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Wheatley: No Hope No Fear

From: Wheatley, Margaret J.. Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

No Hope No Fear

I have been encouraging people to explore the place beyond hope and fear for more than two decades. (Seems to be what I most need to learn.) Because I always bring it up to audiences, I’ve learned that it’s the hottest hot button among us activists. Hope is the bedrock motivator for our work. It doesn’t matter how many inspiring quotes from heroic people I present, or the logic behind the advice to abandon hope. My experience is that we think that the opposite of hope is despair, and because we so desperately want to be of service and maintain our strength and energy, we do everything we can to avoid falling into the abyss of despair. We cling to hope to prevent the fall.

This is a place I am intimately familiar with—the abyss of despair. Sometimes I notice early on that I’m walking toward that edge and can keep myself from getting any closer. Other times, when I’m overcome by bad news from the world or from a friend, quite suddenly I notice that my toes already are curled over the edge. I feel trapped with nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. No exit. I just want to scream my outrage into the black silence.

I have learned from these frequent times at the edge that I don’t need to cheer myself up or inflate myself with optimism and resolve. I don’t need to ignore my emotions and just get back to work. I need to accept where I am and just stay there for a while. I’m not going to jump and I’m not going to turn away. I’m going to find my ground right here, staring into this darkness. And slowly, without hope, without fear, clarity begins to dawn. This is what is. I know who I aspire to be. I know what to do. Let’s get on with doing what I can, where I am, with those who are with me.

Long ago I realized that efforts to stay hopeful are a waste of time and energy. Hope is not an innocent motivator. It’s bipolar: fear is its other nature. Every time we get lifted up by a hoped-for outcome, we get dragged down when we don’t succeed. Hope then fear. The endless cycle.

Hope is a filter we willingly place on reality. Instead of noticing what is, we obscure it with our needs and dreams, with our egos. Sometimes we do things because that’s the best action possible; sometimes we do things so people will notice us. “Don’t expect applause,” my teacher told me. When I don’t, I notice the world beyond what I want it to be, free of me, free of hope and fear.

When we move beyond the filters of what we hope for, we can see what needs to be done—right action—and act appropriately. We can act with compassion and insight.

Think about your personal experiences with the place beyond hope and fear. I’m certain there’ve been many times when you found yourself stepping forward without hesitation. Something in the situation called you into spontaneous action without calculating costs and benefits. This is the definition of courage—actions that spring from an open heart without premeditation. (The word courage comes from the old French word for “heart.”) Sometimes these spontaneous actions are good; sometimes they get us into a lot of trouble; sometimes people lose their lives rushing in to save others. What’s important to notice in your experience is how it felt to be fearless. You were also hopeless. You did what had to be done as it appeared in that moment. You weren’t thinking of outcomes, and you had more than enough energy.

There are many other circumstances when you may have experienced the place beyond hope and fear. I’ve witnessed it in leaders who have struggled and struggled to please a boss, a board, a politician. At some point, it becomes obvious that there’s no way they will get approval and/or funding for the outcomes they need. The opposition will not yield. At this point, they give up hope and just do the work.

There was one year when Angela Blanchard was hit with a barrage of attacks from external critics, people who questioned (and even denied) everything her organization had accomplished, who slandered her personally—it was a very ugly year. This sent her into depression and withdrawal. From that dark night, Angela arose with clarity and renewed energy. Their attacks didn’t matter. She knew Neighborhood Centers Inc. was doing the right work. Even if the attacks took hold and they lost funding, they were going to continue as before. She coined their mantra: “We do good work because we do good work.”

That’s the place beyond hope and fear. And you already know this place.

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out. Václav Havel, Czech leader