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The On Being Project

We’ve Hoped Our Way Into Our Current Crisis

I was born with childhood asthma. My doctors discovered that house dust, certain grasses, exercise, the change of seasons, and a range of foods including nuts, chocolate, fish, eggs, dairy products, and even some fruits could trigger an attack.

The accompanying eczema made me scratch until I bled, so much so that into my teens the bends behind my elbows and knees were scabbed over. The attacks made my eyes water and my nose run. My mouth and lips would swell, and my throat and the alveoli in my lungs constricted. I’d struggle both to inhale and to exhale. Generally the attacks intensified at night, and my parents would administer awful-tasting liquid medicine or pills or suppositories. Severe attacks meant an emergency room trip and sometimes hospitalization and time in an oxygen tent. On those nights, the distance between the body I had and the body I wanted yawned like a chasm. Immeasurable. And crying, praying, I would tumble into despair.

Eventually my asthma improved, and in my adulthood the allergies diminished and the attacks became rare. But for the first dozen years of my life, I often felt trapped in my body.

Those are some of my oldest memories, my literal “dark night of the soul.” The heightened turmoil we’re living through these days echoes my despair from that time. I think of it when so often we’re urged to embrace hope as an antidote. Hope for a brighter day. Hope for justice. Hope for peace. Hope that compassion will win out. But speaking for myself, I’m giving up hope.

Not that I don’t understand the impulse. It’s tempting to think that looking to the future will get me through hardship. But in my life’s struggles, hope hasn’t worked out that way. Too often hope has hardened into anticipation and expectation for specific outcomes. At times, I’ve believed that if only I could reach that next achievement — an age, a job, a relationship, a house, a car, an academic degree, a lifestyle — then I’d be content.

Similarly, our culture encourages us to believe that reaching the next societal goal will create the utopia (or a reasonable facsimile) that we crave. Getting this court decision, passing that law, having this candidate elected will mean we’ve finally arrived. We’ll become in reality the country we’ve always pretended to be.

But I think we’ve hoped our way into this current crisis. Rather than facing the hard truths about our historical and continuing inequality and doing the hard work of examining our institutions, our traditions, and ourselves, we’ve floated along hoping things would inevitably get better. We’ve lived too much in the rosy future and far too little in the messy present. And we’ve allowed the hope-turned-expectation of progress to blind us.

This oblivious hope explains why so many were blindsided by rising racist rhetoric, by the videos of police shootings, by last year’s election, and by the national dissension that has exploded since November. People marginalized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression have tried to get the nation’s attention for decades.

The response? “We’re America. Have hope.” Before our eyes, that view is being unmasked for the fantasy it is.

But if not hope, then what? Do we let ourselves wallow in bitterness and despair, throw up our hands and resign ourselves to injustice and oppression?

I have no one-size-fits-all prescription; that’s been part of our problem — and part of the problem with hope. It encourages us to think that if we do certain things, take certain steps, achieve certain milestones, we will get the outcomes we want. It assumes that we have the solutions and we can control the future.

That’s not how the universe works. Nothing we can do will give us complete control. If history has taught us anything, it should have taught us that. Hoping and despairing about what we can’t control only distracts us from what we can: our actions in the present. Right now.

When I recall the asthmatic child I once was, I remember that though I had hopes and dreams about the future, that’s not what kept me going. I read incessantly: books and newspapers, my mother’s Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, Catholic missionary magazines and comic books. I began writing stories and journals while in elementary school. I watched films, inhaling the structures of narrative, the music of language. I listened to how people talked: their accents and inflections, their changes of register and style, their ways of arguing, praying, cursing. I thought about why people did what they did, what motivated them. I spent time alone, walking in nature, reflecting on and wrestling with myself.

At the time I didn’t know I was making myself a writer. I just responded to what called me.

Parenting, too, has taught me about hope. Like so many parents, I’ve indulged hopes about how my children will be at a given point in their lives. But, children being children, things turn out differently. Eventually I learned that I feel calmer and parent better when I focus on what they need in the present. I spend less time mentally playing sepia-toned, soft focus futures of achievement, and concentrate on clothing them, feeding them, and giving them boundaries and the love they need right now. I realized that if I valued being a good parent, if I loved them, I had no other choice.

You see, whether I get what I want turns out to not actually be my business. This insight came as quite a surprise, living as we do in a culture of control (not to say domination), a culture that deifies power over people, nature, possessions, aging, time, even death. But I don’t control whether I get what I want because I don’t control the universe; I live within it.

So I don’t need hope (or control) to act. I don’t need hope to figure out what I should do and how I should live. I have values. I have beliefs. I can examine whether they’re grounded in reality. And I can use those values to ask myself with each choice, “Am I being — right now — the person I believe I should be? Am I acting in line with truth, with reality, with the way I think life should be lived?”

If I believe in justice, do I express that belief? Do I work against injustice? Do I choose to undermine oppression or further it? Not because I know I’ll “win” or “succeed,” but because I’ve committed myself to living the way I think I should live.

At my best, I answer what each moment and my values call me to do. Sometimes it’s to rest, to reflect. Sometimes it’s to play. Sometimes it’s to connect with friends and loved ones. Sometimes it’s to struggle, critique, speak out. Sometimes to listen. Sometimes to celebrate. Sometimes to grieve. Each moment makes its demand, and I’m seeking the kind of life where I hear and answer that need as often as I can.

Contrary to our control-obsessed culture, the alternative to hope isn’t passivity or despair. It’s living. It’s being humble and real. It’s being here.

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