The Space of Hope

communication & the human bond 

On the Question of Hope

In September, 2008, the question of hope, of what it is and why we need it, was coming to political prominence, due to an election campaign and a collective demand for significant change in the direction of US policy, on a number of fronts. As a result, the very idea of hope came under political attack. Political operatives that sought to ridicule the idea of a “change candidate” who could bring hope to the American people sought to make it appear that hope was a soft virtue, a wishy-washy ethereal promise, something one seeks only if one has no intent to act.

It seemed to me this was both dishonest and also dangerous, because hope does not work like that at all, and because there had been a very responsible engagement with the topic, which held some promise in terms of waking a population that had not thought of being involved in shaping its own destiny. So, I sought to write something solid, something viable and lasting, about hope, about the nature of optimism and how closely linked the quality of imagination is to our ability to conceive of, work for and see through to completion, meaningful improvements to the human condition.

I wanted to write about it because it is such a vital commodity in our times, such a spiritual enigma and a challenge to our political systems, but then one glaring fact became clear that seemed to limit what can be said about hope: this vital spiritual resource does not stand alone, but is linked in every case to human specifics, inseparable from what we seek to apply it to, and so hope is different to all people, even in its most essential manifestations.

The question of human involvement, of how one behaves with regard to the energy of hope, then, feeds into the question of where it resides, where it takes root, and what our aims will be once we find it. For some, hope is a question of finding belief, finding vision, finding willpower, in the abstract, in the nested particulars of inner life; for some, it is about what comes before finding, on the way to resolution or achievement, the summoning, the calling forth of energy and possibility; for others it is about what summoning does for the one who issues the call, how that act translates into hope.

And still others find it to be the distilled question of will it or will it not work out: if so, then I can believe; if not, then all is lost and the human condition is hopeless. It is easy to discourage those actively searching for hope, because it is most necessary and most applicable precisely when events seem least hopeful, and because we forget, with equal parts frequency and convenience, that what has happened is not and never was the only thing that could have happened.

We imagine that a negative result occurs because it was 100% likely to occur, even though a small amount of effort, concentrated or otherwise, may have made almost any other outcome more likely. We forget to examine the landscape and reformulate the potential enclosed in the unrealized past-future. It is easy to say that all good things come to an end and that entropy is the basic direction of all things, simple or complex… but that reading really depends on timescales, metabolism and intent: all biological organisms, all solar systems, eventually break down, all concentrations of energy eventually come apart, but it is worth noting how successfully energy and matter first self-organize, how star systems and life forms first come together in astonishing utilitarian precision and complexity, with purpose and efficiency, each part playing a role that benefits other segments of the system so that the whole might exist at all.

So yes, there is entropy, there is unraveling, there is approximation and the loss of cherished order, but this is a result of how an environment coalesces into concentrations of matter and energy, an initial anti-entropy, to make what we know and experience. Is that a tragic thing, or a stroke of incredible, incalculable good fortune? How can we who survive to speak, as cynically or hopefully as we see fit, not see some heartbreaking beauty in the functional fragility of what we are?

So, to write about hope is to write about the fact that it is a question and not an answer, that it cannot exist if not enmeshed with the specifics of what we suffer or strive for, that it springs from our recognizing that questions, obstacles and uncertainty are not dread irreparable crises but part of what brings forth the value of the good in life, that to face questions, to sink into doubt and to recoil against loss, is not to be lost, but to be involved in the same summoning of what comes next, the calling forth of ideas and energies, communicative strategies and informed risk-taking that plays out in what we like to refer to as hope.

Before entropy and disintegration, there was a healthy metabolism of self-organization, interstellar atomic elements coming together to make the soft tissue and the dreaming life of a human being, made from the inheritance of so many prior generations: why do we so easily forget how valuable that has been to us? Before admittedly taking the “wrong road”, there were right choices: why do we not go back and explore some of these, turn ourselves over to the fact that possibility does not cease altogether with a single mistake or an unwilled bad outcome?

Is it determinism, or a misapplication of religious spiritual traditions, that makes us believe that everything is pre-scripted, intended from a distant original urging, that we have no choice, that vision after-the-fact is somehow more divine than vision in-the-moment? The pressure to demonstrate control over events leads us to believe that it would be rational to claim control over events —or to demand it from others—, and this can lead to a flawed application of the intellect to working out the problems at hand, undermining our agility and imagination instead of feeding into them.

Hope is not a mystical reality, not an elixir, not a character trait; it is a process of thinking toward, in living time, the ways in which what should be better might be. Hope is not a blind or blissed-out waiting-game for easy luck; it is a process of claiming responsibility for the energy and the material action that —in often halting steps, in often turbulent surroundings— bring us closer to what we aspire to. Hope is not merely a solemn prayer for a best result when all factors of circumstance are beyond our control; it is overcoming the problem of control, robbing Fate of its false power and starting from the place where you are.

In Practice: A Bridge Across

That brings us to the key question at the root of any pursuit of, encounter with or communication of hope: where do we find ourselves? In relation to origins, in relation to our ideals, in relation to what we intuit to be the best in ourselves, but most importantly, in relation to one another. Hope emerges, or comes together, when the defenseless individual—fearing the universal urge toward entropy, toward the undoing of systems that allow for nourishment, what we call failure in the human sense—finds there is another bridge across the abyss, a way to believe that the next step will not be unraveling or collapse. The most difficult thing about hope is that it emerges within and around, and is most relevant to, the person who has the hardest time finding it.

Someone who does not feel threatened, undermined or abandoned, may get through a healthy string of days without giving a second thought to whether she has hope or could call it forth if necessary. It is the person with a palpable sense of hopelessness, who can cite one after another ‘reason’ why hope seems a foolish gamble, that is in need of and more likely to be searching for hope. Leaving that person with no help, no human connection, no reliable bond that consistently affirms not only his humanity but also the reasonable belief that he is entitled to some dignified and humane future, leaves him without hope. He perceives entropy, atomization, corruption of the known world, little chance for being spared the ravages of time and competition, let alone uplifted.

What is ‘out there’ is too vast, too unconscious, too competitive; no protection against disaster will be afforded, if the disaster begins to loom near… Despair follows easily from such perceptions… trust breaks down, and the appeal of cynical prejudgments is dramatically enhanced.

Hope, in its true, contagious and useful form, may actually hide within and be born of the hardships that seem to undermine or negate its possibility. Failure to locate it, cultivate it, even to speak of and confess to it, invites the logic of fanciful pessimism to flood the scene and come to prevalence, however false its claim to know of negative future outcomes in advance. Hope is what allows people to believe that a social contract, however implicit, nuanced or intimate, will be honored and will sustain and celebrate the humanity of all involved. Doubting such a possibility in fundamental ways leads to and helps to justify attitudes and behavior that work against better outcomes.

At least as important as the power of hope to motivate transformative vision and action—on the personal, community or societal levels—is the power of hope’s absence to undermine transformative vision and impede the effecting of actions that will lead to a better outcome, in the personal, community or societal intrigues that make hope a meaningful question to begin with. We can look to literature, to history, to give us some signs of what it means to know hope or to live without it.

Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, written during a time of severe oppression and political persecution, gives us a glimpse of the corrosive effect such persecution can have on the ability of the human mind to cope and to dream a way forward. The narrator, a painter of pen-cases struggling to find a way to build a world imagined to compensate for the ravages of the world as it is, confronts the nature of truth in the body of his own shadow. He writes:

I was growing inward incessantly; like an animal that hibernates during the wintertime, I could hear other peoples’ voices with my ears; my own voice, however, I could hear only in my throat. The loneliness and the solitude that lurked behind me were like a condensed, thick, eternal night, like one of those nights with a dense, persistent, sticky darkness which waits to pounce on unpopulated cities filled with lustful and vengeful dreams.

This is the detachment of the despairing soul. The painter seeks to know a way of being where the works of the imagination can outlast death. Though it seems that death is the more powerful force, Iraj Bashiri, one of Hedayat’s translators into English, writes of the book that “Hedayat emphasizes the importance of individual salvation, stressing that individual reform is the prerequisite for community reform. Every individual […] must realize the intrinsic significance of his own inborn gift of freedom; he should individually struggle to unshackle the fetters that bind him…”

It is a message both of despair and of hope. One is faced with the silence of the divine; hope does not rest on the coming of a Messiah, for the narrator. Instead, Bashiri suggests, “The individual can become a recluse and attain a degree of false freedom; or he may […] wage an unending war against ignorance and, by enlightening his fellow residents, prevent illusion from perpetuating ignorance in his community.” (Bashiri 2000)

Elias Khoury’s City Gates takes us into the surreal devastation of a city made desolate by war, allowing us to see what happens to the human urge for narrative when the traces of normalcy and order are obliterated and faith in the structure and security of society is lost. Faced with the problem of being both human and narrative, the protagonist struggles first of all to believe he might have a story, or be a story, that would be of interest.

Even identity seems a forbidden indulgence, irrelevant to and unreachable from within the muddle of discordant voices the world has come to be. He is less a person than a world taken apart by what amounts to the dehumanization of an entire landscape, an entire cultural presence, a concentration of human activity that has been dispersed by terror. He is lost, because the ways, the places, the conceptualizations, he would use to define himself, have become unavailable.

The healthy echo of one being in the experience of another has been stripped away. It is as if he walks in a landscape as devoid of purpose as of sound. The key to this exploration of the void is to find purpose by way of human connection. There is the mysterious presence of one woman, then another. Relationships are unclear; boundaries are unclear; roles and rights and worth and common ground are all more fluid than reliable. The story must be shaped, however it ultimately comes to be, in this landscape of uncertainty and roiling, co-extensive mysteries that recognize in one another the possible way back to something like reliable human connections.

Frederick Douglass takes us, in his autobiography, through the horrors of slavery, both the intimate personal oppression (the intellectual and moral deprivation) and the physical cruelty (the relentless persecution, the inhumanity of the slave-owning culture). Yet he takes us to a real world illuminated by defiance and by the hope of something better and more dignified. His moral outrage is palpable, and implicitly justified, and strikes a basic chord of humanity in us, as we read; his humanity—and so his hope—in the face of despair and torture is communicated to us, across the distance of years and of unthinkable oppression. Yet he illustrates the way forward for the human soul on the brink of disaster, and weaves a true story that is not just inspiring, despite its many horrors, but informs us all in important ways about what it is to overcome desperation and the moral desertion of the spirit that will not anymore muster the strength to hope.

Just as Douglass takes us through the process of recovering basic human dignity by first recognizing it—recognizing that somehow, it may never have been lost, that it was there to be lived—then finding a way to outlast his tormenters, he tells us what it is to choose between hopelessness and hope. He reminds us of the human bonds that helped him believe there was a better humanity beyond the reaches of that system of terror and torture, actual human beings that, together with his own observations, worked as hints of a better way for humanity to be, more in touch with what St. Augustine might call a “fragrant” and transcendent truth. (Augustine, 56)

Despite the irrefutable evidence of terror and tragedy, there is also something else, something cleaner and more resilient. Douglass has tasted it, understands it, seeks it, will take risks for it. His narrative is not merely a story of escape; it is a story of searching, of risk-taking and of building a life beyond despair.

Hope, not by Example, but by Effort

If the jailed writer, if the starving mystic, if the Holocaust survivor and the slave, for whom the basic human right to intellect might be a dangerous crime, can find the reason in deliberately overcoming the false logic of a fantasist despair—fantasist because it pretends to know the future—, then somehow it would seem reasonable to locate the clues, discern the horizon and exert the effort ourselves.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote history, he wrote social science, he wrote of the aims and frustrations of human beings in a world of human beings, but a world divided by perception and prejudice and which needed a corrective prism of forthright analysis. His great works on the process of emancipation—an ongoing process that required not just law, not just the end of the old south, but a collaborative perceptual way forward in which a divided, reluctant society actually would become the society of emancipation, in which African Americans were treated not as a race apart, not as a problem related to the old south, but as the full-fledged, committed members of society that they actually were—became in many ways a study in the choices that ultimately determine whether hope or despair wins out: the thing was to speak about what needed doing, what needed to be revealed, to communicate and to give voice.

Du Bois helped introduce to the American popular consciousness a narrative that actually included the African American in the process of emancipation, reminding of an oppressed people’s contribution to the Civil War effort, to the complexities of the Reconstruction coalition governments of the new south, whose thankless work was to wipe away the old system and replace it with something more modern, more inclusive, more universal. His work helped set the stage for the later popularizing of the civil rights movement, the moral outrage of ordinary Americans against the fundamental injustice of Jim Crow laws, segregation and chronic deprivation. And it was, fundamentally and in its boldest aspirations, an effort at revitalizing communication.

Hope does not exist in a vacuum. There is, of necessity, an element of human connection required to make it viable. It does not arise out of a stubborn desire to wipe away all the hard facts of a brutal world. It comes with recognition of our frailty, recognition of our interdependence, and then, with the sense that we have found some element of the human experience through which the restoration of a reliable human bond can be achieved.

The space of hope, even before communication materializes and forms a connective tissue of meaning, is made of agency. It is involved in and made up of a complex process of choosing, if not a choice in itself. When we reach out to people at the margins of our society, cast aside because they have no access to an education profound enough in content or far-reaching enough in scope to give them a fair chance at competing with the resources of the more fortunate and more prepared… when we reach out to people who have been abandoned, not just by the system broadly, but by the accidental disappearance of family, of communities they may have loved or trusted, people uprooted from a young age by household or societal turmoil, by the vagaries of the justice system, by the ripple effects of injustice, betrayal and unresolved deprivation… it becomes apparent that accumulated resources, influence and power, do not bring hope to those that can rely on them…

None of those touchstones are enough to make hope flourish in the mind or in the actions of the people they would protect. Trust is more effective a vehicle, more significant in delivering clear thoughts about the possibilities of another day. Comfort gives rest, but trust allows a deeper vitality to flourish. It breeds hope not within us, but between us.

Du Bois writes that the aim of his work is “that men may listen to the striving in the souls of black folk”. He was conjuring, as an historical moment, as a monument to the untold struggle of too many people, that same urge we must all have felt at some point in our own deep inner world, the urge to find a way to make known what we live, to bridge the divide between and among people—that so often, so easily, so much to our detriment, defines our chances—, to speak and to achieve understanding. While these are anecdotal references, they are potent and go to the heart of what we struggle with when we seek hope in the midst of despair.

Richard Rorty has written that his “candidate for the most distinctive and praiseworthy human capacity is our ability to trust and to cooperate with other people, and in particular to work together so as to improve the future.” (Rorty, xiii) It might be that we are most able to imagine constructive future selves, in constructive future worlds, when we are connected to people that give us signs of an understanding that runs deep, can be expanded, and includes us in their own imagined futures.

Hope is not an essence or commodity to be extracted from the cold earth of injustice; it is not a character trait; it is a process of thinking toward, in living time, the ways in which what should be better might be. Hope is not something we derive from a neat metaphor or a good example, but from our own effort and the resulting bonds we are able to forge and to protect. It reaches us when we choose to overcome the problem of control, strip deterministic arguments of their false power and start from the place where we are. The human place. Defined by the quality of our connections to the world around us.

Works Cited

  • Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will. Hackett. Indianapolis. 1993.
  • Bashiri, Iraj. “The Message of The Blind Owl: Analysis”. 2000. <http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/BdOwl/owltalk.html>.
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903.
  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin Books. London. 1999.

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Essay presented as seminar, January 21, 2010, for the Villanova University Freedom School Sessions

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