Strumming the Strings of Hope

Michael Gray

Tower, by Ann Hamilton, Oliver Ranch, Sonoma County. (Photo by Gary Newman)

What are the images of hope that flit and dance through our psyches? For me, hopes often feel like the children’s party game–pin the tail on the donkey—where groping in the dark, the tail is our frustration, our loneliness, and our dreams of a tolerable future, and the elusive donkey is the future. 

It is the past that keeps stirring up those hopes, because petitions for a better future are woven from past experience. But, as if abiding in another universe, the future has no tail, missing or otherwise. It is always arriving, but never arrives. It is the living face of infinite possibility, which we can never actually manage to see, let alone capture. There is only the eternal present. 

Thank goodness for that. Thank heavens that we can’t grab hold of the future and put it in the pen where we keep our dreams and our hopes. Even when we include the needs and wellbeing of others in our hopes and prayers, the future doesn’t show up, should those prayers be answered. Only the present can receive the gifts of time: whether we are hoping that a gleaming red bicycle will be standing beside the illuminated tree on Christmas morning or hoping that peace and fairness will appear in the stockings of all the sad beings with whom we share this beautiful planet. The future, and the hopes we charge it with fulfilling, can never be confined within the lives we have been given to live. As we sail along on the ocean of time, through the vast reaches of the space that shows up wherever we look, it is not given us to ever reach home port and settle in there for good.

Even if it was ever the nature of life in this world, we cannot now sit back and say, “Make that a double and pour one for everyone.” Such a juncture of well-being cannot be found in the sands of time, where the future of our world may or may not be written. 

So where do we place our hopes that a kinder and gentler life may be restored for all those beings who are separated from their families, who are forced to spend their short lives standing in their own feces in crowded pens, or for the whales running aground, desperate to escape the lightning strikes of sonic agony in their majestic heads?

Michael Gray has published three books: The Flying Caterpillar (a memoir), the novels Asleep at the Wheel of Time and Falling on the Bright Side, and he is seeking a publisher for his spiritual memoir, Winter Came Early, in which he tries to find meaning in the death of his son two years ago. A regular contributor to various journals, most recently to Kosmos, Gesar, and T.J. Eckleburg Review, Gray writes a weekly blog on He co-founded Friends in Time (a non-profit providing services to people whith MS and ALS); and was Board president of The New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition and Pathways Academy (a school for kids with autism and other learning issues).

Whither has flown the Master’s care for the swallows of the air and the lilies of the field? Whither the sparkling streams and burgeoning harvests flowing in harmony with the natural world?

Lamenting the damage that has already been inflicted cannot be our song of hope, though coming to terms with failed hopes and dreams can start us on new paths, with new lessons learned. We are the corporate farms devoted to mono-agriculture, the distribution systems that ladle off the cream for those who control them, the legislatures and administrations whose office holders—as soon as they have unpacked their bags—quickly close the curtains on all who wander in pain on the sidewalks below. What will penetrate the walls around our dormant hearts?

For those in the middle and upper classes, ours cannot be to hope for a bigger share [yet for some who lack enough for basic survival, this might be their hope—to have enough to survive]; not unless we can trust ourselves to devote our accumulations to those we love and also to those we do not love. Even then, heeding the siren call of Scrooge McDuck diving into vats of shining gold coins; the rich and comfortable so easily forget what it was like, as a child, to dive off a floating raft moored out from shore above a sandy bottom, where the water was so clear that it was as if the future was swimming alongside us. Well, that was my experience at least, growing up on the West end of Montreal Island, swimming in the waters of the Saint Lawrence River before lamprey eels and clouds of algae made chlorinated pools the only option.

Perhaps hope is not about calling out into the night for Lassie to come back so we can get some sleep. Perhaps hope is not even that sheep who have gone astray can find their way back to the protection of a shepherd who cares for them? What if we are that shepherd and have forgotten our promise to be good stewards? Once depression, exhaustion and demoralization have taken over our mind and hearts, who’s to say what we will still remember?

Perhaps hope is like the gentle rain falling on the meadows beneath. Perhaps we never really know what we are hoping for until we find it; and only then can we see our true reflection in the pools of water left behind.

Hope was not the quality celebrated in the Merchant of Venice. It was mercy (falling like gentle rain upon the place beneath), whose praises Portia sings. As I remember it, hope doesn’t play much of a role in Shakespeare’s play. Portia seems to have a vision of what it means to become a better person, but her victory is to outwit, not redeem, the coiled serpent of vengeance.

Our society is extracting its pound of flesh from countless beings whose lives are already miserable. There is no Portia in the wings to argue that the contract between human stewards and the animals whose lives we have been given to protect, permits not one drop of blood to be shed. Abuse of animals is so embedded in our way of life that it takes a Temple Grandin to even improve the conditions in which we wield our knives.

Hope must be born afresh in each human heart.

If we do manage to feel a little hope wafting into the secret chambers of our hearts, can we spare a little for these beings who cannot speak for themselves? Even in this time of darkness, in which individuals feel so helpless, can we spare a dream or two for the lambs who have never gamboled through fields of waving grasses, and for the fathers who do not know how to ease the pain of their children, many of whom are silently suffering in deep unhappiness?

I am safe at home with plenty to eat and central heating at the touch of a thermostat. But I too am one of those fathers who has been separated from his child. My son, Jon, took his own life on Easter weekend of 2019, at the age of 27. And to this day, I don’t know how I could have helped him want to live.

Personal responsibility, even guilt, continues to lap against the shores of my being. But, like all of us, my son and I were citizens of this world. Our chief difference was that I was able to find hope for the future in friendship, and in ancient traditions that have fathomed the nature of what it means to be born a human being. I tried to share some of that understanding, which I personally find so nourishing, with him. But he told me that it didn’t have anything to do with the world in which he had to find a place. In fact, he said it made it worse. 

Hope is deeply personal and radically situational. Hope must be born afresh in each human heart. So how can we create a world where that is possible? It seems that those who access hope in their own hearts are also doing what they can to create conditions that inspire hope in others. Even those of us who are not natural leaders can let their personal losses be a window into the pain that afflicts so many all around us. I can no longer change what has happened but I can refuse to be broken by the terrible “what if’s” that visit all survivors—whether it is the death of someone we loved and for whom we were responsible, or as stewards of our beautiful world. I believe that in our private losses we can find the forgiveness, self-respect and courage we need if we are to accept the truth of the impermanence that shadows us from birth to death. In this understanding we learn to care what happens to ourselves, to others and to our planet. 

I am beginning to see that there are very few places where the young can find joy, hope, confidence, or witness fairness being given its rightful place in the public sphere.

We will always have one another, if we let ourselves lean on the innate generosity of the human spirit.

Emily Dickinson’s famously pronounced that “Hope, is the thing with feathers”. And we can certainly find a spirit of freedom, balance, and hope for our lives in the image of a bird.

In Buddhism—whose hopeful vision my son said just made his life more impossible, creating expectations that he could not realize and which did not support him in his own challenges—there is the image of a bird having two wings: compassion and wisdom. It is not hard to see that with either wisdom or compassion alone we will be unable to fly. But it took me years to realize that it is not just the absence of either understanding (wisdom) or caring (compassion) that can prevent the bird from flying. There must also be a bird that wants to fly.

I wish my son had wanted to fly. For that, he would have needed to find someone—other than me—to teach him how to fly and to inspire him with confidence that he could open the window and see a world out there that was worth flying into.

In Buddhism, we hear that we are living in a time of increasing darkness, called the Kaliyuga. Since the historical Buddha spoke of this time, it must have already been visible 2,500 years ago. Or at least its footfall was already sounding outside the door of time.

But now, the Kaliyuga is not just a philosophical theory about the rise and fall of civilizations, not just a message about the erosion of the capacity for hope in human societies. The jackboots are marching outside our doors, carrying the darkness of the past to the very threshold of the future. And those of us who are unwilling to join that march, just don’t know what to do.

Inside Tower, by Ann Hamilton, Oliver Ranch, Sonoma County. (Photo by Gary Newman)

Do we turn inward, meditating and chanting our way to ease and inner peace? Do we turn outwards and feed the homeless, care for the sick? Can hope be found in a grateful heart and quiet mind; in a life of service? Can we allow ourselves to hear the cries for help without being deafened by them; can we allow ourselves to feel all that pain when we don’t know how to heal it?

One thing seems clear: we need to restore balance between our minds and hearts. I think that’s the deep meaning in the phrase: “Wisdom and compassion are like the two wings of a bird.” With wisdom that sees the emptiness (the dream-like nature) of everything we call “real,” we will not be able to act as if it matters what we do. With compassion for all the pain that we can never ultimately heal, our hearts will be so exhausted that they will eventually shut down. But together, understanding and caring can support one another; and on a good day we will find ourselves rising above the meadows and hills with our hearts full of hope. 

We will always have one another, if we let ourselves lean on the innate generosity of the human spirit. More than we can realize, when we are in the crocodile jaws of depression, when we are hypnotized by the conflicting choruses of dueling certainties, we can remember that nothing is ever solved using the same tools that created our problems. This is not just a mathematical proposition—even though it was the mathematicians Einstein and Gödel who made this a catch phrase for our time. It is the glad news that carries the warm breath of hope. Nothing prevents us from looking with fresh eyes at the abiding beauty of this world.

The eternal lapping on the shores of this present moment, whispering that we are free to change our path, is the starting point and touchstone of our lives. When we greet the future with an open heart, we can feel the breath of hope arriving across the threshold into this living present. Then we may remember that the future is the infinite realm in which resides all that is and all that ever can be.