Support the news

Anger Can Only Take Us So Far. Why We Must Have Hope

Activists demonstrate in the plaza of the East Front of the U.S. Capitol to protest the confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Activists demonstrate in the plaza of the East Front of the U.S. Capitol to protest the confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.


On January 27, 2017, I walked into a large bookstore where an employee was setting out a tall stack of Rebecca Solnit’s just re-released essay collection, "Hope in the Dark." Solnit had written her book in response to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, but 14 years later, when the echoes of that rash and unjustified war had faded into white noise, millions of Americans — already sickened by lies, threats and boasts emanating from the White House — were more parched for solace than ever.

About a half-hour later, that pile of about 25 books was down to one, and I was fortunate enough to snag the last copy. On that gloomy day, after one appalling week in office, President Donald Trump had signed the first of several executive orders designed to keep Muslims and Syrian refugees of any religion (and poor people, and people of color, and and and …) out of the country. It was no wonder that a dense essay collection on how to keep hope alive was selling like a new Harry Potter book, like bottled water in a desert.

And this past weekend — as Brett Kavanaugh was swiftly sworn into an office that a plurality of Americans do not think he should hold, ratified by a Republican Senate whose hypocrisy and coupling of self-victimization with railroading was absolutely breathtaking — it was no wonder that I reached for that book again.

... fury’s energy boost is temporary. Like sugar, it wears off, leaving us more depleted than before it surged through us.

Finding and sustaining hope is slow, repetitive work. Rage is much easier to access. As Mitch McConnell complains about “… the virtual mob that’s assaulted all of us” while death threats prevent Christine Blasey Ford and her family from returning to their home; as Republican senators crow about how the FBI’s report yielded no corroboration of the charges against Kavanaugh while the authors of that report neglected to interview a trove of witnesses who could have potentially supplied that corroboration, outrage is the natural response.

But fury’s energy boost is temporary. Like sugar, it wears off, leaving us more depleted than before it surged through us. Rage alone will not provide the sustenance we need to undo some of the damage so rapidly being done and make the bold political and economic changes necessary for our very survival. No, for the long-term struggle that lies ahead of us (and that brought us to today), hope is the fuel we need.

By “hope” I don’t mean unwarranted (or even justified) confidence that we’ll achieve the outcomes we desire. “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,” Solnit writes.

“…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 adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is 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 afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

That’s why playwright Vaclav Havel wrote that “Hope … is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” He wrote these words in 1991 as president of the Czech Republic, two years after the Velvet Revolution that he’d helped to lead had toppled the Soviet-backed regime. But only six years before that, he was in prison, locked up on several occasions for dissident speech.

Havel knew about the tenacity of hope, not as a feeling, but as a way of life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live long enough to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama 50 years later, just as the teenagers murdered by Detroit police in 1967 could not know that 50 years later, the #BlackLivesMatter movement would be more necessary and vital than ever. But reaction is as tenacious as revolt. Both lie dormant and then erupt, unfolding over long swaths of time.

Today, as Trump continues to deny climate change and pledges to burn more coal, the UN has issued a report indicating that droughts, wildfires, flooding and mass migration triggered by global warming will be at crisis levels by 2040. Once again, it’s hard to keep fury at bay, along with the precipitous drop into despair that inevitably follows it.

More than a transient feeling, hope can and must be the basis for an identity and a code for living.

But in a quietly persuasive op-ed, Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones offer some crucial perspective on hope and struggle, not as an episode but as a practice. “To save civilization, most of us would need to supplement our standard daily practices – eating, caring for the family and community, faith – with a steady push on the big forces that are restraining progress,” the climate change activists write. But in pointing out the scale of the effort required, they also illuminate the rewards of it. “The work would endow our lives with some of the oldest and most numinous aspirations of humankind: leading a good life; treating our neighbors well; imbuing our short existence with timeless ideas like grace, dignity, respect, tolerance, and love.”

These are not just pretty words. They’re imperatives, as 19-year-old Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland High School shooting survivor and gun control advocate, knows all too well. Here’s what she recently wrote of her friends, both those who were killed and those who survived: “Everything we’ve done and everything we will do is for them. It’s for ourselves. It’s for every person who has gone through anything similar to this, for every person who hasn’t yet, for every person who never will.”

More than a transient feeling, hope can and must be the basis for an identity and a code for living.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news