Christchurch's reasonable hope


'New Zealand's darkest day', The AgeChristchurch Cathedral stood proud on the square that carries its name. Sitting at the heart of the city, this Kiwi icon has developed a tradition of welcoming all comers, religious or not.

When the tower of this beloved, gothic church crumbled in the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that rocked Christchurch this week, it was more than just another building down. Without that distinctive spire to connect to, Cantabrians lost one of their traditional points of reference in a world that is becoming, as one of my friends said, 'absolute hell'.

Christchurch has experienced nearly 5000 quakes since the 7.1 shake that raced through the city in the dead of night last September. Although there were injuries and significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, that night, there were no deaths.

This time it was different. The quake struck at lunchtime when pedestrians were in full stride and schools back in full swing after the holidays. So far, 75 people have been confirmed dead and Christchurch hospital is overflowing with casualties, which are transferred to other centres as needed.

Buildings have collapsed and emergency services are progressively freeing those trapped inside, while others wait for news of loved ones. The long haul of recovery beckons.

Living with uncertainty is the reality of existence. We pretend otherwise by constructing systems and traditions that look reliable, until we are stopped in our tracks by a disaster such as that which has struck Christchurch. At times like this, when all our usual reference points have disintegrated, people can react in unusual ways.

Trawling the blogs, Facebook, media reports and tweets I've been interested by how many times the phrase 'Our thoughts and prayers are with you' pops up. This from people, including New Zealand's Prime Minister, who claim no religion, though appear to be edging towards some form of spirituality.

When trouble overwhelms us it is instinctive to call out to God. It matters little what your theology is, or if you believe in God or not. What matters is the ability and freedom to express powerlessness in the face of tragedy and ongoing uncertainty. It's like yelling to the universe, I have no hope. Help!

Kaethe Weingarten, an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, distinguishes between 'reasonable' and 'unreasonable' hope.

Hopelessness thrives, says Weingarten, when the future is known, certain and bleak. Expressing hopelessness in the midst of rolling earthquakes is normal, because hope requires ready access to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which trauma and stress diminish. Somehow, enough quiet has to penetrate the limbic system to stem the chemical cascades that set off hyperarousal and fear.

Great cathedrals, their magnificent processions and choirs, come into their own at times of community chaos. They unfold rituals that promote stillness, and which suggest a way of holding the untenable, the overwhelming and the incomprehensible. This is their raison d'etre.

This is why the people of Christchurch love their cathedral, even if they'd never dream of hanging out there. Sometimes, as we get on with coming to terms with our despair, it is enough to know that there's a place that has been prepared for people to sit in the mystery and hold a space as sacred.

Despite our best efforts, hope can remain elusive unless we downsize expectations. As Weingarten explains it, reasonable hope is a smaller but more attainable version of the impossible dream.

Unreasonable hope is when we think God will save Christchurch, or that anything is going to be the same again after thousands of quakes. Reasonable hope means we become realistic, sensible and moderate, directing our attention to what is within reach instead of what is desired but unattainable.

Bob Parker, Christchurch's mayor, is operating with reasonable hope when he acknowledges that more deaths are likely, that he is worried about his folks just like you may be, and that while life is so disrupted it's important to stay where you are to care for yourself, your family and neighbours.

Be as still as possible in a quaking world, downsize expectations, narrow down geographically and take smaller steps while still giving of your best. In this way, says Weingarten, we practice reasonable hope, a profoundly creative process through which the future emerges.

Sande RamageSande Ramage is an Anglican Priest and blogger from New Zealand.

Topic tags: Sande Ramage, Christchurch, earthquake, reasonable hope, Bob Parker, Kaethe Weingarten



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Existing comments

'Unreasonable hope' is a valuable concept. I see hope (as distinct from optimism) as having three elements: 1. there being a strong grasp of the existing situation (a realistic appraisal of the trajectory of current events; 2. a clear vision of a better end/result, etc.; 3. actually working with others who share the vision.

Len Puglisi | 24 February 2011  

Reasonable hope comes within the capability of human kind.

We can see the possibilities ourselves, we an cope ourselves, we can manage the outcomes in a reasonable and sensible way however horrific they may be.

Do we need God in the picture at all if we can manage the resaonable hope ourselves.

GAJ | 24 February 2011  

Some welcome insights in the face of such devastating events that leave us feeling helpless. Reasonable hope is a vital component of resilience which we know humans are capable of, even after the most grim catastrophes, whether natural like earthquakes, fires, floods, or the carnage that sometimes humans wreak in war etc.

Myrna | 24 February 2011  

As a Christian meditator, I read your article with great interest. Stillness, both physical and mental, is key to creating a space where the presence of the Divine can be experienced. When our world is, literally, collapsing around us, where do we go? When our cathedrals crumble, where doe we "sit in the mystery and hold a space as sacred"? Christian meditation will not prevent earthquakes and tragedy, nor is it meant as a quick escape from the reality of such disasters. Rather, it can create in people a ready stillness, a hope in the face of apparent hopelessness.

Maria Baden | 25 February 2011  

This is a sensitive and timely article on hope. As Christians we rely on God's presence in our lives and in the liturgy of late we have read once again in Matthew 5 the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" That's all of humanity, totally reliant on God especially when we feel confounded by events like the Horror of Christchurch.

It is exactly our poverty of spirit which when looking at the scale of this disaster makes us turn to God for hope and spiritual support because we are powerless in the face of disaster on this scale. And, comfortingly evident is the extraordinary response from God in the giftedness of so many people who have come forward to assist from all parts of gthe world. They bring their particular expertise to the fore while others prepare food and offer shelter for those in need.

This is humanity at its finest and by contrast its weakest moments. Let us all offer our prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving for hope realised in God's work exhibited in the gifts of humanity evident on the streets of Christchurch now,and in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia in recent times.

Paul Rummery | 26 February 2011  

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