Today I offered to make some cinnamon brioche for the 8 bubble-buddies I’m self isolating with (sorry, on retreat with) for our breakfast tomorrow morning. I mixed the milk, butter, yeast, eggs, sugar and flour, and then spent the next 20 minutes watching the dough thinking, “I hope it rises”. Their breakfast, and more crucially my reputation was at stake!
I reflected on how often hope is beside me in the kitchen. Hope that the food delivery arrives, hope that I don’t drop a pan of soup or burn the quinoa, hope that the dishes taste yum and are ready on time. The more significant the situation, the more tightly my fingers are crossed.
I know that a lot of us have our fingers crossed very tightly right now, which got me thinking about hope. Hope doesn’t make it on to the list of the Buddha’s 10 Perfections, or the 7 Factors of Awakening, and it’s not a stage on the 8-Fold Path. From a Buddhist point of view, hope seems more akin to desire. Like a unsubstantiated wish, we can hope and pray for a good outcome all we like, but wishing doth butter no parsnips! Ordinary hope, like a fear that the brioche dough won’t rise, is also a subtle form of suffering.
Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.” Is there a wise way to harness hope?
I feel that much of the time, the hoping I do in the kitchen does appear to have some inherent wisdom. I’m not just chucking random ingredients into a bowl and ‘hoping’ for brioche. I hope the brioche dough will rise, and my hope is based on all the times that I’ve made brioche this way in the past and all the bakers over the centuries who have made brioche this way, confirming the recipe is sound. My experience of what happens when you add yeast to warm milk gives me hope. Hope, although focused on the future, is also grounded in the past; in memory and in facts.
Sometimes though, we can truly be in a brand new situation for which there is no reference. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that the right now, this global pandemic, is one of those situations.
Even in these unprecedented times, we can reflect on the past and conclude that good, or even wildly magnificent outcomes, are possible. From a Buddhist perspective it’s precisely because everything is impermanent that there is hope. Roshi Joan Halifax says “It’s when we realise we don’t know what will happen that this kind of hope comes alive; in that spaciousness of uncertainty is the very space we need to act.” And research shows us that in the aftermath of the most disruptive and challenging disasters throughout human history, including the Blitz, and more recently Hurricane Katrina, the majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic and creative.
And taking action is the key point here (even if today the action we all need to take is ‘stay home’.) The American author & journalist Rebecca Solnit wrote a wonderfully inspiring book titled Hope In The Dark back in 2003, and emphasises the same point:
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same.
Not knowing how breakfast will turn out, we make our best effort based on available knowledge and experience.
Let’s not despair. Apathy is not an enlightened path.
Thanks for reading, I do hope you are well in your bubbles.