In the Midnight Hour: On Mattering, Will, and Hope
My favorite bar in Chicago is a small brunch place in an out-of-the-way neighborhood that becomes a gay bar by night. One of its unique features is that, unlike most gay bars whose DJs provided meticulously curated playlists, this bar leaves a jar for song requests, which usually means that every time I go there’s about an hour in the night where we’re hearing songs we all know deeply and love well, shouting along to the lyrics. When we go back to visit, I make sure I make a stop there, and in August of 2019 I stood, grooving to Rihanna, and realized I wanted to hear “Like a Prayer” by Madonna.
A spiritual person who I followed on social media had posted a link to an astrological writing about the end of Jupiter’s retrograde period and its return to direct motion. This writer, Aeolian Heart, spoke of Jupiter’s role in faith, hope, and meaning, and in this article she used “Like a Prayer” as a love song between Spirit and Soul in their blissful union. From her perspective, Spirit is that part of us that animates and vitalizes us with a sense of larger purpose, a sense of meaning beyond what we can know in any moment. Soul, in turn, is closer to us, that part of us that gathers and processes our experiences and longings, both our sufferings and our joys, on this earth.
To say 2019 had been a rough year thus far would be accurate but almost laughably underwhelming, as it had begun to seem that every year since 2014 had been an increasing pile-up of collective nightmares. Personally, 2019 had featured a surprise palsy in my right hand which meant I was struggling to grip, lift, and type, and later the unexpected-in-the-moment collapse of a beloved relationship.
My old ways of being had come to fail me. My physical therapist had to teach me how to use my shoulders correctly so they weren’t impinging the nerves in my arm. Meanwhile, all my efforts of people-pleasing and taking full accountability without insisting upon the same was no longer serving me or my partners, even when I convinced myself it was working fine. Physical and emotional stress eroded the resilience of my nervous system until one weird, unexpectedly fateful dinner in which I unconsciously massaged a sore spot in my upper arm and, according to my physical therapist, overtaxed the nerve until it finally had enough, as though giving up in self-protection.
That following month included three weeks in which my boyfriend and I had a fight nearly every day, or he somehow expressed ways in which I and our relationship was not working for him, and I saw my mental wellness plummeting. In the face of this, my anger rose with all the intensity of the long-submerged wants and needs that were no longer willing to be set aside for the comfort of others.
A clarity began to take me, that I needed to take full responsibility for my life and well-being, which at times meant becoming boundaried so that I could focus on caring for the needs that were not being included. When, finally, I decided I was not going to work harder than everyone else to keep things together, the relationship dissolved in that way that felt both sudden and yet, in retrospect, seemingly inevitable.
After this, meaning seemed to leave me for a time. What is meaning in a world in which everything eventually turns to dust? Beyond my personal turmoil, watching the rise of white supremacist fascists in the federal government, I had long recognized we were moving through a time of Fascism and resistance, but I’d found comfort in believing I could leave something for the future generations to connect with once the tide of authoritarianism failed and rolled back. But news of impending climate failure eroded my hope that there would even be future generations.
In the face of the most existential of existential dilemmas—the potential that our civilization, if not our species, could be in its final decline within my lifetime—I who had at times struggled with the depressive belief in the meaninglessness of my life now found even that familiar groove lacked comfort. In the past I found comfort in reincarnation and the hope of being born into a better future. Now I’d begun revisiting the belief in transcendence and the hope of leaving this hell world to a saner place. But none of these beliefs brought true comfort or meaning. They were, fundamentally, coming from a place of resignation and escape, not courage and liberation.
Reading the piece on Jupiter’s direct station started to refresh that sense of hope. If only the hope for hope. And we were on vacation, and there was much dancing to be done, so when I stood in that bar screaming along to Whitney Houston asking if you wanted to dance with somebody who loves her, I realized that if I requested “Like a Prayer,” not only was it likely we’d all dance to it, but we’d all be sharing this as a moment of ritual. And if my request was a spell for the restoration of hope, together we might call that energy forth.
As we sang, “In the midnight hour / I can feel your Power,” late into the night I felt my will in manifestation. Here was an experience I wanted to have, and through my actions and intent I created it. My will was powerful.
And my will was a drop in the ocean. That moment was the confluence of a multitude of wills—all those who had shown up to dance and enjoy themselves, the workers who gave us libations and kept the space safe, the DJ who accepted and curated requests, the collective will of thousands upon thousands of people who have played “Like a Prayer” over the years such that the song has accreted depth and meaning, and of course Madonna herself who, with other musicians and producers and who knows who else created and launched this song into the world.
In Western occultism, will is a principle that is both practical and profoundly spiritual. It is our capacity to act in accordance with intention. To do the thing we say we will do. At its most grandiose, will becomes aligned with a sense of greater purpose and mission, a greater work that we are called to do that emerges from of a deep, persistent desire embedded throughout our lives. But there is not necessarily a way in which that greater will is superior to the simple, daily will, for the former is enhanced by the latter. Will is the expression of personal power by which we mark the world.
What is will in a world in which everything will turn to dust? We rarely if ever know the extent to which that mark changes the world, whether it was for good or ill or both, or how others are impacted. The lucky among us get glimpses of positive feedback.
I spent a good chunk of my early adulthood in Chicago, where I felt I didn’t matter much. It was a story I’d brought with me out of my childhood, feeling invisible and unwanted and reactively distancing myself from all the people who may have liked and valued me a lot more than I knew at the time.
A story like that, “I don’t matter,” has an aliveness of its own that threads its way through time and space. It’s tricky and adaptive, able to find new justification in any circumstance. In my childhood, I didn’t matter because I couldn’t play baseball or something like that, it’s surprisingly hard to remember the specific circumstances outside of the felt memory of speaking and being ignored.
And as I write this, I remember all the times my parents urged me to speak up and stop mumbling. That is the other pernicious effect of such stories. By believing in their truth, we unwittingly participate in the conditions in which they are true.
In Chicago, I didn’t matter because I wasn’t very fit, my clothes weren’t very nice, and I didn’t have an impressive job. After leaving from college, where much of my identity was predicated on my grade point average, I did not know in what ground my Self could root and bloom. I spent a lot of time in bars where I saw guys who worked out a lot more extensively than I did and who either had the money or the willingness to go into debt for nicer clothes. I struggled in my early career ambitions. I didn’t matter.
These days, when that automatic thought, “I don’t matter,” pops up, it wears different clothes. Now it may try to pass itself off as “woke,” like, “No one cares what I have to say because I’m a cis white male.” I write this to be honest, but I see it as a false story that entangles itself in privilege and aggrieved, self-pitying entitlement. Our 2016 presidential election showed that the privilege of cis white men can launch them into a job even with no experience in the field and proven failures in their previous career. Yet it’s still what comes up in my head in moments where I feel tired, or vulnerable, or disconnected from my personal power.
A story like “I don’t matter” seems persuasive when it’s ricocheting off the interior of our skulls but makes no sense from the outside. The truth is, we matter. Our bodies are literally matter. Once we exist, our very existence is an influence upon the world. Having a body means I take up space, I consume resources that could go to others, I am participating in life and culture and relationships. If I am in a room, someone sees me, and my presence impacts them in a certain way. There is no opting out.
When we say, “I don’t matter,” I think often what we mean is more like, “I’m afraid other people don’t consider me important or influential.” “I don’t matter” and its like may have been seeded by the people who didn’t understand or know what to do with us when we were younger. Much of this is about social connection, power, respect, and status within groups and relationships. When other people persistently ignore, belittle, shame, minimize, neglect, or smother us, we begin to believe in the lie of our own unimportance. Then our bodies and energies start to embody what we fear we are.
I affect others. A room is not the same room when I am not in it. My friends and loved ones have different conversations when I am around versus when I am not. Everyone does. This is neither good nor bad. When I am alone with my best friend, our conversations are different from those we have when we’re together with our partners, or at a table with a supervisor, or with a stranger.
If I show up feeling invisible, lonely, wounded, and desperate, my presence might draw others to try to connect with me or make them feel really uncomfortable about being around me. Usually a lot of that is about their previous experiences with other desperate, lonely people. If I show up feeling energized, kind, and full of life, my presence might create different experiences. I could have the same conversation differently based on my presence. I could bring up stories in other people.
We may feel unconscious as to how we want to matter, how much influence we have, unaware of how to use that influence with will. Influence is not wholly an inner trait, though developing our own power gives us greater influence and greater control over that influence. Personal power alone is not enough to undo centuries of racial propaganda that gives the voices of white people a bigger platform than others’. What in part this means is that some people have to work much harder to cultivate an influence in alignment with their intention.
Madonna is a person who had to work harder than others because she has been a female pop singer in a male-dominated world, and a person whose platform was more accessible because she is a white woman in a white supremacist country. As much as I was drawn to her music as a kid and teenager, by my twenties I began to sense the calculation in her work and become more sensitized to the ways she appropriated the cultures and bodies of underground artists and people of color as adornments to promote her pop dominance. I’d become enamored of an idea of “depth,” of a world of meaning beneath the surface that mere artifice could not touch, and Madonna is a master of artifice.
Now in my thirties I find myself spiraling back, sensing there is no essential meaning, no grand arbiter of what is worthy art and a worthy life and what is not, only creativity and power. We are the universe knowing itself, which today means to me that there is nothing intrinsically truer or better about my way of being and my aesthetic. Artifice that draws the attention and energy of millions accrues its own intensity of meaning, its own power. I could work for years on a poem that I consider perfectly wrought and die having it unread, whereas simply requesting “Like a Prayer” at a club created an experience of wholeness and unity among folks who likely would be fighting with each other later that night.
All of this dances around hope. To act as though one’s will matters and has meaning in a world in which everything turns to dust is to embody hope. Yet hope is as likely to defeat us as to empower us. Some wither and die without hope, to feel depleted and to fall into a sense of despondency, while others of us see hope as a luxury afforded to the privileged class who’ve never truly had to suffer trauma and failure after failure while knowing that giving up the fight for dignity would be a greater death.
Too many of us are hoping and letting that hope get us off the hook. In the face of tyranny, mass incarceration, and climate change we hope someone will do something. Then we need not feel inconvenient feelings about not doing anything. So we don’t have to take a risk and suffer consequences of that. We need to start looking to see who is doing the work, and supporting them. And if no one is doing the work, it may be ours to do.
We want hope to hinge upon knowing our efforts matter, but we do not know how to measure it. How we measure that, typically, is by what we call “success,” and in a capitalist economy “success” means sales, numbers, recognition, status. But success could be measured in many other ways. Success could be whether it brings ease to another person, or connects with another. Success could be simply feeling more alive and purposeful. Success could be the synchronicities that arise, the approval of the gods. Success could be the accomplishment of a goal, no matter how small.
It is the way of things for life to grow, flourish, die, decompose, and become another kind of life. There are people and ancestors who remain alive within me, who animate me with gifts and wounds, inspiration and teachings. And there are people who once mattered very much to me—friends, lovers with whom I was passionately embroiled—who are no longer in my life. At the time of the breakup or loss, this is a horrifying thought. After so much beauty, intensity, passion, connection, it hurts to imagine all those colors will eventually bleach like a picture that’s been left out in the light too long. Yet memory, feeling, and meaning continues to change. Even what has been closed and lost may continue to evolve. The future may change our experience of the past, and what was long past may re-emerge to shift the future.
My feelings and nature evolves in a spiral pattern, coiling around core issues that continue to deepen and expand. First I adored Madonna, then I critiqued and distanced myself from her, then I grudgingly returned to the pleasure I took in her music with the recognition of how much comes from my own Self, my own meaning meeting hers. When I was younger, I heard in her a voice of erotic liberation, authenticity, and emotional depth. Perhaps that is true of her, and perhaps she is also a skilled opportunist who knows how to make money and use people and resources to stay relevant. All of this can coexist within the same body.
Indeed, Madonna represents to me a well-honed capacity of will. Not only does she act as though she matters, she seems to insist upon it. In spite of all the critiques that would have slowed me down, made me reflect and doubt my voice, she continues her efforts of taking exciting new musical trends and making them pop-friendly for her own success. It seems that she has continued the work she set out to do—to make pop music and be famous.
Will that plows forward, heedless of the damage it causes, is what toxifies our oceans and heats up our planet, harms and splits our communities without accountability. It is the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs, without humility, without consideration, without receiving and blending with the will of community. There are psychological benefits in asserting one’s ego at any cost, in putting one’s interests ahead of everyone else’s, but there are also psychological benefits to having healthy, meaningful, loving relationships. The success of a strong relationship depends upon our willingness to accept each other’s influence, to take each other seriously. And at the same time we need to be clear in our own truth.
In the book Active Hope, Joanna Macey and Chris Johnstone define a practice of “active hope” as “becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.” Rather than passively wishing for something to occur, for people to behave differently, active hope is the blending of will and desire to become what we seek. Through embodying the hope and virtue we desire, too, we experience that conflict between Spirit and Soul. Spirit calls upon me to express virtue in the world, to dignify myself and others, to do the work before me with a grateful heart, and to suffer change and transformation for the survival of what I love. Within the realm of Soul, my parts experience the pleasures and pains of this experience and emerge in conflict and questioning, testing and refining these virtues.
If my hoped-for virtues are to be kind, accountable, and honest, and I am in relationship with a person who does not practice these in the way or to the extent that I do, then I begin to experience a conflict in my soul. Parts of me concerned with fairness and my own needs act out when I repeatedly concede to the valid points of the other person while feeling no concession to my own. To deny these hurts and unmet needs is the path of spiritual bypassing, choosing Spirit above all else and holding more and more rigidly to that path, in which case virtues eventually become dry and tyrannical. Too much light that makes the land a desert.
Yet to release my Spirit and wholly invest myself in the conflicting needs of my Soul may lead me into too much darkness, the watery depths in which I can find no ground. A part of me wants desperately to do what it takes to keep the relationship going. A part of me feels disappointed, deceived, and hurt. A part of me says if I could only be calmer, more centered, stronger, then we could work through it. A part of me feels exhausted and resentful, telling the story that I always have to be the bigger person and it’s unfair. And all of these parts have validity. They all emerge from the situation, and they all have deep roots in pains and compromises I made years ago to make sense of the world and survive. In a sense, if I let any of these parts choose my path, that path would become my truth. Yet the other truths would not dissolve, they would continue to fester and make me more tense, more sensitive, more reactive, less generous, more disingenuous.
Spirit and Soul pass through the filters of personal and collective belief, all the various meanings we’ve gathered through education and experience, and then they touch in the human heart. What I thought was kindness, accountability, and honesty are not invalid but there was a flaw in understanding, a bias informed by my fears of losing my loved one. I had not been kind, accountable to, or honest with myself about what I am willing to accept and how hard I am willing to work. Even with all my work on integrity, I was taken aback by how much I tried to keep threatening feelings at bay—to essentially deny their mattering—until they demanded reckoning.
What is hope in a world in which everything turns to dust? Pema Chödron writes about generative hopelessness in When Things Fall Apart: “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” From Chödron’s perspective as a Buddhist, hope is the experience of attachment and aversion that keeps us constantly restless, constantly seeking escape from the present moment and thus imprisoned by our inability to tolerate what is. Hope is the constant adjustment of posture in sitting meditation instead of being with whatever arises. Hope is the constant avoiding of living one’s life by believing if we can hold on things will be better in a few years.
Passive hope is neither empowering nor interesting. It is a state in which the Soul hopes someone else gets the Spirit to act so that it does not have to experience its own evolution. Active hope is everything. Active hope is aliveness, using my mattering intentionally to affect the mattering of those around me. Active hope is showing up to the action, even if I’m only one body among many, adding my will and energy to the collective work. Active hope is the descent of Spirit to enliven and direct us, to find the deepest wishes of the Soul and to begin to live them through in the world that we have. It is not a magical skipping over of pain, suffering, or effort. Effort is what makes space for Spirit amidst the glory of the Soul. There is no one coming to save us. We’re what we’ve got.
Bibliography / Citations
1. Heart, A. “Like a prayer - August 5th - 11th, 2019.” Aeolianheart.com. http://aeolianheart.com/2019/08/06/like-a-prayer-august-5th-11th-2019/. Accessed 9. August 2019.
2. Macy, J. & Johnstone, C. Active hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. 2012. Novato: New World Library.
3. Chödron, P. When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. 2002. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Inc.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.