I know that we’re all still supposed to be jubilant over the election. This is supposedly our honeymoon, these days between Obama’s victory and his inauguration, before he’s had a chance to start disappointing us in earnest. But elation hasn’t been my mood; not at all. Maybe I’m just too tired from the endless campaign, but I’ve felt cautious, depleted, reflective, even a little melancholy. The November days are short and bleak, and the thing with feathers threatens to fly south for the winter.
And so I find myself mulling over this business of “hope” and what it’s good for – what the “thing with feathers” might animate, beyond the sloganeering.
For one thing, I think hope is an effective antidote to fear. As such, it’s crucial to real democracy. Of all the laws and policies born of fear during the past eight years – the Patriot Act, the Abu Ghraib interrogations, the Guantanamo Bay internments, the rampant wiretapping – I can’t think of one that was wise (and many were plain unconstitutional). Fear turns off people’s critical faculties and turns citizens into subjects.
Uncritical hope can be exploited by demagogues, too, but not so easily. Hope is not self-sustaining: Reality has a way of intruding on hope while tending to reinforce people’s fears. Historically, dictatorships have rested far more on fear than on hope, and idealistic revolutions-gone-bad have always shifted from hope toward fear before spawning such atrocities as Stalinism or the Terror. Hope can move people to take to the streets, but fear is a far more potent motivator if you’re out for blood.
But even in times of threat and crisis – especially then – hope can lead us back to our core values. Hope can guide us toward a foreign policy aimed at strength through alliances rather than intimidation and militarism. Hope can inspire an economic rescue plan aimed at restructuring our economy – moving our automotive industry away from gas guzzlers and our energy infrastructure toward renewables – instead of just panicking and giving AIG and Citibank whatever they want.
Hope itself is a renewable energy source. We’re going to need that in the months and years ahead.
Hope is also a gift to our children. It’s an example of how to live, a precondition for making the world better for them, a source of joy. It can help them cope with their nascent awareness of injustice and violence; it can nurture their empathy and protect them against cynicism. It’s part of the very air I want them to imbibe. I just loved how Tim Wise captured this in a recent essay on Alternet:
[M]aybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope. After all, as a dad (for me at least), it’s hard to look at my children every day and think, “Gee, it sucks that the world is so screwed up, and will probably end in a few years from resource exploitation…Oh well, I sure hope my daughters have a great day at school!”
Fatherhood hasn’t made me any less radical in my analysis or desire to see change. In fact, if anything, it has made me more so. I am as angry now as I’ve ever been about injustice, because I can see how it affects these children I helped to create, and for whom I am now responsible. But anger and cynicism do not make good dance partners. Anger without hope, without a certain faith in the capacity of we the people to change our world is a sickness unto death.
Paired with a sense of responsibility, hope is also a lot of work. (Maybe that, too, is why I feel so darn tired?) That’s where Emily Dickinson got it wrong. She wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
I actually think hope demands our all. It’s voracious. It will swallow us whole. And so technically, I guess, it won’t “ask a crumb of me” since it doesn’t settle for crumbs.
Hope is much like bell hooks’ notion of love as she describes it in her essay, “Romance: Sweet Love.” Unlike romance (which she equates with infatuation and putting up a false front), love requires a choice, hooks writes. Love demands that we commit to it over and over and over again, every day, for as long as we want it to endure. I think hope is like that too; anything easier isn’t hope, it’s mere romance and self-delusion.
In other words, hope is a whole lot like a longstanding marriage. It’s not always easy to sustain. It requires a body-and-soul commitment. It demands our energy.
But like love and marriage, hope can give energy, too. And when that alchemy of hope occurs, that’s when the thing with feathers takes wing. That’s when its chirps meld into full-fledged song. That’s when it keeps us warm.