Anne Lamott on How to Find a Wellspring of Hope in a Desperate Desert of Despair


Pain is an inescapable fact of life: for every moment of ecstasy, there is misery; for every intoxicating love, there is sobering heartbreak; for every pronouncement of undying devotion, there is betrayal.  Inevitably, to live is to die, to love is to lose.  The question isn’t if we’ll suffer, but rather when we will.

How do we bear this unavoidable truth of being alive?  How do we persist when our lover smashes our heart?  when we get a harrowing phone call from the hospital in the middle of the night?  when calamity and catastrophe split our lives into two distinct eras: “before” and “after”?  How do we find the resiliency of spirit to keep on keeping on?  How do we resist the temptation to simply throw our hands up in defeat and say “I give up”?

How we find a flickering light of hope amidst the impenetrable darkness of despair is what Anne Lamott ponders in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  Much like Emily Dickinson, Lamott believes “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  But she also knows there are times when tragedy unexpectedly wreaks havoc on our lives, when our delicate bird of hope— the skittish thing— escapes the security of its cage and flutters out the window.  At its heart, Small Victories suggests the only way to recover hope in times of overwhelming despair is by starting small: by taking life one day, one hour, at a time, by practicing compassion and forgiveness (especially toward ourselves), by doing something kind for someone else.

In “Ham from God,” Lamott writes in her trademark style of down-to-earth wit and wisdom hard-won.  The year is 2003: the paranoid Bush era of weapons of mass destruction and preemptive self-defense.  Lamott recalls that on her 49th birthday she decided things were hopeless.  Terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, presidents invaded helpless foreign nations without just cause, teenagers graffitied swastikas on park benches and bathroom stalls.  “How are we going to get through this craziness?” she asks her priest friend Tom.  To which he replies: “Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”

Since Biblical times, the wilderness, or desert, has evoked feelings of abandonment, desolation and despair.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach so gracefully notes, in the wilderness “you can wail and gnash your teeth all you want, but no one hears your heart tearing asunder except God, who presumably sent you there.”  Death, divorce: it is during these distressing times that we are broken to be made whole.  Like Moses, we have no choice but to endure— despite the scorching sun, despite the sands that seemingly stretch out forever, despite the lack of water.  With endearing humility and self-deprecating humor, Lamott confesses that— though Father Tom and some of her more “spiritual” friends have come to appreciate the tribulations of the desert— she’d rather learn life’s difficult lessons from the air-conditioned comfort of a car or luxury resort: 

“Father Tom loves the desert.  A number of my friends do.  They love the skies that pull you into infinity, like the ocean.  They love the silence, and how, if you listen long enough, the pulse of the desert, begins to sound like the noise your finger makes when you run it around the rim of a crystal glass.  They love the scary beauty— snakes, lizards, scorpions; kestrels and hawks.  They love the mosaics of water-washed pebbles on the desert floor, small rocks that cast huge shadows, a shoot of vegetation here, a wildflower there. 

I like the desert for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked.  I prefer beach resorts with room service.”

When God has seemed to forsake us in the desert, where do we even start?  For Lamott, the answer is small.  In much the same way we surmount writer’s block by breaking up daunting tasks into short assignments, we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water.  Or as her wise friend Tom reminds her:

“We start by being kind to ourselves.  We breathe, we eat…We take care of the suffering.”

After her conversation with Tom, Lamott prays for help.  When she goes to the grocery store shortly after, she’s surprised when she wins a free ham:

“I felt blindsided by the news.  I had asked for help, not a ham…I almost suggested that the checker award the ham to the next family that paid with food stamps.  But for some reason, I waited.  If God gave me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it.  Maybe it was the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

As she lugs what she comes to think of as that “fucking ham” out the store, Lamott— in a moment of blissfully-timed serendipity— runs into an old friend who’s down on her luck and needs food.  “Do you and your kids like ham?” Lamott asks.  “We love it!” she replies.  As her friend drives away in tearful gratitude, her ham strapped into the passenger seat, Lamott realizes even in the driest desert rain eventually arrives: 

“Walking back to the car, I thought about the seasonal showers in the desert, how the potholes in the rocks fill up with rain.  When you look afterward, there are already frogs in the water and brine shrimp reproducing, like commas doing the macarena, and it seems, but only seems, that you went from parched to overflow in the blink of an eye.”

Like a reassuring conversation with a supportive, sympathetic friend, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace will cheer a discouraged heart and mend a dispirited soul.  For more from the eternally optimistic embracer of our human frailties Anne Lamott, read how friendship teaches us to be merciful and how to salvage your sanity in a nutty world