How should we approach the unknown? How should we orient ourselves to the inevitable unpredictability of the world – life’s way of going life’s way whether we like it or not? Should we despair at our lack of control? Be terrified of all the bad things that will happen? Should we retreat into a small, cosy space where we can spin the illusion of safety? Give up on doing anything because we are so small and the world is so big?
Nachman of Bratslav, a Rabbi and spiritual leader who lived in what is now Ukraine in the late 18th and early 19th century – and a great inspiration for me – taught that:
The world is, for all of us, a very narrow bridge.
And the most important thing is not to make ourselves afraid at all.
There is no escaping it. Our lives unavoidably carry us on the narrowest of scaffolds above a mystery that we cannot fathom. We come from somewhere we do not understand, and are heading to somewhere we cannot know. And there is nothing, really nothing, that can catch us.
But rather than face this, it often seems easier to try to hide from it. We feed our cynicism, despair and terror, and that of others. We try to imagine ourselves out of our situation by distracting ourselves, sleepwalking through, numbing ourselves in a fog of comfortableness that blunts our contact with the world.
And so we have a choice. Will we make attempts to avoid our situation by avoiding our lives? Or could we learn, even when we feel afraid, not to feed our fear? Could we live a life in which we intentionally practice taking a step into the fierce uncertainty of life, and then another step and another step, trusting that each step will take us, who knows where, but somewhere?
It is our willingness to learn to trust the very narrow bridge on which we walk that can allow us to enter into our lives. This very learning to trust in life is, for many of us, a call to a kind of self-transformation, of loosening the boundaries of who we’ve take ourselves to be, of knowing ourselves and our lives in the context of a far wider horizon than we’ve seen so far. It offers the possibility that we might discover a basic goodness to existence itself which, precisely when we face our vulnerability to it, can hold us.
In 1986, when he was a prisoner playwrite in communist Czechoslovakia, the future Czech President Vaclav Havel wrote this:
‘Hope is not prediction of the future. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
In other words, hope – even when we can be far from sure about how things will turn out – is a kind of trust. But it’s not the naïve trust of optimism, which promises that everything will be fine or that we will be saved, and nor is it the naïve mistrust of pessimism, which promises that everything will be ruined. It’s trust in something else. It is first trust in our own capacity to respond to the world with creativity and dignity, whatever happens, and second it is trust in a deeper kind of goodness in the order of things.
When we face the most difficult of circumstances, or are most worried about the future, it’s the presence of both kinds of trust that supports the possibility to take action. The first, the trust in our own capacities, so that we have the energy and determination to move forward and the second, the trust in which we partner ourselves with existence itself, so that we can keep going even when things might not turn out well for us personally, or when something is going to take a generation or more to change.
The philosophers Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores teach that trust – between people, between us and the world – is not a given but something we make every time our trust is broken, shattered, compromised and then we take purposeful actions to repair and to restore it. Trust and hope, in other words, aren’t a given, and they aren’t made by attempts to keep ourselves safe and away from the world’s unpredictability and uncontrollability. They are made by our full-on engagement with life – by how we choose to bring ourselves not only to life’s joys but to its troubles and dangers. Trust is made by our learning that life won’t simply go our way but, nevertheless, here we are.
And so, of course, to the end of Nachman of Bratslav’s phrase. The most important thing, he says, is not to feed our fear. Not ‘don’t feel fear’ but don’t feed it. We all walk a very narrow bridge between two ends that we cannot know, and we could, really, fall at any moment. And the most important thing, as long as we are able, is to keep walking.