18 April 2015. Hope resides in mending the human heart and mind.

I believe hope arises when we accept reality and despair mounts when we deny reality. Facing reality is a process that takes time and involves working through often-painful feelings. These feelings centrally include mourning, especially mourning the cherished illusory beliefs that help us deny reality.



Hope resides in mending the human heart and mind

Workshop with Sally Weintrobe

18th April 2015

Folk House, Bristol

I believe hope arises when we accept reality and despair mounts when we deny reality. Facing reality is a process that takes time and involves working through often-painful feelings. These feelings centrally include mourning, especially mourning the cherished illusory beliefs that help us deny reality. Hope resides in a steadfast trusted belief that we will be true to wanting to stay in touch with reality, even if at times denial and illusion win out and/or reality feels too hard to bear. When we do succeed in facing reality, hope is replenished.

Over the past weeks I have at times felt without hope that we will rise to the climate crisis. I will describe the process of emotional working through, as best as I can understand it, that I believe led me to regain my sense of hope.

The background is we had several invitations to dinner. At each gathering, the same two topics dominated the conversation: what to vote in the forthcoming general election and where people were flying to for their holidays. We ate fine food, much of it out of season and clearly flown in with a high carbon price tag.

At one of these meals a woman spoke in glowing terms of the move to solar power and the energy efficiency now achieved with new cars (note added later – this was before the VW scandal). The future of the environment seemed bright in her eyes. She said the bottom line was people are not prepared to give anything up and any carbon reduction policies needed to start from recognizing that. I argued back that her position was based on an unsustainable global project begun 40 years ago, one that falsely promised people they could have whatever they wanted without cost or damage. She said she saw the logic of what I was saying, but I was left feeling it would not make much difference to how she saw things, especially her entitlements. This is because she seemed very enamoured of quick fix solutions that would magically remove all difficulties and let us continue to have all the products we desire.

At one point during another dinner a few days later, I said we had recently lit a bonfire. A man said, in an amused way, “what about the carbon, Sally?” He knows I struggle to keep my personal emissions down. He had just been talking of plans to fly long distance on holiday. I found myself boiling over inside and after a time, not able to move on, I said I was feeling angry and upset. How come I was required to account for my emissions, even small ones, and not him? I said I never challenged him on his personal carbon choices and I felt he’d put me under a spotlight he avoided. He said yes indeed, but he was teasing me. He conveyed he thought I’d lost my sense of humour. He said I knew of old that he debunked people, including himself. This is true and something I value in him, but I felt his teasing came from a place embedded in cultural complacency and disavowal about the seriousness of climate change.

I asked him what he thought about the current climate situation. He thought it was hopeless. He had decided not to take any personal steps to reduce emissions and he did feel bad thinking about his children’s future. He admired me for what I was doing and my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. He said perhaps he was in disavowal, but he would be carrying on with life as usual. He said when he campaigned politically in the old days he could not understand how people around him were so unmoved by issues. He said perhaps I was suffering from major disappointment that people were not changing. He asked could we continue the conversation further another time? Maybe I could face my disappointment more and maybe he could become more engaged about climate change? He had just started reading Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change, This Changes Everything.

This conversation helped me, as I think he was spot on about the unacknowledged force of my disappointment. It had been slowly building up as a result of many interchanges with different people. I had hoped they would step up more, fight for change; be more reflective and responsible about their carbon choices and the actions they could take to combat climate change. I realized part of my disappointment was in relation to all the work done to combat climate change by scientists, activists, NGOs, academics: would it all count for anything? Suddenly I felt without hope that it would.

Facing my disappointment brought huge sadness. Was I mourning an illusion that people could change for the better, had my hopes for change been Pollyannaish, or was I simply more emotionally in touch with my feelings about our culture of uncare?[i] I did not know. But with my anger having abated and given way to sadness and grieving, my sense of hope began to resurface.

I found myself feeling more open to what will happen for better or worse and more aware I do not know what will happen. I felt a new freedom to talk about climate change in social situations and more open to people’s views, particularly views I disagree with. My keen sense of disappointment and the grieving and sense of newness and strangeness this led to, brought an outlook I could not have predicted. I felt more resigned, more open to what will happen, more in a position of not knowing what will happen, for better or worse.

Hope comes with accepting reality and mourning illusion. In this process hope itself becomes altered so that the sense of hope one is left with is of a different kind. One cannot predict the shape it will take.

In his great speech, Martin Luther King talked of turning a mountain of despair into a small stone of hope. This image captures so well the changed state I found myself in. With my anger, frustration and then despair having given way to grief, my sense of hope, and I, felt harder and flintier, more stone like, but in a good and serviceable way. My will felt strengthened.

One takes personal risks in facing reality and mourning illusion in a feeling way. One does not know how it will affect one and there can be unwanted consequences. In this case, paradoxically, through facing my bitter disappointment and allowing myself to come up against the culture of certain of my social groups in a more feeling way, I emerged with renewed hope. I see hope not as something lodged with or dependent solely on a particular outcome but as what provides strength to struggle and to try to act on the side of life no matter what the outcome. Hope guides our steps away from disavowal, which can never be the starting point for genuine repair or good action.

Hope and disavowal

Wide scale culturally driven disavowal currently impedes us from facing three grim realities:

  1. How truly little time is now left to get emissions down because of our failure to act. Disavowal led to this situation and now it kills our awareness of it.
  1. Large corporations are currently making a bid for even greater untrammeled power to plunder the earth and wreck the stability of our planetary systems. Disavowal leads us tragically to underestimate the destructive results of the large corporations gaining ever more power over governments. In a state of disavowal we, and perhaps our politicians, feel each small capitulation does not matter that much. On the contrary, each capitulation matters a great deal.
  1. The culture of uncare we live in has had devastating effects on our minds. My female friend sees a rosy idealized future for the climate now that we have cheap solar, while arguing that people are entitled to idealized conditions and are incapable of giving anything up by nature. She evades the problem that climate instability results from a model of perpetual growth by believing all problems will somehow be fixed by technology. I suggest she is not just in general disavowal, but in a specific new form of disavowal, one tailor made to suit the needs of the global economy and actively promoted by our culture. This form of disavowal keeps her consuming while simultaneously assuaging her anxiety, guilt and sense of responsibility with cover stories and quick fixes. I think our culture insidiously works on us all to promote this form of disavowal and we are not sufficiently aware of its effects.

The male friend who quipped “What about the carbon?” initially reacted, after I got upset and angry with him, by saying, “But, look, I’m not judging you. Not at all. It’s the bankers I reserve my judgment for!” But is this perhaps a deflection, an all too easy way for him not to look inwards at his own connivance with the culture of uncare? Is it easier to put the spotlight first on someone he knows who is trying to reduce her emissions, and secondly on the greedy bankers, than to face the implications of his own carbon footprint in a feeling way? I too have blamed the bankers at times when I have not wanted to know just how caught up I am with my consumer culture and all the delights and manic excitements it offers. The bankers provide such a good home for our own disowned avarice as they have indeed behaved in avaricious ways.

My title is “hope resides in mending our hearts and minds”. I think when I feel without hope as I have done in the last weeks I am in a state Hanna Segal[ii] described:

“.. when the world within us is destroyed, when it is dead and loveless, when our loved ones are in fragments, and we ourselves in helpless despair”.

She carries on,

“It is then that we must recreate our world anew, reassemble the pieces, infuse life into dead fragments, recreate life.”

Recreating my inner world and with it my sense of hope involved mourning illusion and the ongoing struggle to accept reality. But my central argument is that the issue is not simply one of our working through issues of hope and despair as individuals, but also one of understanding how and why a culture of uncare operates and what specific effects it aims to have on our minds. It necessarily attacks hope because it aims to attack our capacity to care and to face reality. It breeds disavowal’s false easy hope, that only increases underlying pessimism and despair.

Daniel Barenboim said, talking about the situation in Gaza,

We don’t have the luxury to bathe in pessimism. We really dont. It only makes it worse. We have to continue and when we dont believe we have to make believe and eventually we can make way”.[iii]

I think his point is that hope is not just fed by facing reality but by keeping faith we can relate to something good inside us and outside us. This sustains our will to face reality. Keeping faith is hard, ongoing, felt work.


[i] See Weintrobe (2014) The culture of uncare. Bob Gosling Memorial Lecture, Bridge Foundation for Psychotherapy and the Arts.

[ii] Segal, H. (1987). Silence is the Real Crime. Int. Rev. Psycho-Anal., 14:3-12

[iii] Daniel Barenboim on BBC2’s Newsnight 18.8.14.