On Hopelessness & Healing In The Natural World

The Peace of Wild things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The work of creating a better world is hard.

Especially in times like the present, it can seem quite hopeless. It is indeed easy to find ourselves entering a state of despair.

We see glimmers of hope, but must live in immense uncertainty. We have to plan for and act to create a future that feels impossible to discern. Even while this feels like a moment of opportunity, the sheer scale of the human tragedy now occurring makes this kind of thinking difficult, if not impossible. How can we plan for a future when we don’t even know when this current state of suspended animation will end? How much energy should we invest in the current moment when the promise of normalcy lies on the horizon?

This poem, The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, speaks of the reassurance and comfort that can be found in the natural world during these times. So often we see the natural world as a source of refreshment and beauty. Spending time outside has significant mental and physical health benefits. Indeed, access to natural amenities should be a right for all!

But, this poem also speaks to something more. It speaks to how the natural world should inform our work as community builders. It imparts two clear calls to us. 

  • First…We have come to understand that our communities operate as complex ecosystems with great similarities with the natural world. Almost every community situation has a corresponding natural occurrence that should inform our response. Thus, as our understanding grows, so should our appreciation for the extraordinary regenerative and transformative capacities of the natural world. It is an untapped resource full of potential best practices. The natural world is not a panacea, but…
    • Nowhere else do we see better examples of the delicate balancing act required to build a successful place. 
    • Nowhere else do we see how seemingly independent objects are completely defined by their relationships with others.
    • Nowhere else do we see how simultaneously complex and simple ecosystems are.
  • Second…as a personal note to us all, this poem lays out how hard the mental struggle is. Our expectations can be our own worst enemy. Each success falls short in some ways, but also feeds more ambition for the next round. When our great efforts continually fall short and we see how long the struggle will be, it’s hard to maintain energy and avoid burnout. We know it’s important, but it’s still hard to pull together the energy. How many changemakers have we seen beaten down by the difficulty of the world?

This poem sends out the clarion call to take time for reflection and then move forward again with limited expectations. As contradictory as it seems, having limited or no expectation of success frees us up to be more creative and can lead to better results. Sometimes a lack of hope also means not fearing failure. As Camus so eloquently stated in the Myth of Sisyphus, understanding the absurdity of the situation allows us to cast off our shackles and move forward with renewed freedom and energy. It allows us the capacity to take the courageous and creative actions necessary even when they seem doomed to fail. 

There is great wisdom in the natural world. We have not treated it well, and yet it continues to give to us and provide a path forward. It can both calm our minds and stimulate a way forward.