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On hope

8 December 2010

Given the seemingly unending list of awful things going on in the world as of late, it often appears like the easiest solution would be just to withdraw into our bubbles of activity and influence and cloister ourselves off from the rest of existence. Perhaps the only way we can expect to make the world a “better place” is by doing the least amount of damage as possible and thereby not adding more onto the already scaling pile. A sort of head-in-the-sand ostrich approach. There seems very little that we can actually do to turn around the way things are going,  since they’ve been going in this same direction for millennia now.

The onset of winter certainly doesn’t help matters. As it gets colder, people begin to withdraw physically, into coats and scarves and indoors where it’s warm. This is accompanied, however, by an inward shift in our psyches. Seasonal affective disorder is certainly the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon, but everyone’s demeanor moves inward, even if just a little.

And in that moment of shift, we have a choice. We can either internalize the seemingly unfixable mess that is the world, or we can greet this helplessness with hope. I have long said that optimism is somewhat absurd, as optimism has the tendency of saying “Everything’s alright” when it expressly is not alright. Optimism tends to turn a blind eye to the real suffering that is part of the human condition. Pessimism is a better, but still unlivable option; one cannot get out of bed in the morning if “everything’s horrible” is the only notion in their minds. Pessimism likewise turns a blind eye to the real joy that people experience every day, despite the horribleness of many of our everyday lives.

So we seek a middle way, the way of hope. Hope does not say “Everything’s alright” when it’s not. No, hope says, “Everything will be alright”. Hope recognizes that the darkness that sometimes enshrouds us is very real. Unlike optimism, this reality does not destroy hope. Instead, hope responds, “Yes, but…” Yes, but the darkness will not always be so dark. Yes, but sometimes there will be light. Yes, but darkness will not have the final say.

This, of course, finds its liturgical manifestation in Advent. In channeling the first Coming, the Church remembers how the Israelites, our mothers and fathers in faith, waited in hopeful expectation for the Messiah. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear” as the traditional hymn insists. At the same time, the Church acknowledges its own waiting for the second Coming, as the day “when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” as the prophet Amos wrote and as Martin Luther King, Jr. immortalized–whatever that looks like, cataclysmic or not.

And so we hope. Despite everything to the contrary. If not because of a faith tradition, because it’s really the only option unless you like acting like an ostrich.

(Photos from here and here)

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