in Failure


[I left this comment on a very good post on Halden’s blog — see here — but nobody seems to be talking about much over there and I’m curious to hear what others think of this idea, so I’m reposting it here (I also felt like it said some things I have been wanting to put into words for awhile).  Feel free to disagree… or not.]
It seems to me that you trying to look but taking back what you see at the same time. While trying to confront the severity of hope, it seems as though you still end up blunting the confrontation in a number of ways. Of course, that’s how things used to be for me as well, when I first started encountering the context of hopelessness and godforsakenness. Spend some more time there (if I may be so bold as to presume to speak this way) and this is what you will find:
Hope will stop crying out. Hope will stop dancing. Hope will not be appeased by any word or Word. The context of hopelessness and godforsakenness can cut out your tongue, cut off your feet, and make you deaf.
In the end, hope is simply the decision to remain alive. To not kill one’s self. That’s all.
No matter how a person chooses to stay alive (with the assistance of drugs or alcohol, by lashing out at others, by slashing his or her own body, etc.), all of these lives are the embodiment of hope, precisely in the way that they are lived, for as long as a person chooses not to die.
Some say that “where there’s life there’s hope” and take that to mean that things could be better, things could change, God could intervene, you never know what might happen… I take it to mean that choosing to remain alive, in one’s unchanging circumstances, and not choosing Death, is the most audacious act of hope there is.

Write a Comment



  1. OK DanO I will take a crack at it, but this post just seemed to completely go over my head, even though it had such great creative writing and all–”dancing on a razor blade of hope and despair,” c’mon, that’s damn clever! However, It did cause me to admit that I don’t think I really know what hope is, but I don’t think I have much of it (even though I ain’t quite ready to kill myself). So I went looking on my bookshelves and on-line for some insightful quotes about hope from the usual suspects: Mother T, Padre Pio, Henri Nouwen, Dom Helder Camara, Carlo Caretto, Rick Santorum, etc. (hmmm…where are the protestants in this list, maybe Oprah?), and I didn’t find a thing that helped. So, looking over my book shelves again I spotted “The Holy Fire” (of course! the Jews!) by the Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who I have mentioned before, one of my favorite teachers, and I was sure I would find some piquant quote on hope in there; I didn’t. Rabbi K. was the main Rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto and he died there refusing to escape even when he had the chance so he could continue to minister to his people even until the end. He experienced not just the pain of starvation and a sick and wounded body, but the death of his wife and all his children, all his friends and acquaintances, even the family dog for christ’s sake, AND, the destruction of his whole cultural and physical world; from his perspective, he witnessed the end of the world. Well. I ended up reading the whole book through again and I’ll be damned if I could find one decent quote on “hope.” And yet, after starting this reflection on hope without much, and really feeling a fair amt. of personal despair and supra-existential angst about the world (seasoned with self-pity and ungratefulness for all my many blessings, which drives me to greater self-loathing and despair…I really suck at this whole Christian thing) yet, after reading the Rabbi K. through again I found myself a bit more hopeful…I think.
    First, I like what DanO says about hope, and I think it must be a part of our understanding about what hope is, but somehow defining hope strictly as mere-survival seems somehow inadequate, but I don’t yet know why. Let me try and paraphrase a bit on what I read by Rabbi K. (and G-d forgive me if I am not being faithful to his words). Now at the beginning of the catastrophe the Rabbi had hope that it would pass quickly and that the normalcy of a basically decent humanity would resume. Not so, and soon the Rabbi and many Jews began rationalizing that their suffering and persecution was their own fault, a result of their unfaithfulness and assimilation and they hoped that a return to stricter and more faithful relationship to God would end their travails. That didn’t work. Then, as the scope of the death-dealing horror became more apparent their hope was for some kind of divine intervention. When that failed some had hope that either the West or the Russians would defeat the Nazi’s and save them before they all perished; that didn’t happen either. Some few just hoped to survive by any means, none did. But many more came to hope for even the nothingness of death, and they were the ones whose hopes were proven; but some went further and killed themselves in hope of a better world to come.
    Now, are all these “hopes” the same thing? Or are words failing us? Can we understand hope by itself or only in it’s relation to other soul-states, and shackled to despair? Faith/ doubt, joy/sorrow, good/evil, hope/despair, are such binary models really necessary or even helpful? or do they trap us in a language game that we cannot transcend? The Rabbi K. wrote that hope is a very dangerous thing and can often lead one to death; rather than mere survival being a sign of hope, hope itself can destroy us. When one has experienced such profound suffering like the Rabbi K. and others, hopelessness itself can be a kind of gift. One cannot survive on hope as a world dis-integrates. Hope keeps the wound from scarring over, keeps it raw and bleeding till it bleeds out, keeps traumatizing the victim over and again until they break and die or wish they would. The Rabbi witnessed sufferings that were so profound that they led to madness, and created existences of stupefying torpor and an inhuman and barest form of beingness that came to be accepted as a kind of hellish grace. The Rabbi said that if a purpose can be discerned in this suffering, (it can’t) it is to crush the human mind, to sweep away every human conceit of understanding and security, every conceptual underpinning and foothold that we rest upon, including hope. Perhaps only then might the void that remained be replaced with a new mystical surrendering to a revelation of “G-d-consciousness” and a embracing of participating into the “infinite suffering of G-d.” There are no more rationalizations or any place for an isolated and remote divinity then, one reaches a place beyond judgement, criticism, or need for explanations, the world is simply the way it must be; the Rabbi says this near the end: “Since G-d does thus, that is the way it is supposed to be.” And so the Rabbi K. lived without hope day after day, gathering survivors and saying the ritual prayers, putting on the tefillin, etc., but not studying the Torah any longer like he used to, no, he wasn’t even interested in any Job-like badinage with G-d anymore. That divine name that up to this point was too holy to even be spoken, didn’t need to be spoken anymore, because it came to be his own name, to be everyones name.
    Well, I hope y’all have some idea what the Rabbi K. was talking about because I’m not sure I really do. I can’t say if I agree or disagree, I am just too damn immature and ignorant to really understand such wisdom borne from unspeakable suffering. But for today, writing this, I do feel a little more hopeful, and I’ll be damned if I know why! Thanks Halden and DanO, and Obliged y’all.

    • Dan,
      Thank-you for this remark. I very much like what you have to say about Rabbi K. and the way he reframes the hope/despair binary. I suppose I am trying to do something similar in my post — that is, I am arguing that some things which some people take to be expressions of utter hopelessness are, in fact, the opposite — hope that is deeper than anything that some of us have known. Of course, at this point, you are right… words are failing us. And everything is turning into/being exposed as a game of competing ideological fabrications…
      Sometimes, these days, I think about giving up writing altogether. I have so little faith in “the word” these days. None at all, apart from pragmatic things — “pass me the salt” or “let’s make out” — that kind of stuff. The Word, it seems to me is utterly devoid of meaning, apart from the meaning we assign to it, tautology follows tautology, Baudrillard follows Wittgensein… and sometimes I think that those who are the closest to saying something meaningful are the monks who ave taken vows of silence.
      Maybe hope is unspeakable. Maybe despair is as well. Maybe it’s all unspeakable.
      PS — been listening to a lot of Hank Williams these days. On an old comment you once mentioned the last song he penned, but I don’t think you got the title right because I’ve been looking for it and can’t find it… could you give me that title again?
      PPS — I resigned from that shelter job yesterday. The church absolutely refused to provide any support for the program and I couldn’t sustain a safe environment without compromising my commitment to my family or, conversely, I couldn’t care for me family without compromising the safety of the shelter residents. Given that the church was not going to offer any support, and given that they made it very clear that they didn’t care about the safety of the residents (or the well-being of my family) it was clear that the situation was not going to change. So I resigned. Been laying around staring at the ceiling feeling depressed since then…

      • “I am arguing that some things which some people take to be expressions of utter hopelessness are, in fact, the opposite — hope that is deeper than anything that some of us have known.”
        I like the way this cuts through the bullshit of those christians who insist on speaking about the “false hopes” exhibited in certain habituated behaviors. As if the daily double latte, the yearly renewed wardrobe and the shipshape eschatology are authentic.
        I think of one of my friends in particular here.. he’s been homeless for at least ten years, and has been inebriated for most of that time. Every time he tries to get sober, the biggest challenge for him is looking at the world’s tragedy with sober eyes… seeing not just his own wounds and fears but the pain of others… and he says its just easier to be drunk. There’s an honesty here that is alien to many of us. And one thing continually strikes me– he simply refuses to deny the reality of the miserable state of things. When people ask him why he keeps chasing the steel reserves, every once in a while he happens to be sober enough to say, “Why aren’t you?”
        He and I have talked about suicide quite a number of times. Not least after shared friends have taken that path. I know its a continual struggle, but so far he keeps choosing not to die.
        Its been four days since I’ve seen him, though.

  2. Not that I disagreed with Halden’s piece, but I was definitely uncomfortable with something about it. But when your comment popped up I think I realized some of what that discomfort was.
    My friendship with addicts and homeless folks and “watching” people kill themselves (both those who do it all at once and those who do it slowly, over many years… And can we even say that it is THEY who are doing the killing?) has violated my trust in the promise-keeping God and arrested my ability to make pronouncements about the God who supposedly comes in times of pain and meets us in the midst of it. Though my own experience has been quite good (whatever that means) I have no words of consolation for Vlad or Greg or the man I sit with at the corner store who tells me a different name every time we talk. Perhaps I can buy him another Hurricane and we’ll pour a little out together, but I don’t know what to say to him or myself about God.
    This is to say that my ability to “stake everything on the unfettered ‘Thou'” and my trust in this “Thou to intrude into the nullpunkt and override it” is not at all what it used to be. I certainly haven’t “lost faith,” as we say, and I continue to order my life around discipleship commitments. But its only since I’ve gotten to this place that I’ve truly been aware that “we can assure and possess ‘no automatic move from relinquishment to reception; one does not follow necessarily from or after the other.'”
    I think Halden’s post gets most of this, which is demonstrated in the passages he references from Brueggemann. I just think that its strength, in a strange way, is also its weakness. Reading Brueggemann’s claim that “The future always depends for Israel [and the church, the world, and ever human person] upon the trustworthiness of the One who characteristically hovers somewhere between the fear so palpably grounded and the faith so fragilely embraced” and Halden’s claim that the word of grace “comes not before, but after and during the night of trembling in which blood is sweat from the brow of Jesus”
    — I fear that these kinds of statements, while understandably privileging the Christological plot line, may be guilty of extracting from that story a kind of narrative *theodicy* that, in light of the pain and pathos of daily experience offers only, at best, a premature refuge.
    Perhaps one of our greatest temptations (after reducing hope to optimism and other such things) is to force hope to behave like theodicy. Maybe this is what’s at work when we accidentally look at the triduum story (which should, of course, receive some hermeneutic primacy in our theological imagination) in order extract from it some Christological closure that functions like an occult knowledge of the divine master plan (where we know that, even if things seem like utter hell, Jesus is with us in the midst of it… because that’s just what he does). I hesitate to say this with a critical tone because I’m aware of how the resurrection of Jesus is supposed to give me the knowledge that all will be well. But the “aporetics of the street” make me want to resist language about the One Who Comes, not because I’ve left behind my desire for, or even my openness to that Coming, but only because the testimony of those I’ve accompanied has so consistently forced upon me the language of abandonment and hopelessness. How am I to speak of God after the persistence of such injustice?
    Instead of language about the God-Who-Meets-the-Suffering, I’m more interested in exploring what faithfulness looks like AFTER loss of faith in the “God of covenant faithfulness.“ This is to say, after I’ve followed the Crucified One to a point where God’s voice is no longer recognizable, how can I continue on? What does discipleship look like in the context of godforsakeness?
    And so, this makes me wrestle with godforsakeness in an entirely different way than I used to. What if hope in the resurrection requires some kind of silence? What if it requires outrage? There are streams of tradition—some taken up by Jesus—that suggest this might be the case. But perhaps more straightforwardly, what if (as Dan O has suggested) the only proper response to godforsakeness is to “live in such a way that makes resurrection necessary?” In other words, what if the inner logic of doxology now consists in lamentation, confused anger, and “violent” catharsis? What if it looks like living in a way that brings the ruthless vehemence of the Powers down on our heads?

    • Hi Chris,
      I really like what you say, especially about moving from language about “the God-Who-Meets-the-Suffering” and exploring discipleship in the context of godforsakenness.
      I’m also in agreement with your last paragraph — at least if I understand it correctly — but I’m curious as to what that actually looks like to you (if you can speak about it). For me, it looks like something I am unwilling to do while I have little kids.

      • Thus far, my own experience has been of walking with others in nurturing a community praxis that defies church-sanctioned norms (friendship with and accompaniment of folks dealing with homelessness and various addictions), as well as engaging in a Will Campbell style pursuit of racial reconciliation (befriending people who are historically at odds with one another and looking for avenues of healing). And for my wife and I, it has also meant non-violent direct action resulting in arrest and minor charges.
        Given that we’re in a small southern city famous for being shaped by the founder of the moral majority, this has upset the local religious elite maybe more than one would expect. And our relationship with certain people has resulted in an annoying surveillance by the feds as well as the local police, including regular, exaggerated police pull-overs and more than one exaggerated raid of people’s homes (no weapons found, and only minor drugs, and much to the chagrin of the police, my friends had the consent of the owners to be there.)
        With that said, I think our times call for extending berrigan-style witness into new territories, drawing on contemporary examples from outside the plowshares movement.
        I have more to say on this, so perhaps you’d email me your email address?

    • I’m planning on responding to you and Daniel, but my life has been total madness lately. It should quiet down a little in the few days (I hope), so I’m planning on writing soon.

  3. Hey DanO. First, of course as an ardent deconstructionist the “failure of words” is a hobby-horse of mine. Every time we speak we are building a cathedral (and sure sometimes cathedrals are quite beautiful, unfortunately some of my favorites are built right on top of old “pagan temples” or native burial grounds, which is another way of saying on top of other people’s dictionaries! Hey, read some of Ray Carver’s short stories, they deal with this kind of thing a lot). I been FBing about that video on “religion” that has gone viral, in short, language is religion, with all it’s problematics. Whatever heaven is, I think it must be a place that is “outside the text.”
    Sorry about what happened at the shelter, seemed like you were just about getting all the power relations hammered out. I thought that the folks you emailed had a lot of really good insights. Sort of like we all pitched in a helped you write a marriage proposal for your steady beau, and then you up and dumped her! Well, anyway there were some good ideas in there for the next project I think, I know I leaned a lot from what others wrote. And get back to work on that book!
    I don’t think you can find HW’s last song on-line. I have a copy but you really need to see it because it has all the strike throughs and edits on it. I used some of the lines from that last song, and another of his last unpublished ones called “My Dreams all Died” and some of my own to compose the song below. I interjected lines from his song “I saw the light” with it to offer a bit of psychological relief. I played it the other night with a fiddle and mandolin player for the first time and it sounded pretty good.
    ‘Lost In the Heavens’
    Like a lonely dove, lost in the heavens
    My sorrows more, than I can hide.
    In this game of life, I’v been a loser.
    Cause yesterday, my dreams all died.
    I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin
    I wouldn’t let my, dear savior in.
    Then Jesus came like, a stranger in the night.
    Praise the lord, I saw the light.
    Sometimes life, can be so bitter.
    No matter how, how hard you’ve tried.
    will death be sweeter, beyond the river.
    Come the day, our dreams all die.
    Just like the blind man, I wandered alone.
    Worries and fears, I claimed for my own.
    Then like the blind man, God gave back his sight.
    Praise the lord, I saw the light.
    I pray you’ll never know, this kind of sorrow.
    May happiness, walk by your side.
    Though I have loved and lost, and for me life’s over.
    I pray your dreams, will never die.
    I was a fool, to wander and stray.
    But straight is the gate, and narrow the way.
    Now I have traded, the wrong for the right.
    Praise the lord, I saw the light.
    I saw the Light, I saw the light.
    Now more darkness, no more night.
    Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.
    Praise the lord, I saw the light.
    Recall that Hank wrote “I Saw the Light” after a night of heavy drinking (with his driver) and they couldn’t find their way home. The driver finally spotted the light on top of a corn silo close to Hank’s house and told him “I see the light Hank, we’re almost home.” I reckon a good portion of the bible was written in like manner, or at least I hope so. Don’t spend any more time on the couch than necessary, and that daytime TV is a soul-killer so go get some videos from the library. I always watch the “Lonesome Dove,” series when I am home sick or out of work. And if you like HW you better see “Tender Mercies” (#6 in my top 100) Robert Duvall wrote and sang most of the songs himself.
    Take care brother, and let me close with some Rabbi K. (did I post this before?) Well this was the last thing the Rebbe wrote before hiding everything away in a steel box to be miraculously discovered many years later: “These are the words of your brother, who is broken and crushed from my own sorrow and the sorrows of of all Israel–which are profound as the Great Deep and as exalted as the highest heavens, who awaits God’s salvation, which comes in an eye blink.” Now get on FB or yo might miss the whole damn thing! obliged and blessings and ‘keep looking up and listen for the shout!‘ Daniel.

  4. This is very powerful. Thank you. It reminds me of a poem I wrote during a dark time.
    The sadness flows around me
    I can neither explain nor escape it.
    The sun shines but my heart weeps
    An abyss of pain that overshadows all.
    Small sorrows yield rivers of tears
    I can only say, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me”
    The disconnect between reality and my feelings
    Is jarring
    Crazy-making distance between
    What’s going on and the wild cry
    “What’s going on???”
    The music of God is silenced by
    Crashing metal noise.
    My peace is hidden from me
    Behind torrents of anguish.
    Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me.
    As pastor of a poor house church, I have worked with addicts, alcoholics, gangsters, ex-cons, etc.
    Sometimes all I can do is look at them with love.
    Thanks again.
    Sr. Patti McClellan, OMC

  5. Hey Dan, if you want to chat more about this, let me know, and I’ll follow your blog from now on. Sorry if I’m not always prompt to reply.

  6. Hi Dan,
    I wanted to email you a quick question and can’t find your address on the blog. Would you mind emailing me at eastbk [at] gmail [dot] com? Thanks.

  7. Thank you for your thoughts; sorry to respond so late. or at all, but
    I appreciate that this line of thought does not heap shame on the suffering and addicted, but allows that there is something there to affirm, something human. I hope more people see this. And it helps me feel the connection between waiting and faith.