When my son was little, he liked to repeat what he heard his superhero characters say, and one day when I asked him what hope means, he said, “Hope is having a voice in your future.”
That’s a pretty good definition, isn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about hope lately. Hope feels a little slippery to me these days. We’re living in anxious times. The complexity and challenges of the world – of humanity and the planet we share – can seem overwhelming.
I mean, look around. Every person I know – Every. Single. One. – is living in an uncertain and anxious world.
What is hope, anyway?
Is hope a thing or an emotion or a behavior? Sometimes we use the word as a noun, as in “She lost all hope.” We use it as a verb, as in “The team hopes to win the big game.” We use it to describe feelings, as in “He carried on because he felt such deep hope.”
We might think of hope as something we have or don’t have, or occasionally have, or something we’ll find, or something that will find us.
In Spanish, the verb esperar can mean both wait and hope. It’s something we can do passively or actively, resigned or resolute.
What if we choose to wage hope?
What if we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for? What if we choose to be people who are courageous and generous and wild with hope?
God knows the world could use some wild hope.
How do we move forward with hope in a harsh and hard world? How do we look to the future when the present seems so precarious?
Some years ago, I heard an interview with a blind mountain climber named Erik Weihenmayer. Here’s part of what he said in a commencement address in 2011: “I don’t care if we’re blind or sighted, I think in a way we’re all reaching into the darkness.”
Reaching into the darkness.
He goes on to say that no matter how much we know or think we know about what life has in store, there are no guarantees, and there will always be challenges. We can be paralyzed by fear and anxiety, or we can “reach out into the darkness,” he says, “toward immense possibilities.”
This is hope: choosing to reach into and through the darkness toward immense possibilities.
Weihenmayer has to do that literally of course, but it’s also his metaphor for taking action, for claiming his own God-given capacities in the face of darkness by acknowledging it, facing it, reaching into it. Because the darkness is real.
Long ago, the wise teacher who gave us Ecclesiastes, said this:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9: 11-12
Wait, what?! The race is not to the swift? The battle is not to the strong? That’s not what they told us! That’s not how it’s supposed to work! That’s not fair!!
There’s the rub, right? Life’s not how we thought it would be.
Somehow, some of us have come to believe that good things come to those who try hard and work diligently. We’ve expected that good intentions and intellect and talent and perseverance will win the day, and life will reward us with success and good health and peace. It seems like a fair formula, doesn’t it, for individuals and families, for organizations and whole societies. If only we use our resources well and play to our strengths and follow the rules, everything will be fine.
Except… it’s not always fine. The race is not to the swift.
Time and chance happen to them all.
Mortals are snared at a time of calamity.
We experience hurricanes and tornados and earthquakes and fires and floods – literal storms over which we have no control, and sometimes no warning.
We face heartbreak and loss and addiction and devastating illness – inner storms over which we have no control.
We witness violence and anger and anguish – storms from which there seems to be no escape.
And now Covid–19. Disaster and calamity.
The darkness is real, and it’s dense and it’s frightening, and sometimes it’s paralyzing, and so most of the time we don’t admit or acknowledge that it even exists really. But it does.
And it’s not until we really face it – until we actually confess that all is not right in the world – that we can begin to find our way through it and beyond it, and find ways to transform it.
And – this is a big AND – we’ve got to be honest enough to acknowledge the light too.
“But wait!” you say, “I already acknowledge the light!”
Me too. Except when I don’t.
Here’s what I mean (and I’m speaking for myself here; maybe you don’t do this): It’s easy and tempting to throw up my hands and declare that all is lost, that the world has truly spun off its axis, that there are NO good leaders anywhere, that the human race has devolved beyond redemption, that we simply can’t regain civil discourse and decency, etc etc etc.
It’s not that I believe those things theologically, but sometimes I behave and speak as if that’s exactly what I believe, as if I’m convinced that the darkness has won.
And that’s a problem.
Because hope inhabits that sacred place where we acknowledge the world’s realities and choose to reach through the darkness to access the Light.
In fact, we are given this extraordinary privilege of being the ones who point to hope, who magnify hope, who actually embody hope. And it begins by being honest.
The truth is indeed liberating, though not instantaneously; being honest about the realities of life will free us to do what we need to do, and let go of what we wish we could do.
Here’s the thing: Life is challenging. And messy. And mysterious. Life is miraculous, and magic and maddening. Life is full and empty, heart-warming and heart-breaking, shared and lonely, comforting and cruel, sometimes glorious and sometimes grinding.
Sometimes life is beautiful. And sometimes life is bleak.
And sometimes it’s both at the very same time.
Or, to quote a more contemporary poet: “Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic, but it’s a good life, all the way.”
Hope is the secret weapon of the good life, all the way.
Hope is courage reaching through darkness, a bulb pushing a tender new leaf up through the cold ground, the birth of a child, the steadfast rhythm of the tides, the connection of one living soul to another.
Hope is the hard work of staying hunkered down far longer than we’d like, longer than we think we can tolerate. Hope is choosing to be the ones we’re waiting for and doing the right thing.
This is the good work of waging hope.