I’ve spent much of the day musing on hope, and on perseverance — what it means to continue on in the face of adversity, in the face of hurt and pain. As so often happens for me, multiple seemingly-disconnected items came in over the transom throughout the day, each piquing a different part of my brain, each cross-pollinating to make me consider the question from a new angle, or with a new exigency.
Item 1: a tweet
This morning, a friend shared a screenshot of an excellent tweet by @CryptoNature:
I didn’t have any deep thoughts about the tweet (I certainly wasn’t planning on using it to write my first blog post in 18 months), but it definitely hit home. At both micro and macro levels, I have been struggling to keep my equilibrium, and if I take a good, hard look at myself I see myself letting go of more and more things. Mostly they’re little things, and generally letting go of them isn’t intrinsically bad, but there’s a troubling undercurrent to them.
For example, I’d had a garden last year, and in the winter had been excited about what I might plant and grow this summer. But then I had a tangle with Covid and then a few very busy weeks, and now somehow it’s late July and I’m still nursing along a few tomato starts on my porch that would struggle to give a good harvest even if I got them in the ground tomorrow. I might just let it go. And that’s fine in itself — I’m not relying on those plants for subsistence or anything — but if I pause and listen closely to my heart, I can hear a little voice saying “But what does it really matter anyway? Everything in the world is coming apart at the seams. Why bother.” Hopelessness: it’s so tempting.
Item 2: a book
A few years ago I’d shared an image on Facebook that attributed an inspirational quote to “The Talmud,” the same quote that I used in an ad hoc sermon at a Samhain ritual some years ago. The quote spoke to me, but I was troubled by the incredibly vague attribution, as were some of my Jewish friends. When the image rolled up in my Facebook memories last month, I did some Googling and found the likely source, Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro’s Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot. So I ordered it from the library, and just before lunch today I got a notification email that it had arrived at the library next door.
Here’s the page in question:
The first two stanzas of Rabbi Shapiro’s interpretation* of this portion are the bits that I had seen before, and the ones that speak most strongly to me. Today, they resounded even more strongly with @CryptoNature’s tweet: “do not be seduced by the nihilism that comes with overwhelming trouble,” Rabbis Shapiro and Tarfon seem to say, “but bend yourself to the task at hand.” The next stanza continues The CryptoNaturalist’s theme: effort itself is good fortune. In attending to the needs of the present, we prepare the ground of our hope and, perhaps, happiness.
*And it is an interpretation. Shapiro tells us in his introduction, “it is an interpretive reading. My goal is not to translate Hebrew and Aramaic into English, but to make plain the message of Avot as I understand it.”
Item 3: a friend
Finally, tonight, after mulling these thoughts of hope and hopelessness and of preparing the seed of hopeful possibility, I got a message from a friend. It’s not my place to discuss their troubles in public, but suffice it to say that they were despairing, and reasonably, over a terribly hard situation that had arisen in their life.
I can’t fix their problem. I can’t affect it materially. I’m not even sure I can give terribly good advice on it, though I did my best when asked. But what I can do, and what I was better prepared to do by the fortunes of the day, is to listen sincerely, to affirm their pain, and to offer to hold the light of hope for them until they are able to take it back up themself.
I prayed on it tonight, asked Brigid to bring her fire close to my friend and their family, that she be not only a healing balm of warmth, but also a shield of brilliant flame to hold the world at bay. And when I asked whether the Lady of Fire had any blessings or wisdom, she responded clearly: “this is a low point, a nadir, but the roots they have cultivated are strong and steadying.”
My friend is a real one, a person who tirelessly works for the benefit of others, giving direct aid that lays the groundwork for change and fruition. Though all seems hopeless now, I’ve watched them preparing the ground of hope for the many years I’ve known them, and I feel certain that their effort is sure to bring forth the sweet and hard-won fruit of hope and happiness. Bitheadh e mar sin.