hope in the dark

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” 

That’s from Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter. It’s one of the descriptions of “hope” that I’ve been holding close this season, that I hold close all the time, actually. Hope is not expectation, and confusing the two can be horribly devastating. Expectation has a clear end-goal, like your elementary school report card. There are benchmarks and roadmaps and clarity of preferred outcome with expectation. Expectation, especially when we aim it at other people, gets very dicey.

Hope, on the other hand, is rooted in uncertainty. It is a posture that submits to the power of not-knowing. It requires curiosity and humility, a willingness to open our eyes and widen our search criteria. Rebecca Solnit has been another steadfast companion in this hope hunt. From her book, Hope in the Dark:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

(A sculpture I stumbled upon at the NC Botanical Gardens this week, the dandelion as a sign of hope)

I am fed up with both pessimism and optimism. They are, among other, more dangerous things, boring. I do not have much patience for hand-wringing these days, and even less for toxic positivity. I want to find out who is doing something interesting, and why, and how. In all the gigantic, complicated, cosmic and geologic conundrums filling the headlines and the cable news tickers, I want to hear stories about people on the margins and around the edges who decided to stop standing idly by and chose, instead, to believe that what they do – alone or with others – matters, whether they’ll ever know it or not.

It’s why I wanted to tell these stories this season – places where something is gaining traction, where people and systems are experimenting, trying and failing, knocking on walls until they hear a hollow spot, examining the perimeters until they notice a tiny place where the barriers are giving way. There’s no room for pessimism in this kind of living, and I imagine constantly brushing up against the violence of the murderous systems that govern our lives makes optimism hard to come by, too. But I do think that there is a lot of joy in it all.

I don’t know what comes next or how we get there, thank God. But I am, here at this strange juncture in this weird timeline, intensely curious and full of hope.

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