Dismantling the system with pragmatic hope

You can listen to an audio recording of this letter here (11 mins)


Dear friends.

I like to think of you as friends. Or at least that we gather here in the spirit of friendship. It makes writing these letters to you more real, more connected for me. In writing to a friend we are writing to a companion on a journey, a fellow seeker, those who have a listening ear and an open heart. A friend is a companion in adventure, and whether close or distant, an acquaintance or even a stranger, to commune in friendship is to turn towards each other and be willing to see the best in each other, even through the rough times.

So, right now, in order to write this, I’m imagining you sitting nearby, as a companion would, tucked in by the fire. I’m sitting on my sheepskin rug, having just made a pot of tea. You’ve brought the dark chocolate and I’ve put some logs on the flames. We are in for the night.

And so, to begin, I’d want to hear what is bringing you alive right now. I’d want to know what’s in your heart, what’s really in your heart- even the anger, even the fear, even the doubt, even the hurt. You’d tell me things that you’ve been holding onto, and in the telling you can sense that you are passing them over to me for a while, and it would make things lighter. Then, when I pass them back to you, without me having said a word, you’d feel that they’ve changed shape. The worries and fears are less complex somehow, better understood.

And then I’d begin by telling you that the blackberries were beyond generous this year, and how it has amazed me, the abundance. I’d show you my inky fingers, still purple from the morning’s pickings, and I’d promise you a jar of jam from the next batch. And then I’d tell you how I hosted my first solo writing retreat this week, and how it was deep, and intense, and challenging for both the writer, and for me. But I’d also explain that there were moments when life’s clarity jumped from the page, and shed new light on everything, and how we were right in the creative process, even the messy bits, and got to a place where the journey ahead for the writing revealed itself as exactly that, a journey. But I’d also say that I felt I could have done better, and I made mistakes. And, you’d probably tell me to be less hard on myself, but I’d explain that I’m glad, in a way, that it was challenging, because now I can really learn to sit into the imperfection, knowing that it too is part of the beauty, and the growth.

Then you’d tell me about your own dreams, and the ideas you are working on, and this ‘thing’ that you just won’t go away. And both of us can sense that the ‘thing’, is a key, and to lean in there. 

And then I’d also explain that the real issue is that I’m tired. Not physically, but tired of the system. I am tired of how the cultural and social paradigm we are in is being designed to keep us locked in a frenzy of production. And when I say system, I mean it on many levels too. I’d start with ‘social media’, and my opening up to you may also sound like a rant. And maybe it is. Because I am tired of the constant stream of messages and images, the noise, the sharing photos of people’s armpits and last meal. But I’d tell you that I am aware, acutely aware, that some amazing connections continue to happen for me though these channels, like when a ‘stranger’ reached out to me online, and offered to help host a writing workshop in her city. So, on 9th October, we experiment in Leiden. And deep down I know the experiment has already worked, because whether or not I get enough people for the workshop, we both leaned into trust rather than fear, into connection rather than distance.

I’d offer you another cup of tea, and add more fuel to the fire while you tell me about a similar experience, about a stranger reaching out with kindness, and another, and another. And I’d remember more stories, and more. And soon we’d be bursting with remembrance of our humanity, our shared beingness. As the flames of the fire rise again, our faith would be restored. We’d vow to continue. 

But we’d acknowledge too that we are up against this system. And I’d invite you in a little closer, telling you that over the summer, I was fighting an internal battle with the cynicism, with all the things, – the media, business, money, and mainstream mechanisms of power, and the distribution of it too. It felt huge and weighty. So yes, I’d tell you I was feeling so overwhelmed and how sometimes I just didn’t know what to do next. But I’d also tell you that the days I let the cynicism take hold, they were the worst days. But the days I was just was able to sit with all the unknown, and all the grief for everything, then these days, I always found openings, and once I let the tears come, I could feel that behind the tears was a deeper understanding and the space for renewal.

So I’d tell you then that I am beginning realise the urgency of hope. Not hope as an idealised future, not hope as blind optimism, but hope as a pragmatic, active hope. It is a hope which is renewed each time I see the restoration of humanity in the simple daily acts right by my door. Like how a shy neighbour tends to her garden as if the whole world depends on it (and maybe it does).  Or like how, even today, I met a woman by the sea, who told me her husband had died a few months ago, and how we looked into each other’s eyes not trying to change anything, but to accept. Then we turned to the mountain behind us and spoke of how beautiful it is when the cloud’s shadow cross it, before walking each other back to the village.

So, yes, pragmatic hope, we’d define as: to work with the openings; to keep following that which is alive in us; and to keep fighting the old paradigms which keep us trapped.
And suddenly there’d be this burst of energy. So I’d get out a large sheet of paper, and you’d rummage for the markers, and together we come up a list of ideas about what we can do to keep pragmatic hope alive. The list makes us feel giddy, if somewhat nerdy, and we’d relish it. Or at least I would, and you’d possibly be embarrassed for me, but out of kindness would keep that to yourself.

It would take about 10 minutes. By the end we’d each have a sprawling list, marked in coloured pens, scribbles, as every work in process should be. This is what mine would look like…


At first, they’d all have a theme

1. If you like and admire someone else’s creative work, don’t just share a link on social media, tell someone else about it, a real, live flesh-in-bones connection. ‘Hey, this interesting and I think you’d benefit from it. Let’s not rely on internet algorithms to spread beauty and hope

2. Let’s not measure worth by numbers of internet followers either. Let’s return to a sense of intrinsic worth. Then let’s value depth of relationship, genuine connection, the quality of conversations over a metric designed by tech companies to quantify as growth.

3. Equally, don’t assume that because someone has lots of ‘followers’ that their work is any better quality than what you can offer. (They may just understand the algorithms better).

4.  Unfollow’ people who make you feel worse about your body/ self/ achievements/ worth. 

5. Introduce a tech shabbat. This is one day a week off screens and gadgets. Let’s be careful with what we are giving our attention too, and create space for quite, reflection, creative stirrings, and loved ones*.

6. Once you start to notice the old hierarchies of the power system, you start to notice it everywhere. So notice it more. Ask yourself how you are unconsciously replicating the system by the structures you are designing in your organisations, business, and communities.

7. Use your local library. These places are magic gardens for creativity and hope. By using the library we are also helping to keep it open for those who don’t have the same access to the resources, means and technology we may have, or a time when we don’t have the means.

8. Widen the parameters of wealth—wealth as friendship, time, experiences. Let’s not chase after the wrong metric of success.

9. Trust in gut. Our intuition is one of our best radars. Let’s trust in what is calling us, and stop second guessing ourselves so much.

10. Reclaim our stories. Writing our stories helps us to uncover the ways we have given away our power and voice. In writing we get to re-author our lives. As a bonus it also helps us find the threads of our purpose and our callings.

11. Let’s value experiences over ‘stuff’. And if we are to invest in things, let’s invest in craftsmanship and things that last. Let’s support local artisans and producers, potters and painters, independent bookshops and makers.

12. Similar to wealth, re-examine what success looks like. Are we still harbouring external expectations and social constructs of what we ‘should’ be?

13. Notice someone who is lonely? Sit beside them for a while, even it you don’t know what to say, perhaps just your presence will be enough. Let’s not reinforce the walls

14. Be still. Let silence in for at least 10 minutes a day, and take back the space in your brain. Let’s occupy ourselves again, fully. 


We realise the lists can go on. And you’d read yours to me, and we’d laugh at the way you mentioned about how we should go skinny dipping in public places, and we laugh even more picturing all the naked old people in Schull down at the harbour having a picnic and a dip.

And overall, we’d feel better having sat by the fire, listening to each other. Less overwhelmed, more connected. And I’d realise I’m less tired too, and ready to learn and go on. I’d realise it was the listening that made the difference, and the friendship, and the inner fire which was kindled through presence, and big white sheets of paper and activism.

So we’d realise it was late, and time for you to go home. And as I open the door to let you out, we’d both look up at the clear night sky, dark but luminous, and hear the sound of the waves in the distance, crashing against the rocks and breaking them apart, slowly and steadily over time, until a new shore is made and the landscape forever changed. 

..… *a nod to Vanessa Reid and Tiffany Shlain for this idea)


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