Listening to the newly-released tapes of Donald Trump shaking down Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, I recalled this quote from Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), given after she voted to acquit Trump for crimes for which he was obviously and provably guilty:
“I believe that the president has learned from this case. The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson…He was impeached. And there has been criticism by both Republican and Democratic senators of his call. I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.”
She was hopeful for change, despite Trump continuing to call his Ukraine call “perfect.” She was hopeful for contrition, even when it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that Trump had learned and would learn nothing except that he could probably get away with anything.
From what facts did Collins weave her statement of hopefulness? What patterns had she seen in Trump that demonstrated he would humbly change his ways? The answer, of course, is none.
You could call her an opportunistic politician. You could call her naïve. You could call her hopeful. I call her a hopeful fool.
Far from being harmless, Collins’ passive statement arguably laid the groundwork that emboldened Trump to attempt to overturn the 2020 election, leading us to the dangerous crisis point we sit at today. If only Collins had heeded Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), when he said:
“You can’t trust this president to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change and you know it.”
Schiff’s statement was not born of hopelessness, negativity, or pessimism. It was a belief formed by real-life examples, from repeated patterns, and from actual words spoken by the president.
Schiff was playing the role (at least in this instance) of a holy fool, which author Malcolm Gladwell describes as such:
“The Holy Fool is a truth-teller because he is an outcast. Those who are not part of existing social hierarchies are free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted.”
Hopefulness is the expectation of a positive outcome, regardless of truth, evidence, patterns, or movements to support it. Hopefulness is the expectation and belief that things will work out for the best, somehow—the way young children believe their parents will live forever.
You might remember the ubiquitous pleas to “give Trump a chance” in the early days following the 2016 election. We were asked to give a chance to a man who had zero experience in politics and had shown no interest in learning or growing. Still, many did just as society asked and expected, and “hoped” that Trump would grow into the role and become, if not a great president, at least a fairly harmless one.
This, despite the fact that every story told about the man exposed him as a cruel bully who forced, cajoled, bargained, and demanded his way through life. Even so, this Elephant Journal article closes with, “Let’s hope that Mr. Trump chooses a different way and follows the yogic path, the path of love.” There were many, many opinions like this everywhere I looked.
From what body of evidence were we to build up this mountain of false hope? Sure, it was possible, I suppose. Anyone can change—I do believe that. But…really? Spreading this kind of ungrounded hope is not yogic, and we need to stop pretending that it is. This is bypassing, denial, and yes, even collusion. Because the more time and energy we expend in fruitless hope, the less we have remaining to prepare, act, speak out, and truly create a revolution.
(For a great example of the kind of revolution a holy fool can ignite, watch Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” playing the role of John Givings, a man who gives not one single f*ck about saying things as he sees them.)
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I found truth and real action items by reading articles such as this one on Huffington Post by Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey. No kid gloves here, just the truth about what Trump’s presidency could and did mean for us individually, as a country, and as a world. Here is a powerful excerpt:
“Initially, we wanted to use the word ‘Reconciliation’ as the first response, but we reconsidered. “I just saw President-elect Trump with President Obama in the White House and it gave me hope,” said Oprah Winfrey. And MSNBC anchor, Chris Matthews, shrieking in his near-falsetto screech, “I’m just determined to find an optimistic note here. There’s got to be a pony in this crap pile.” In other words, we must move toward reconciliation and hope. But both statements by Winfrey and Matthews reveal an irrational rush to provide an unearned uplift to the situation—a compulsion that seems to characterize American culture with its institutionalized, cheerful optimism. In fact, authentic exultation is not born from ignoring the horror of any situation but from suffering it clearly without surrendering faith in the mysterious movement of the sacred.”
Cheerfulness and optimism are “institutionalized.” Think of the repercussions of just that truth.
So rather than let the whole truth of what had just happened shake us to the core and demand we ask ourselves all kinds of questions, we snuggled into the fluffy blanket of hope, which truly is institutionalized—embedded in our culture and inextricably woven into our thought and decision processes.
But the opposite of hopefulness is not hopelessness. This is a false narrative.
The opposite of hopefulness is honesty and clarity.
The opposite of wishful thinking is clear seeing and clear thinking.
Political strategist Ana Navarro, a full-on holy fool, spoke my own mind when she said this after Trump named Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, as his chief strategist:
“I think that the appointments he makes early on are the first signal he sends about what kind of president he is going to be.”
Navarro was looking at patterns of behavior to come to her conclusion. She was following the advice of Maya Angelou when she said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
But for Collins, hopefulness perhaps seemed an easier path than admitting the true and present danger Trump posed. It was easier to close her eyes and imagine Trump’s tiny taste of consequences would rein him in in the future. Easier to hope for his epiphany than to admit that a human being would get caught choosing greed, lawlessness, and selfishness, and then go out and do it again.
I remember the first time I truly took into the core of my being the devastating short and long-term effects of climate change. It was 2002, and it happened as I was reading a book by author Andrew Harvey (the holy fool of holy fools).
If I remember correctly, the no-going-back point was 400 ppm (parts per million), and although I didn’t really understand what those numbers meant, I could understand a graph. We were not there yet, but nothing in the data assured me that we wouldn’t cross over that threshold in my lifetime.
Today, we’ve not only hit the 400 ppm finish line, we’ve run through the tape—and we’re still running strong.
Either we were wrong then about the 400 ppm tipping point, or we’re feeding ourselves false hope now.
Are we meeting in some backroom with Mother Earth, negotiating for an extension on the deadline? Are we refinancing our debt to her? Or, more likely, have we already crossed the Rubicon but no one will admit it, not even the scientists? How much time do we really have left?
Just today, listening to a news program, the guest talked about the possibility for us to return to “normal” life (whatever that means anymore) by the spring of 2021—if we did this and if we did that.
The host pointed out that there was no evidence to support these ifs becoming truths. The guest returned by saying that while the data did not currently support this, it was still possible.
“We should hope,” said the host, her shaky voice betraying her struggle to let her own holy fool out of the box.
All our well-intentioned hopefulness can’t actually move the needle on the issues that need solving.
Yet, we feed ourselves and each other hope, not knowing, or caring, that it’s only empty calories. We use it like sugar, treating ourselves to it the way we treat children to ice cream after they’ve eaten their vegetables.
None of this helps reverse or mitigate the effects of climate change. It doesn’t help move us out of this global pandemic. It won’t make Trump a better person or president, nor will it make him a norm-following, election-accepting, ex-president.
All hope does is lull us into complacency and spinelessness, exactly the wrong place for us to be in such devastating and truly dangerous times.
We must find the courage to reject hopeful foolishness and embolden our inner holy fool. It’s time to be the one who fearlessly points out when the emperor has no clothes. If not us, then who?
We need fewer Senator Susan Collinses and more Ana Navarros, Representatives Adam Schiffs and Andrew Harveys. Fewer hopeful fools and more holy fools.
This isn’t about pessimism versus optimism. It’s not about positivity versus negativity. It’s simply a matter of finding within us the strength and fortitude to look the tiger in the eye.
Here’s a holy fool kind of truth: you cannot believe in goodness if you won’t first accept evil. You cannot believe in angels if you won’t also accept demons.
None of this means that we can’t hold a vision for a better world. In fact, I consider myself a visionary—someone who can imagine a world where turtles like Yertle (from the Dr. Seuss book Yertle the Turtle) really have learned their lesson.
I know anything is possible. I believe in magic and also in miracles. I haven’t thrown in the towel on humanity, or on our Earth—not even close. But even while I envision this new world and work to bring it into being, it’s clear to me that at the rate we’re going, human extinction is a real possibility.
And there it is, the elephant in the room: human extinction. A possibility. In our lifetime. Species are dying out at horrific rates, why not us, too?
I’m going to resist the writer’s urge to turn this article around now, and to land on a hopeful, high note (“but we still have time,” or “here are a few things to do today,” or “once Biden gets in, we’ll rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and things will get better”).
Instead, I’d like to end with this: an open-armed invitation for you to sit with me in the fullest possible truth we can grasp.
Sit with me in silence, no distractions, and contemplate the whole nature of the human being—the shadow and the light, the demon and the angel—those that live outside, and the ones that live inside. Let’s call this moment a reckoning.
Sit with me, and reckon with the possibility that we are beyond the point of no return on climate change, that American democracy is in real danger now and will still be after President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Reckon with the truth that human beings are often selfish and cruel on purpose and sleep perfectly well at night. Reckon with the fact that some people cannot be shamed, or will never take accountability for their actions, oftentimes mirroring how we, too, seek to avoid accountability.
Sit with me in the lighted reality of our shared human condition.
Feel the frustration. Feel the anger, the sadness, the disappointment, the fear, the disgust. Let it all in. I promise that you are strong enough to feel all of these things, and that if you need support, you will find it. Holy fools have a way of finding each other.
Once you’ve embodied these truths, let the fire of your courage and boldness burn them into fuel to move you into a more evolved and awake daily life—a life in which we never again buy the fool’s gold society calls hope.