A World Astir|Apr 27, 2004 5:12 AM| by:

The Clear Light of Hope

‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?’ So T.S. Eliot asked, or rather demanded, in ‘The Waste Land’.  Many readers have interpreted this poem as a work of radical pessimism, depicting a mass society traumatised by war, degraded rather than liberated by technology and experiencing a breakdown of shared values.  ‘The Waste Land’, in other words, evokes the beginning of the modern era.  Yet there is another interpretation of ‘The Waste Land’, as there is of modernity itself, which has brought blessings as well as calamities.  For Eliot wrote this, his greatest poem, less as a pessimist than as a spiritual seeker.  When the poem was published in 1922, he had not yet fully embraced the Christian faith reflected in ‘Ash Wednesday’, ‘The Four Quartets’ and other later works. ‘The Waste Land’ is therefore a trawl through the cultures and civilisations of humanity for signposts to spiritual renewal.

As such, the poem’s cultural reference points owe as much to Vedic teachings as to Christianity, Judaism or the Hellenic tradition.  Eliot is concerned with finding the truth underlying the spiritual traditions of East and West.  He is searching for the common source of our many and varied expressions of faith, and of the hope that springs from the impulse towards faith.  The poem is replete with images of rebirth in the midst of chaos and dissolution.  ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ is one of the closing lines, and it is in these fragments that we find hope.  They give us a sense of continuity and stability that equips us to come to terms with change and hope for a better future.

One of the lessons of the previous century must surely be that hope does not lie in grand designs or utopian blueprints.  For in such abstractions, we lose our most hopeful human characteristic, that of sympathy.  In a literal sense, sympathy means the capacity to ‘feel with’ other human beings or creatures.  It enables us to see them as individuals like ourselves, at once unique and part of a complex whole.  Misplaced idealism takes away hope, because it reduces individuals to mere statistics or ciphers.  Instead of ushering in utopia, it creates a climate of nihilism and oppression.  True hope, therefore, is found less in manifestos and campaigns for abstract change and more in acts of individual compassion.

I am often reminded of this individual dimension to hope in my district of London, Bloomsbury.  There, I frequently encounter homeless young men who live on the streets and in the hostels around Russell Square.  Most are neither feckless nor rough by nature, but remarkably kind and gentle. Many are products of so-called ‘care’.  Some have an almost Zen-like calm, but beneath it there is usually found a depth of loneliness and spiritual despair, as well as the more obvious material need.  When I give items of food or cast-off sweaters to these young men, and talk to them as I do so, I begin to feel hope.  I know that this will not solve the housing crisis, or the complicated social problems that lead to young people sleeping rough.  Nor do these small acts of giving make me feel virtuous.  I know that they are only stopgap measures, the moral equivalent of sticking plasters.  Yet I find hope in them nonetheless, because they remind me that all of us have the power to make a difference.  It is when we find that power within ourselves, rather than trusting in leaders, movements or ideologies, that we might start to address the most profound human problems with clarity and hope.

Our great spiritual teachers, from Christ and Krishna to Mahavira and the Buddha, have inspired us with their personal courage and integrity, their feeling for other human beings and their practical wisdom.  With their lives, they point us towards right action, right knowledge and right conduct, precisely because they are made up of individual acts of compassion and bravery.  Such acts are far from isolated and incidental, but part of a pattern of human transformation.  They remind us of the value of friendship, love and kindness, and the inner strength that we derive from them.

It is when we access that strength that we move out of the spiritual waste land and towards virtue.  Michael Tobias, in his book Life Force: The World of Jainism, quotes the spiritual head of the Digambara Jains in India: ‘It is ahimsa that makes for friendship between father and son, and love between husband and wife’. In Jainism, individual acts of compassion and expressions of love count for more than pious rhetoric or theory.  The Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo also starts with the individual, for it draws no distinction between his or her spiritual progress – through thought and action – and the creation of a just world order. Individual and social development are not two separate or parallel processes but part of the same process.  The ‘Future Evolution of Man’ is the sum total of the evolutions of individual men and women.  It is not a blueprint imposed on them from above, but a spiritual discipline that grows from within.

I am typing this article in a Yorkshire winter, during one of the dramatic and beautiful cold snaps that grace this area of the North of England at this time of year. Walking, or more accurately ploughing, through the snow on the hilltops the other day, I looked up at the leaden sky and noticed a patch of clear, crisp blue tinged with red.  It is a quality of light that I associate with this region, and which makes walking here special for me.  I saw another, smaller strand of light, then another, seemingly more distant and then gradually, and before I even realised it, the blue triumphed over the grey and the wet snow stopped falling.  The fragments of clear light met and merged with each other, subtly transforming the sky.  We could do worse than reflect on that image when we think about hope, which begins with fragments from our lives and then becomes something greater than ourselves.

Aidan Rankin

(Aidan Rankin has a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics. He is Research and Publications Officer for the Economic Research Council in London.)