When we have a mainstream media that has bought the idea that it will make money by gluing the eyeballs of its viewers and readers to it by hyping violence, controversy, horror, extreme right-wing politicians, and a former president that leads a personality cult, it’s easy for anyone who pays attention to feel overwhelmed by it all.
When there’s one political party dominated by those who refuse to cooperate with anything that it feels threatens its power and position…
When that party has stacked the courts, gerrymandered elections, promoted a culture of unregulated weaponry, and condones and even calls for violence to protect its stash…
When so many leaders in the other party haven’t awakened to how to deal with fanatics and still think one can reason with them…
When so much is under threat — LGBTQ marriage and other LGBTQ rights, voting rights, civil rights protections, the public schools, science that doesn’t support their political interests, universities, libraries, and the livability of our planet…
Then these are scary times. And one way to respond is to bury our heads in the sand, turn inward, huddle in bunkers, and give up on attempts to fight for our values.
The only alternative isn’t optimism, though. The fear is not paranoia. People are really after those they now treat as enemies including LGBTQ people.
My favorite definition of an optimist is someone who falls off a skyscraper, and as he passes the thirtieth floor someone hears him say: “So far, so good.”
Yet, we can’t just look at the half of the glass that’s full and disregard the empty half.
In fact, that glass is far from half full. It’s flowing over for the richest 10 percent or fewer of U.S. citizens who have the funds to hide successfully in guarded communities with helicopters set to take them away if things threaten them.
Many of the other 90 percent — so many deluded victims of constant right-wing propaganda — have been bamboozled into believing that the right-wing social agenda, including deporting foreign workers, restoring white supremacy, or undoing marriage equality, is the real solution to their problems.
But an inability to be optimistic doesn’t mean that pessimism is the only alternative either. No matter how we feel about the future, there’s a better, empowering, and realistic choice that can change things.
It’s to opt for hope. Hope is a conscious decision.
Hopelessness, on the other hand, is a feeling. But that doesn’t make it worthless.
Hopelessness is, like anger or envy, a secondary emotion that prevents us from feeling the primary emotions that lie beneath it: Fear, hurt, powerlessness, and confusion. Feeling hopeless is a real clue that there’s something deeper.
And as the times look even grim, let’s turn again to Paul Rogat Loeb’s classic on realistic hope, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (in its second edition), so we can make that choice to embrace hope.
Václav Havel, former Czechoslovakian president, provides one example. Three years before the Communist dictatorship fell, Havel wrote: “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.” His experience is one of many that show that a series of seemingly futile and insignificant actions can bring down an empire.
Even in what appears to be a losing cause, one person might knowingly inspire another, and then another, who could go on and change the world.
Loeb tells of a friend who in the early 1960s in a pouring rain joined a small vigil in front of the White House protesting nuclear testing. A few years later, famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock, who influenced thousands, spoke at a vastly larger march against the Viet Nam War, telling the crowd that his inspiration was that small group he saw by chance huddled with their kids in the rain. “I thought that if those women were out there, their cause must be really important.”
From his cell, Nelson Mandela speaks of how to survive prison intact, emerge undiminished, and conserve and replenish one’s hope. Susan B. Anthony warns: “cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform.”
We hear of Native American writer Sherman Alexie’s hope: “Everything is stuffed to the brim with ideas and love and hope and magic and dreams.”
Gay, Tony-award-winning playwright Tony Kushner writes that despair is a lie we tell ourselves, reminding us of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Then there’s Cornell West: “To live is to wrestle with despair yet never to allow despair to have the last word.”
In those essays we read of the creativity of people who carried on against great odds and were there to see the powers fall. They often never identified as activists; they merely tried to end what was hurting them or their families.
Others fought for progressive values even though they didn’t expect to see results in their lifetime. But these were activists, Loeb reminds us, who believed that “living with conviction is of value in itself regardless of the outcome.”
Giving up on life and the living, Loeb argues, is really “a form of arrogance.” Alice Walker’s testimony “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse” examines that arrogance in the politics of bitterness.
So, for our own lives, our own good, our own conscience and integrity, we must live in hope.
“Life is a gamble,” historian Howard Zinn writes. “Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”
Giving up in cynicism and pessimism will consume us from the inside and allow those who’d hurt us to destroy the outside.
Loeb: “We can’t afford the sentimental view that mere self-improvement, no matter how noble in intention, is enough. Nor can we afford to succumb to fear.”
Snippets of these inspiring writings make them seem trite and precious. But sitting down to take in these brief essays has a cumulative effect: hope-inspiring.
They inspire those of us who feel we have only a small garden to hoe, not an empire to redirect.
Benjamin Mays, mentor to Dr. King summarizes:
The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching a goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.
Even now, hope is still realistic — and a choice.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.