How you feel about hope likely depends on your own experiences and circumstances. It’s been portrayed as both salvation and delusion, and many things in between. An important criticism is that passive hope may give us the excuse to just stand idly by, waiting for others to do something. Meanwhile, we can get lost in an imaginary future, postponing our personal and collective wellbeing to some other time. We can even use hope as an excuse to avoid confronting difficulties, from places in ourselves that need healing to unhealthy situations that need to be addressed. This “pie in the sky” kind of hope can too easily just become a practice of accommodating injustice and oppression. As Joe Hill observed, it also makes you an easy mark for religious hucksters looking to get your money and your labor.
On the other hand, we can hold so tightly to a specific version of hope, that our expectations become a cage. Attachment to outcomes can stifle our flexibility and creativity, so that we miss out on real opportunities to work for change. As some psychologists have put it, expectations are just “premeditated resentments.” Or we might find ourselves in the trap called “False Hope Syndrome,” with unrealistic goals. When this is the case, it doesn’t matter how much confidence and energy we put into our efforts. Distorted beliefs doom the effort to failures, no matter how many times we try. We end up devoting time and resources into what is essentially a lost cause. That makes it easy to get stuck and discouraged.
And then there is the difficult reality that sometimes we don’t need to hope so much as we need to grieve. We need to come to terms with the state of our lives, families, communities, and world. Sometimes, what we call hopelessness is just honesty. And this is what makes navigating hope and hopelessness, grief and despair, rest and apathy, action and futility, something of a craft or an art. It is also why the words don’t always fit, because we are often at different places on this messy spectrum of grieving, healing, acting, or giving up. But behind our differences of experience and perspectives, there are questions that can be useful to most of us. What is it that keeps us from giving up, giving in, or standing idly by while honestly facing the devastating challenges of the day? What are some principles and practices that help us transform our anger, grief, and despair in meaningful action?
To revisit a psychological perspective, and as part of preparing for these reflections, I took the Snyder Adult Hope Scale. The scale conceives of hope in terms of two qualities, agency (how we direct energy toward a goal) and pathway (how we plan to meet a goal). And this can be a practical approach that may help us avoid getting caught in those ways that hope can go wrong and make things worse. These are skills we can work on, and habits we can form. Sometimes, hope is just the resolution to keep taking small steps, even when the outcome is unclear. Sometimes, it is finding a resource or support that keeps a possibility of change alive. As it turns out, this scale ranks me as a person with “high hope.” This was interesting to me, because it touches all those tender places of despair, rage, and grief inside of me. I would not describe myself as a hopeful person so much as a persistent person.
Seeing the connection between those two in this context has helped me be more intentional about exploring what nurtures that energy and persistence. It is something like a vow to not give up, nor to give in to actions that undermine the long-term health of myself, others, or our communities and movements. I’ve known for most of my life that I depend on my spiritual and reflective practices to keep me steady, to help me consistently engage with people and processes in the midst of difficult and painful circumstances. This is why I’ve felt most at home in Quaker and Buddhist contexts, and why I’ve spent so much of my time teaching and practicing skills like meditation and mediation.
I would also include staying in touch with creativity and beauty as vital reflective practices. I have always relied on singing, poetry, and humor to carry me through. Here we can gather words, sounds, and images together in ways that allow us to recognize and heal one another. This is obviously not inevitable or automatic; this is something we do on purpose. As David Whyte has beautifully written in “Sweet Darkness,”
“You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
The difficult news that we know all too well is that this is not usually simple to do. The good news is that we know that it is possible. In studying the history of people and movements, it is easy to miss this lesson. But if we are willing to stay with the story, we find not only the oppressors, but those who resist oppression. We find not only those who hurt, but those who heal. We find not only those who go along with the cruelty of the world, maybe even profiting from it, but those who do not. And all along the way, we find the artists and creatives who give voice, not only to the pain, but to the great insistence that things will not be this way forever – because we will always work to make those changes.
In 1993, Carolyn Forche edited what became and remains one of my favorite collections of poetry, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. It beautifully and achingly bears “witness to extremity,” to all the horrors of the last century’s wars, torture, exploitation, exile, and oppression, in the voices of over 140 poets from all over the world, “from the Armenian genocide to Tiananmen Square.” One of those poets was Otto Rene Castillo. He was a celebrated poet in Central America, but that didn’t save him from exile from his home in Guatemala for his work as a student organizer. (His first exile was in 1954 and the result of the CIA-backed coup that overthrew President Arbenz. Arbenz’ great crime was to advocate for agrarian reform policies that provided compensation and redistribution of land to exploited and impoverished laborers, many of them indigenous. The United Fruit Company had much to lose, and they lobbied for the US-backed coup.) When Castillo secretly returned to Guatemala in 1964 with an insurgent group, he was arrested, brutally tortured, and killed.
His witness is not an idle one, nor one that stood idly by. He wrote about the “Apolitical Intellectuals” who refused to act when they were most needed:
“No one will ask them
about their dress
or their long
or about their futile struggles
or about their ontological
to make money. …
They will be asked nothing
about their absurd
nurtured in the shadow
of a huge lie.
On that day,
the humble people will come, …
and they will ask:
‘What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness and life
were dangerously burning out in them?’”
And he also knew the uselessness of that ‘pie-in-the-sky’ hope, that substitutes platitudes for grief and rage, as he wrote in “Distances” –
“Under the bitter December air
a friend says
'I’m disillusioned. Everything goes
so slowly. The dictatorship is strong.
I’m desperate and pained
by the calvary of my people.’
And I, sensing his anguish, the gray
and noble sadness of my friend,
knowing his fight
to keep on fighting,
do not say: coward or go to the mountains
or lazy or pessimist,
rigid, poor devil.
I only put my arm around his shoulder,
so the tearing cruelty of his cold
Yet his voice is most clear in his simple poem, “Before the Scales, Tomorrow” (tr. by Barbara Paschke and David Volpendesta):
And when the enthusiastic
story of our time
who are yet to be born
but announce themselves
with more generous face,
we will come out ahead
—those who have suffered most from it.
being ahead of your time
means suffering much from it.
But it’s beautiful to love the world
that have not yet
to know yourself victorious
when all around you
it’s all still so cold,
This is my favorite description that I have encountered of what feels like hope: “being ahead of your time / means suffering much from it. / But it’s beautiful to love the world / with eyes / that have not yet / been born.” Cruelly and tragically, Castillo never got to see that world with any other eyes. But his work and his art helped make change possible, and can help keep the possibility of change alive in us, as well.
While I was re-reading this poem, I remembered a guided meditation I offered at a local 2021 Transgender Day of Remembrance. I envisioned it as a way to “get in touch with our bodies and feelings; reconnect with our community and aspirations; and recommit to working together to create a world where justice, equity, and joy are the norms.” It was a concrete expression of loving the world “with eyes / that have not yet / been born.” We began with our deep sense of loss, making space for bearing witness to our collective and personal suffering: “Each time we gather like this, we can’t help but remember the world we live in. It is a world that makes it very clear that we are misunderstood and unwelcome.” That loss is in stark contrast to the possibilities we feel within ourselves and witness in others: “We live beautiful, vibrant, and even joyful lives. We exist in the face of all this violence, hatred, and grief, and insist on living, loving, and thriving. We create new worlds.”
Holding that pain while also making space for what is possible is the task of each moment. The practice I suggested then was to reconnect with three intentions:
“We affirm and love ourselves. Take a deep breath and remember a time when you or another person affirmed who are you, who welcomed you without reservation and didn’t make you hide your self. Knowing that gift, offer this same affirmation and love to yourself and to everyone gathered here. …This is what I take David Whyte to mean when he wrote “Give up all the other worlds / except the one to which you belong,” and “to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” This is what it means to me when Otto Rene Castillo powerfully teaches us “that / being ahead of your time / means suffering much from it. / But it’s beautiful to love the world / with eyes / that have not yet / been born.”
“We care for each other: elders, youth, and everyone in between. … We cherish our history. We honor our elders. We celebrate our youth. We care for each other. Call to mind our … ancestors who walked this path before us, who also dared to be themselves.
“We take our space in the world. We know the world we need is possible, a world … [where we] feel and are safe. We dream of a world where we easily access the medical care, housing, food, employment, and enjoyment we need. We know it is not unreasonable to demand a world where [we] get to decide what supports our well-being, and where all people are free and equal.
“We affirm and love ourselves. We care for each other. We take our space in the world. We hear and honor our grief, anger, and fear. We also hear our community’s passionate insistence for all the good things that support our well-being. We hold both with fierce determination. This energy can carry and sustain us, as we continue to work together to create a world where everyone, without exception, can live with freedom, safety, and joy.”
After all these explorations, I still do not think I understand or can define hope. But I can commit to cultivate compassion and wisdom, without giving up. Without getting lost in “premediated resentments” or false hope, I can practice affirming and loving myself, offering and receiving care, and taking space in the world so that others can glimpse the possibility that everyone, without exception, can live with freedom, safety, and joy. Maybe this is what hope is, or maybe this is as close to hope as someone like me can get.