubt their ad teams psychographic consultants pinpointed it in key demographic targets.

    Robert Putnam identified the collapse of community in vivid relief in books like Bowling Alone and Better Together at the turn of the current millennium. Pre-pandemic, he charted the erosion of community in America from the introduction of tv, the decline of the front porch architecturally, declining participation in fraternal organizations, bowling leagues and the like. But it was a social science inquiry not a spiritual one.

    Lew’s point about information overload and ubiquity needs to include the increasing silos through which this 24 hour news cycle gets filtered. We learn less and less about more and more., heavily curated to keep the left and right riled up and the rest of us terrified.

    Hope was what was left in Pandora’s jar when all the evils of the world had flown out. Scholars argue its meaning. Is it our only bulwark against despair or the gods playing an ironic joke? Hope is the memory of the future , a chestnut even I have used , is as empty as the future and the past. And the present easily floods with separation and anxiety especially within the echo chambers of our screens and the rancor of our divisions.

    But it need not.

  4. Interested in aging insights. Life arises/passes gradually, with episodes, but mostly unnoticed aging until nowadays 🙂

    Life of vitality, superb health, few & temporary illnesses always recovered. Now expect same resiliency and perhaps… some of frustration mind is seeking for explanations outside are from the inside. Lowering energy responding as utter frustration with too much complexity, too many and growing to dos, etc. As meditator and now delving in nondual teachings, mind wavers with where is equanimity… and meanwhile techno pace/endless log in demands/updates etc alone are 1/2 time job and stressor! Perspective from sages always helpful [recent 50 HS reunion was a shocker — who are those wrinklys and where are MY peers! Oh, 2, but they’re botoxed,tucked, and dyed!]

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