The Portland Phoenix

A View from the Hill: First, get off the sofa

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about hopelessness and despair recently.

Hopelessness against meaningful gun control and climate disaster and the economy and politics and justice.

Despair against all that and more.

I get it. I know I go there too often.

Obama told us to “HOPE,” but where did that get us? Exactly where do we find hope, and what does it look like?

“The real hope,” says Diego Arguedas Ortiz of the BBC, “coming from both the climate movement and psychology, is clear: within yourself.” It’s not on the TV. It’s not on the internet. It’s not in the newspapers. It’s inside and needs to be awakened.

Ortiz quotes teenage activist Greta Thunberg: “You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come. Then you are acting like spoiled irresponsible children. You don’t seem to understand that hope is something you have to earn.”

By getting off the sofa and doing something.

But when everything seems to be going to hell, that can be tough to do. Oh yeah, “spoiled irresponsible children.”

This may sound odd coming from a journalist, but the first things you might do after getting off the sofa is turn off the TV news, and tune out social media.

I know, I too watch the news, perhaps out of habit, perhaps for fear that I might miss out on some morsel of “good” news. But even those morsels aren’t helpful, Ortiz argues.

“Real, good, useful hope has nothing to do with positive news,” he writes. “Instead it is profoundly linked with action: both ours and that of others alongside us … There’s only one way to earn hope, and that’s rolling up your sleeves.”

Getting up off the sofa.

Writing in The Washington Post, opinion writer Amanda Ripley revealed that she and other journalists she knows have been actively avoiding the news for years.

“The problem,” she writes, “is that I wasn’t taking action.” She cites a Reuters Institute poll that found four of 10 Americans sometimes avoid the news, one of the highest rates in the world. 

These people avoid the news because “It leaves them feeling hopeless,” Ripley writes, summarizing the Reuters poll.

Hope without action is a distraction. It takes our eyes off the possible, so that when nothing happens we run into hope’s corollary, hopelessness. Which leads to despair. Which puts us back on the sofa. Watching the news. Despairing.

The five followers of this column will know that I am a champion of Krista Tippet’s “On Being” podcast. 

Tippet recently spent time with marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities.

Johnson is a realist. “We’re not going to be able to take some sort of time machine backwards to a perfectly pristine planet,” she acknowledges. 

But don’t despair. “While I’m not a fan of hope as a guiding principle, because it by definition assumes the outcome will be good, which I know is not a given,” Johnson says, “I am completely enamored with the amount of possibility that’s available to us.”

Think of a future, she suggests, where we get off the sofa, take action, and actually see results. It’s possible.

“We know how to do this stuff,” she says. “We just have to do it.”

And to think: “What if we get this right?”

That is a question that is full of hope and possibility. We’ll never know the answer unless we try. Imagine. Act.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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