Did you notice that I changed the tagline on my website to “Here to get your hopes up”? It used to say “Pleasure & Purpose. Aligned,” which is a motto I still like, but the new sentiment has definitely taken precedence. I’ve given some talks lately in which hope and fear figure prominently. My interest is in getting people to explore the embedded obstacles in their own minds to embracing risk in the service of vision. And each time I engage this topic, I notice how great the need is.
Recently, I heard several arts leaders describe their experience in presenting controversial art. Two were from small towns: one decided not to show a piece that featured nudity, fearing disapproval. The other tried to insulate visitors from happening onto challenging work and taking their shock out on the organization; in the event, though, no one got upset. The third was a panel of officials from a major institution. They described the mutlifaceted campaign they’d created to prepare supporters and visitors for challenging material, undertaken to protect the institution from anticipated reaction. Would the program lose them donors? Would certain community members boycott, agitate, even disrupt? They pulled out the stops, adding security measures; preparing meaty educational materials; taking pains to frame the program as congruent with the institution’s ongoing aims; organizing house parties; raising new funds for an impressive array of ancillary talks and forums. The anticipated reaction didn’t arise, and they put this down to their extensive preventive measures.
I’ve been privy to many such cases. Two things often emerge. First, significantly heightened efforts to build community relationship generally pay off: more donations, more members, more goodwill, more engagement with the life of the institution—more or less the opposite of what was feared. Second, when fears don’t materialize—when major, disruptive reaction doesn’t arise—institution leaders are seldom moved to interrogate the intensity of their original anxiety.
Yes, there are reactionary forces, and of course, they sometimes seize on artworks as flashpoints for their reaction. But much more often, the fear of denunciation is most vivid in the minds of those planning to present controversial material; actual experience seldom comes close. That makes censorship our most decentralized public-policy sphere: certain that they are about to be attacked for excess freedom of expression, many people censor themselves preemptively.
I applaud when institutions take both creative risks and real steps to connect with people beyond their usual circles, even when their initial impulse is defensive. What they learn is transferable to the rest of their work, but that realization doesn’t always dawn. In the Q&A period, I asked panelists how they thought it might change their institution if they carried out a comparable level of outreach and relationship-building with every program. “If money were no object,” I added, knowing that would entail an expense their existing budget couldn’t cover.
None of the panelists were willing to engage my question. Despite my stipulation, they said they couldn’t afford it, that it wouldn’t be appropriate to every program, that it would over-tax staff. They refused to even imagine it.
That failure of social imagination reveals the way fear leads to suppression of both desire and a sense of possibility, which leads to missing opportunities that offer great positive potential. The institution leaders who actualize a year-round dialogue with the community, maintaining the same intensity and conviction even when controversy isn’t looming, are likely to find resources to support those efforts. But a disinclination to get their hopes up may keep them from discovering that.
Here’s an excerpt from the talk I gave later that day:
Let’s break it down. “I don’t want to get my hopes up.” I hear this sentence or some variation on it a lot from arts advocates, and people involved in many other types of transformative work. I find it sad for three main reasons:
First, those who feel this way have allocated a big piece of mental real estate to fear of disappointment. Ironically, they are so afraid of disappointment that they pre-disappoint themselves, paying the penalty without ever having taken a chance at the prize. Look how much advocacy starts with the notion that the best we can hope for is not to be cut too much. Of course, it hurts to be disappointed. But I think it hurts much more to shut your hopes down as a way to avoid that fate. Wanting to protect your heart, you end up hardening it.
Second, those who feel this way have internalized a deeply disempowering message. Without intending it—perhaps without even knowing it—they are carrying water for the powerful, short-sighted minority in our society who want the rest of us to get out of the way so they can continue shaping things to their own specifications. To be controlled by a fear of disappointment is to believe, in some deep place, that even though we greatly outnumber those who benefit from the status quo, we are powerless.
Third, hopes and expectations aren’t synonymous. My personal spiritual practice is to hold desire without expectation. I want a lot: love, health, the experience of beauty, the ability to make meaning, community, planetary healing—it’s a long list, I admit. The way I see it, to be alive is to desire. If I stop wanting to take the next breath, my life ends. If we subside into resignation, ceasing to allow ourselves to want whatever nourishes our collective well-being, we cede the territory of desire to people who are greedy for themselves alone, and community ends.
Sometimes people tell me that making so much of hope and desire is un-Buddhist. I plead guilty, since I am not a Buddhist. But even my slight acquaintance with that spiritual path tells me there is acceptance of the fact that desire is intrinsic to the human subject. The suffering comes with attachment, with the belief that if you don’t attain the object of your desires, your life will be less; and the belief that if you do, all will be well. They say you can make an object of anything—true, obviously—but to me, desire has power that shouldn’t be wasted on mere material. Instead of wanting the biggest house or the fastest car, what I want isn’t about comparisons, but about congruence, connection, beauty, and meaning.
Whether it’s in the political realm, where I want strong democracy, human rights, planetary healing, and vibrant community; in the realm of personal ambition, where I want my work to resonate and influence our collective conversation and action; or in the most intimate realm, where I want be know and be known, to give and receive love that is nourished every day—I haven’t the slightest idea whether my hopes will be realized. Who knows what will be? But as I said in my talk:
There is one thing I am absolutely sure of when it comes to future: people who don’t get their hopes up will never see their hopes realized. Nothing can be created that has not first been imagined.
I am far more willing to risk the pain of not getting what I want than to murder desire or allow fear of disappointment to resign me to a diminished imagination.
So, I am: Here to get your hopes up.
With all this talk of desire, I owe you a seriously sexy song—or two: here’s Cat Power’s version of, “Wild Is The Wind”; originally written for a 1957 film of the same name; and Nick Cave, a genius of longing, doing “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”
There’s a man who spoke wonders though I’ve never met him
He said, “He who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in”
I think of you in motion and just how close you are getting
And how every little thing anticipates you
All down my veins my heart-strings call
Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?