Hope In Desperate Times (first published by Touchstone magazine, March 2019)
As we approach the third decade of this century, I am very much aware that we are living in times of great change. This is both an exciting and scary time to be alive as we live in a state of flux, with the future of humanity and the planet itself very much at stake. Our future and that of the planet depends on how we collectively deal with the challenges facing us now and in the decades ahead. Most of us are very much aware of the issues of climate change, population growth, ecological crises, globalisation and the expansion of consumerism across the globe. Unless you purposely avoid the news it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the increasingly fraught warnings about what will happen if humanity fails to take the right actions.
I feel a sense of anxiety about our collective plight and of my personal as well as our species’ failure to do enough to turn things around, up to this point in time. I’ve noticed this unease in the wider world around me, with a variety of reactions, ranging from ignoring it, increased nihilism (let’s party on and let the world burn!), despair, frustration and anger, to determination to do better. It seems to me as if humanity is finally going through the growing pains of an en-masse teenage existential crisis. It would be better for us all if this had happened decades ago, but humanity rarely deals effectively with problems until the wolf is literally at the door.
Back in the 1980s, as a teenager, I became aware of enviromentalism, the increasing activity of Greenpeace and the beginnings of a more global economy which was underpinned by the rapid growth of electronic technology. At the time there were already dire predictions about the problems facing the planet, which I took seriously but many did not. Even to people like myself, the manifestation of these environmental problems looked to be unfolding slowly and there was tremendous hope that society all over the globe would rise to these challenges before they became serious. Like many of my friends I made great efforts to be ‘green’, to consume less, recycle, plant trees and I became involved in activism for Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth and the anti-consumer McLibel campaign. I felt that I was doing my bit for a better world and this interest fed directly into my spiritual life and my eventual discovery of Druidry, as the path that best embodied my feelings about how to live. Over time I’ve continued to make a personal effort, as well as supporting organisations fighting bigger battles, and I’ve tried to remain hopeful about our future.
However, decades later, approaching the age of 50, I often find myself challenged and struggling to retain the sense of hope that filled my younger days. Having spoken about this with other druids, friends and spiritual people of various faiths I realize that I am far from alone in this sense of apprehension. Clearly my generation and the ones before it have failed to ‘step up to the plate’ and we have a long way to go to put things right. Sometimes hope appears to be failing me, when I am assaulted by the latest barrage of bad news, but it is then that I have to remind myself that all is not lost. While there are possibilities there is always hope and I am reminded about words from the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids winter solstice ceremony:
‘The oak is bare, the earth is cold, the sky is black – from where could hope arise? ...My eyes are wet with tears of dreams lost to the dark.’
These words are a comfort to me as I remember that every year since life first began, all life on this planet has to confront difficulty. Every living thing (sentient or not) faces the possibility of dying; there is death around us and all the challenges that come with the harshest months of the seasons. In truth, challenges can present themselves at any time, but it is in the darkness of winter that we feel that vulnerability most and are more aware of the fragility in ourselves and the world around us. Despite this, life continues onwards in a never-ending cycle, regardless of losses and failures, hope is renewed, life continues to grow, change and adapt, and obstacles are overcome.
In our mythology we can draw inspiration from tales such as the birth of Taliesin or that of Lugh. In a certain sense Taliesin’s story can be viewed as one of horror: Gwion Bach suffers a terrible ordeal in his pursuit by Cerridwen. Cerridwen herself is bereft over the loss of the gift of inspiration for her blighted son Avagddu, who himself could not have been overly pleased. Having endured this and being born again, Taliesin still has to endure a gruesome journey on the sea, inside the darkness of a leather bag. Against all odds, he survives to become the greatest of Welsh poets – proof indeed that a seemingly hopeless situation can be turned around.
Likewise, the infant Lugh, grandson of the terrible Fomorian leader Balor, is born despite the attempts of his evil grandfather to prevent his own prophesized death. Like Taliesin, the infant Lugh escapes death and grows up to join the Tuatha Dé Danann. After terrible losses, including Nuada their king, the Tuatha Dé Danann are ultimately victorious at the 2nd battle of Mag Tuireadh after Lugh slays Balor with a sling-stone. Again, from a perilous start, the prophecy of Lugh is fulfilled against a backdrop of desperate circumstances. Like our ancestors of the past, we can take comfort in these stories of triumph over adversity – themes that continue to play out in both history and modern mythology, such as the defeat of the Nazis or in fiction such as The Lord Of The Rings or the Star Wars saga.
Yes, we live in a very challenging time, it is getting late in the day to address the multitude of difficulties ahead. Yes, humanity is divided and has not yet found a unified approach to protecting life on our planet. No, it is not hopeless. Despite setbacks, disappointments and failures we are still here, we now know that we have all the means necessary to transform our future for the better and there is still time to make these changes. Both as individuals and collectively, humans will continue to have bad days, but that does not mean that we should give up. Even in the darkest of hours and the most desperate of times, there is always hope and we must always keep that flame alive inside us.