“They gave Pandora a box. Prometheus begged her not to open it. She opened it. Every evil to which human flesh is heir came out of it. The last thing to come out of the box was hope. It flew away.” — Kurt Vonnegut
“Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.” — Freidrich Nietzsche
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”– Emily Dickinson
I don’t know when I first heard “love is an action, not an emotion”, but this definition of love has been influential in how I approach my relationships and my work. More recently, I’ve begun to articulate that Hope, like Love, is also more of a verb than a noun; it is something we exercise and work at, not something that we find waiting patiently for us. As the 2016 election cycle gears up, gun control remains shockingly elusive, new reports describe more violence at home and around the world, and my understanding of hope as an action is ready to be put to the test.
Some fellow secular-leaning friends and colleagues have argued that hope lies squarely in the realm of the faithful, and I disagree. Faith can present its own hard work, but hope and faith are not synonymous. If I took the time to interrogate my definitions, maybe I would discover that I see faith as saying “I have a reason to believe” and hope as saying “I have no reason to believe, but I do anyway”, with hope having the added commitment to stick it out. I’m sure it’s more nuanced than that, but while faith can sometimes be blinding, or offer a way to refute the present status of things, hope requires acute awareness of just how bad things could be.
Hope demands that we look at the chaos, danger, and fear around us, the frustration and disappointment in our lives and the lives of others, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that face us and our fellow humans, and refuse to accept defeat. It can be tempting to equate hope with persistence, and I believe that persistence is necessary for hope, but like faith, persistence is its own animal. I can be doggedly persistent because I want to finish the game, refuse to give up, or want to withhold the satisfaction of someone else seeing me quit. I can persist because I’m stubborn; I can persist even when I know I am going to fall short. In other words, I can persist without hope.
Hope is hard work when I watch Trump’s poll numbers rising, ISIS recruitment rising, hydrogen bomb tests in North Korea (real or not, it’s dangerous flexing), more and more racist disaster in our city streets, universities, and courts, refugee children dying on route to a safer life, zealous xenophobia from a country founded on the very idea of seeking opportunity, and a 70 degree Christmas followed by two feet of snow in DC, which can only be interpreted as Climate Change proving yet again it’s not a hoax. I hope I can rise to the challenge, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Hope without action is just wishing for things to change, and that is about as effective as complaining or criticizing without offering anything constructive. Hope as an action means pushing boundaries, dismantling barriers, and taking steps — however small they may be — one by one, towards the Better that we’re hoping for. To hope for something means to strive towards it, to build it if it doesn’t already exist, and to keep moving forward.
So how can we apply this active hope towards the Better in 2016? Everyone has their own strengths and resources, and the first step is to identify what those are. I am lucky enough to work for an organization that supports interfatih cooperation and education on a daily basis, so there is a lot that I can do in my professional life to foster greater understanding, acceptance, and collaboration across difference as a means to combat fear and bigotry, and to demonstrate the weakness and the falsities of xenophobia and Islamophobia. I can take steps in my immediate community to support the care of those in need and the dismantling of racism. I can vote in the primary and in the general election, and in all local elections. I can write letters and sign petitions and join demonstrations promoting stricter gun control laws and women’s bodily autonomy. I can choose my words carefully and my volume carefully — there are ways for a voice to effect change and there are ways for a voice to cause pain, and we need to be conscious of both when we are speaking and writing. I can tolerate disagreement from family, friends, and strangers, and reasonably share my opinions and my hopes without ejecting someone from my life or my table. I can show how we can work together for parts of the Better if we don’t entirely agree on what the whole thing will look like.
I try to do all of these things, and it’s hard when I don’t see measurable differences. Hopelessness is feeling helpless to make any change, to do any better, to have any impact. But Hope is an action word, not a feeling. It takes exercise; it takes continual use to keep it strong. Hope takes persistence and just a dash of idealism, both of which I’m lucky enough to have in abundance. As a Humanist I believe that we possess what is necessary to improve our lives and the lives of our communities; that we have what it takes to take care of one another. In many ways, I believe we are currently failing at that care and that improvement. I hope we can do better.
Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.