Advent 1: Is Hope Toxic Positivity?

I recently had the privilege of participating in a meeting with chaplains who are looking for ways to offer spiritual care, especially to people experiencing despair in a climate changed world. When talking about how to offer hope, thoughtful leaders a few decades younger than I shared that the current generation often experiences the word HOPE as something akin to toxic positivity. Toxic positivity refers to cultural expectations that we maintain a pseudo-optimistic outlook while denying truths about abuses of power, systematic oppression and intersectional injustice.

As one generally allergic to Pollyanna positivity, I whole heartedly agree that hope is toxic when it suppresses authentic feelings, discourages honest communication, oversimplifies complex issues and neutralizes engaged action.

Yes, and – I want to lift up how I experience hope. For me, hope is more than optimism or wishful thinking. And hope is anything but toxic positivity. Active hope is the seed of change.

I’ve experienced the power of active hope in my own life as a queer person of faith.

Once upon a time I had hope that I could live fully actualized in all spheres of my life, without having to choose between faith and authenticity.

When I came out and my “Christian” family walked away from me I began to sink into an abyss of despair. With a constant craving for a spiritual life, I had to rewild the domesticated faith of my childhood or sink into nihilistic numbness. I attended seminary to give my wobbly faith a set of tools to wrestle with experience, tradition and reason. I encountered progressive and liberation theologies and started blogging about the intersection of being queer and Christian in the American south. I connected with communities of faith where the fullness of my humanity was affirmed. I extracted myself from relationships that limited my thriving. I found the love of my life and moved to The Netherlands where my faith and life continue to evolve.

If I’d lingered too long in (valid) despair, nothing would have changed for me. Hope moved me into action. Active hope is the seed of change.

Joanna Macy wrote in Active Hope, “Active Hope is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or by some savior. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at this time. We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part. With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store, strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.”

As I understand it, Active hope:

  • is a verb that acknowledges the painful truth about a current situation. “I understand the difficulties we’re facing, and I believe we can find a way through.”
  • honors a range of emotions, including so-called negative feelings. “It’s okay to feel upset about this. Let’s work through it together and find a way forward.”
  • inspires proactive behavior and problem-solving while maintaining a growth mindset. “We can overcome this by working together. What steps can we take to improve the situation?”
  • balances optimism with a realistic understanding of the situation. “Despite the challenges, I truly believe in our ability to make things better.” 

Empty, toxic hope in the face of climate change might look like:

  • denying the severity of environmental degradation,
  • invalidating deep grief for the state of the world,
  • passively waiting for things to get better on their own.
  • and inducing shame for feeling bereft, angry and powerless. 

For me, active hope is intertwined with the belief that change is relational and it requires partnering with the Divine (however we may understand Her). So, with the hope that we humans will change how we treat our common home, the earth, I set myself on the path to learning how I can invite people into renewed relationship with the sacred in and through the natural world.

Maybe, just maybe, if people slow down and spend intentional, sacred time in nature, we can remember that we are part of, not apart from, the web of life. Maybe remembering our kinship with the more-than-human world will sew the seeds of love. Maybe that love will take root and change how we behave toward our kin.

Not just if we recycle or not. Not just if we eat local, seasonal foods or not. Not just if we plant a tree or not. Not just if we step out of the consumerism cycle or not.

What if this rooted love compels us to hold our local politicians and business owners accountable for how they treat people and the planet? And then, what if we seriously challenge our governments who are bought and paid for by the corporations whose greed knows no end? What if, at the cost of our own comfort, we start dismantling the system that treats humans and nature as consumable resources for wealth accumulation?

Over the past few years I sought and earned certification as a nature therapy guide. I invested my time, heart, mind and money in changing my own life so I can offer myself to opening hearts and minds, one walk in the woods at a time.

In 2023 the change I hope for looked like offering a wild church experience to a Christian group in Florida, sharing forest bathing with faith leaders in Maine and co-hosting a spiritual rewilding retreat for LGBTQIA+ folx in the American south.

The powers and principalities of this world don’t want us to have hope, because if we are hopeless we don’t believe change is possible, we won’t even try, and nothing in fact changes. Hope is defiant in the face of despair.

Active hope lifts my ecological despair into action.

On this first Sunday of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the shadows of night come earlier, we kindle the first of four candles, a flicker of hope in the gathering darkness. Is this tiny light atop my individual candle merely an illusion that distracts me from malevolent forces or is it a spark that ignites action?

Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that Mary’s Magnificat, her song awaiting the birth of a child she hoped would change the world is “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world.”

The story of Advent is the story of active, radical hope. The hope of Advent is one that believes that the divine acts in and through the flesh of this world to overturn the dominant paradigm to bring all beings into right relationship with self, others and the Ground of Our Being.

Hope is defiant. Hope is power.

So with a wild faith I still light the first candle of Advent with hope that my tiny flicker lights another candle, and that candle lights more candles and one day, probably well after my wee flame has winked out, the whole world is shining with with interdependent thriving.

Author: Kimberly

walk with me