“Do not depend on the hope of results,” Thomas Merton said in his letter to a young activist who was suffering from despair.
Truth be told, whether in our work for social change or in our personal lives, most of us have pinned our hopes to results or particular outcomes at one point or another. But the times when we most need hope are often occasions when the expected outcomes are either bleak or unbearably uncertain. Perhaps we face a serious illness or an irretrievable loss. Perhaps we’re working to uproot an oppression established over centuries or seeking a reconciliation that is stubbornly resisted. In situations like these, any hope riding a horse named Results might not make it to the finish line. So, how – and where – do we find hope then?
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world,” claimed Vaclav Havel. Writing from a Czechoslovakian prison cell, he said, “(T)he deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as if from ‘elsewhere.’”
This hope that comes to us from “elsewhere” might be from another person, from nature or from our ultimate source of meaning or guidance, by whatever name we address it. It might come from our life’s work or our community. However we find and name that “elsewhere,” the gift of true hope comes from turning our gaze toward a horizon wider than our own backyard. And whether our prisons are made of cement blocks, as Havel’s was, or with the less visible bars of alienation and isolation, of white supremacy or materialism, hope is about finding ourselves in a larger frame and awakening to what is beyond our personal periphery.
The poet philosopher Bayo Akomolafe warns that hope can “incarcerate” us as a colonial entity, or as “the territorial promise of unending continuity.” He proposes that we might instead call for the end of hope, or at least that form of it, by creating or welcoming ruptures in the way things are. By opening cracks that make room for something new. Because “when we get to the end of our hope in continuity,” he says, “there is promise there!”
Hope, it occurs to me, is not satisfied with the way things are but leans toward a new possibility not in evidence around us but one that can be glimpsed by imagination and faith. Hope is forward-leaning, says writer Julie Neraas, and “biblically speaking, is never equated with the status quo.” It takes full stock of where we are now and then casts our attention out beyond that. It lifts our eyes and beckons us to new horizons.
This is not the same as optimism, false or otherwise, but it is tied to survival. “(H)ope is no shining thing,” the poet Mark Doty tells us, recounting the story of his partner’s death from AIDS, “but a kind of sustenance, plain as bread, the ordinary thing that feeds us.”
Hope is the leavened sustenance of our souls carrying us from one day to the next, no matter what comes our way. It is what remained at the bottom of Pandora’s Box after the chaos escaped into the world. It is what lifts our eyes from the prisons that separate us from one another toward a better, more equitable future.
“You start more and more,” Merton’s letter to the young activist continues, “to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the righteousness, the truth of the work itself.”
Such is the horizon of hope, where a new day is already dawning.
To attend an online writing session exploring Hope, register here:https://bit.ly/OpenPageMay.