Living by vow: Where hope meets intention and will

Living by vow: Where hope meets intention and will[1]


You know the world has shifted when the idea of hope has become a widely discussed and contested notion. Prompted by the ever-morphing COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing bite of climate change, the shift is characterized by the altered order of things and grief. For example, a New Yorker cartoon of four children sitting behind a birthday cake as one of them prepares to blow out the candles bears the caption, “Don’t overthink it—any wish that’s not about reversing climate change is pretty pointless anyhow.”[2] Opposite wishing is resignation, such as the inimitable Lady Violet of Downton Abbey remarking, “Hope is a tease designed to prevent us accepting reality.”

But there are more constructive perspectives. Thomas Merton advocated recognizing the present moment’s challenges and possibilities and embracing them “with courage, faith, and hope.”[3] Hilton Als says, “a sense of purpose… is ultimately what hope is.”[4] Individuals from Gautama Buddha to George Bernard Shaw have pronounced on the centrality of purpose. The latter identifies it as “the true joy in life,” the former says, “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.”

Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and Zen priest with considerable experience dealing with seemingly hopeless situations, expands on the connection between hope and purpose by distinguishing between “ordinary hope” and “wise hope.” Based in desire, ordinary hope “has an expectation that always hovers in the background, the shadow of fear that one’s wishes will not be fulfilled.” Wise hope is “living by vow”; “our vows support us in staying aligned with our deepest values.”[5]

The wise hope that interweaves living by vow is more robust and action-oriented than the wishfulness of ordinary hope. It enables and requires a determined push into newness and toward the positive. Equally, it can be a form of resistance against the negative. In her November 2018 TED Talk, 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg maintained “the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”[6] Author Rebecca Solnit refines this proposition when she writes, “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”[7]

Wise hope and living by vow are powerful expressions, as Halifax says, “of fundamental integrity and respect.” They acknowledge “we can’t know how things will turn out, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And something deep inside us affirms what is good and right to do.”[8] Put another way, wise hope and living by vow clearly and resolutely engage a person’s agency, intention, and will.

Just before the pandemic hit the United States, the South Dakota poet, Phyllis Cole-Dai, dreamt that “a relative who was dying invited the family in for a celebration of her life…. And she asked us to read a poem to her together.”[9] In the dream, the poem took the form of a remarkable, turquoise-coloured volume that Cole-Dai described as “a very, very special book.” The “multitudes of people” who gathered around their dying relative’s bed to read the poem were only able to do this because they were in a “dream world.” When they read the poem, “an amazing wave of love and consolation swept through us. And it was that feeling, I think, that woke me up. [It] was almost like a voice telling me that I needed to write the words of this poem down.”

Cole-Dai’s meditative poem, “For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing,” has been likened to a balm, a gift, and a life raft that can carry people “to the other side of [their] journey of grief.”[10] To me, it applies as much to the climate crisis as it does to the pandemic. The poem begins: “For the sake of one we love / and are losing, / we will not be afraid. / But when we are afraid / we will embrace what we fear / as if it were a lost child / crying in our arms. / We will not walk away / from what needs to be seen / and cared for. / We will not walk away.”[11]

In Cole-Dai’s five-minute reading of her inspired poem , the emphasis she gives the repeated line, “We will… not… walk… away,” is an expression of wise hope and living by vow.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He encourages readers to check out Phyllis Cole-Dai’s remarkable poem.

  1. A shorter version of this article was first published under the title “The difference between ordinary and wise hope” in the Victoria Times Colonist, Saturday, February 26, 2022, C4. This version was prompted by the author’s brother, Michael, who suggested that the notion of living by vow required more explanation. This suggestion led to the inclusion of much of the material that now appears in paragraphs four and five.
  2. The New Yorker, September 20, 2021, 54.
  3. Kristi Nelson, Deepening Our Comfort with Uncertainty,” DAILYGOOD, November 5, 2020.
  4. Hilton Als, “Homecoming: There was no way to save Ma’s sense of community and hope,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2020, 18-23 (20).
  5. Rev. Joan Halifax, “Wise Hope in Social Engagement,” DAILYGOOD, Nov. 15, 2021 –
  6. Greta Thunberg, “The disarming case to act right now on climate change,” TEDxStockholm, November 2018, 10:06. Greta Thunberg was born January 3, 2003.
  7. Solnit’s words are part of the epigraph to Rev. Halifax’s article cited in footnote v.
  8. Halifax.
  9. The quotes in this paragraph related to the dream and the poem and others that follow are from: “For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing: A Meditative Poem,” DAILYGOOD for January 28, 2021 –
  10. Poet Maryanne Murphy Zarzana quoted in “For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing: A Meditative Poem,” DailyGood for January 28, 2021.
  11. This portion of the poem is quoted with the permission of Phyllis Cole-Dai.
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