Is hope the answer? A Chat with Marianne Elliott

What keeps you going when you have a crisis of hope?

You know the feeling.

The voice of doubt that creeps up when you start to think you can make a difference.

The worry that the work you’re doing to better yourself is silly and inconsequential.

The anger that flashes when you remember a time you thought your work mattered, but now you’re not so certain.

What do you do?

I’m not always the best at this. I’m a recovering cynic.

Well, if recovering alcoholics can turn to sponsors for help with their addiction, I can seek out teachers to help me with my hope deficit.

Of course, no one ever turns to a teacher until they desperately need one. For me, that time is now. It’s election season in the U.S.

You know how most people feel about football?  Lots of cheering and jumping off the sofa in excitement, only to take your head into your hands moments later when the other side makes a touchdown.

That’s how I feel pretty much all the time during the presidential race.

So I found myself a teacher.

Marianne Elliott, the zen peacekeeper.

Marianne is a human rights advocate, who, among other things, served in the United Nations mission in Afghanistan with a focus on human rights and gender issues. She’s written extensively about what that experience taught her aboutwanting to change the world. Oh — and she’s my yoga teacher.

Who better to ask about hope, right?

It turns out that hope might not be the answer.

Marianne and I chatted for an hour about personal empowerment, expectation and community. Shall we?

Brigitte: The reason I wanted to talk to you today is that I struggle very much with hope. Often, I allow myself to sink into feelings of futility. Coming from my experience in the U.S., I feel that our political system is so stacked against the individual. Yet, when I read your writing, I see a person who keeps going, even after witnessing much worse.

Marianne: First up, I am not sure how I feel about ‘hope’.

It has different meanings in different settings, but from a Buddhist perspective, it is the flip side of fear.

It’s not about the present; it is about some projected future. Some story we have about what might happen.

Brigitte: Oh, that is interesting.

Marianne: I’m much more interested in what is happening right now. And how I can participate in what is happening right now in a way that brings more comfort, safety, well-being to myself and others.

The impetus is to act, not to be attached to the outcome.

To act mindfully, yes, having given thoughtful consideration to possible consequences of our action. To choose wise and skillful action.

And having done so, to let go of any particular view of what the outcome should be.

Brigitte: That is such a difficult position, but I see echoes in Stephen Covey, whose philosophies I love. We must focus on our own circle of influence and learn to let go of what we cannot affect.

Marianne: And we influence so much more than we can ever imagine, but control so much less than we like to admit.

Our ‘circle of influence’ is so much broader than we often realise.

But our realm of control is really only our own thoughts and actions.

Mostly our own actions.

I think people despair when they focus their attention on the outcomes they cannot control. And feel inspired and empowered when they focus on the actions they can control and get glimpses of the wide ripples of influence their actions really have.

Brigitte: One of my personal missions is to bring my actions into alignment with my core principles, eliminating any dissonance. I like to think that personal change at this level has larger implications than my overall feeling that “I want to do good in the world.” And you seem to be saying that this is the only thing that is truly under our control.

Marianne: Of course it is the only thing under your control.

But your actions can be focused on issues that are global.

Brigitte: What do you mean by that?

Marianne: I mean you can control your actions, but that includes actions like: what you do and do not buy, writing books about human rights in Afghanistan, actively supporting the political campaign of a candidate who is standing on a platform that you believe has the potential to make the city/country/world safer.

All those are actions you take.

You take them, because you have given careful thought to the most skillful way to engage with the most pressing issues of our day, and because they align with your core values and your skills.

And then you practice releasing your grasp on any particular outcome of those actions.

Brigitte: Ah, yes, I see.

Marianne: I want to be clear that by saying “we can only control our own actions,” I’m not saying, “so don’t engage in the world” just work on your own inner development.

It’s about conscious activism, conscious change.

Brigitte: There seem to be two major barriers for most people taking action of this kind. First, there is so much complex, contradictory information coming our way. Which leads us to the second point: We become completely overwhelmed by all the issues. It can be hard to choose the causes you want to engage in and not throw up your hands entirely.

Marianne: I agree, but that’s the discipline and the practice.

Brigitte: Let me give a personal example.

When I worked in public affairs, I worked passionately on behalf of a corporate client. The issue we promoted was very complex, consumer groups opposed us, and yet the information the client provided led me to believe that they were “in the right.”

Near the end of the project, I learned that the client had left out key information. Part of my firm’s role in this (not mine, thankfully!) was to set up a (fake) consumer led organization to help our client — astroturfing.

Marianne: Where did that leave you? How did you feel at the end of it all?

Brigitte: I was so disgusted that I stopped following local politics altogether, and that’s the feeling of hopelessnes that I’m coming out of now — I was intimately involved, yet I lacked critical information. I saw firsthand how the company used its tremendous resources to mislead the public.

Marianne: I also see how corporations use their massively disproportionate resources to mislead the public, all the time. I have just been through an example here where a movie studio, very wealthy producer and our government all did a fantastic PR job of making NZ actors unions look like the bad guys. It broke my heart to see people I know and love getting sucked in by it.

I guess I saw my role as being to have those conversations — with love — with people who had been (in my view) misled and manipulated by the big players. To gently (and sometimes not so gently) share a different view of what was happening.

I believe in the value of each one of those conversations, even though I will never have the power or the resources of the big corporations.

Brigitte: What keeps you going?

Marianne: I believe very strongly in the value every single one of us brings to the conversation and the process of ‘politics.’

And even if we don’t change things, we live the life we feel good about.

We live and act and speak in accordance with our values.

No matter what the outcome.

Just because it’s the way to live that enables us to feel whole.

I act just because I believe it is the action that will lead to more well-being for more people. Even if I can see the odds are stacked against it.

Brigitte: Yes. When I stuck my head in the sand, I didn’t feel better about the situation.

Marianne: Because what is the alternative?

And it feels good.

It is its own reward.

Not in the sense of “I’m a good person.”

But in the sense of “I feel integrated, I feel whole. I feel like I act the way I think.

It is its own reward. 

I don’t know about you, but I was raised to believe: actions have consequences.

And that’s congruent with what Marianne is saying, right? But the subtext is: Those consequences are negative. We should fear those consequences. They might come back to haunt us.

Action has consequences alright. Empowerment.


There’s more to come! Tomorrow, I’ll post the rest of our chat, which covers some possible causes of our resistance to act, community and connection.