On hope

Hope is being able to see the light despite all of the darkness.

Desmond Tutu

The turn of the year is a season when people naturally turn their thoughts to the future, as well as looking back on the year just passed. (Hence the appropriateness of naming January for Janus, the two-faced god of boundaries.) This year is particularly dramatic. It has of course been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is very much still with us. Here in the UK,we are also looking forward (with varying degrees of trepidation) to Brexit. Early in the year, that was all that the news media seemed to talk about, and now at the eleventh hour it has crept back onto the news agenda.

Under the circumstances, hope seems frankly irrational. But then that is the nature of the beast; if one had certain knowledge of the future, it wouldn’t be hope. Think of all those tombstones bearing the phrase “in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection” – if it were sure and certain, it wouldn’t be hope. As the ecclesiastical historian Owen Chadwick said in another context, faith would not be faith if it were knowledge, and hope is a close cousin to faith.

There is nevertheless great strength to be had from this kind of irrationality. I can personally vouch for its usefulness in getting through bad times, and if these aren’t bad times they’ll do until bad times come along. Sometimes pig-headed persistence is all there is. It worked for us in 1940, after all.

It also worked for Barack Obama, who won two terms as US President on the basis of hope. He even wrote a book entitled The Audacity of Hope (Canongate Press, 2008). The fact that, for example, he failed to close down Guantanomo Bay despite this being one of his initial election pledges and having eight years in which to do it, proves that hope springs eternal in the bosom of the electorate. No doubt the current inmates of Camp X-Ray are hoping that Joe Biden will come through.

There is a saying – I don’t know its ultimate origin – that “hope is hopeless.” I rather like this as a counter-balance to the fetishisation of hope in and of itself which is so prevalent in our culture. Hope is important and necessary, but in itself it is not a substitute for positive action. We are often prone to forget this.

You will often find people of a vaguely New-Agey cast blathering on about the law of attraction, which Wikipedia helpfully summarises as “the belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into a person’s life”. Now there is something in this, insofar as your thoughts influence your behaviour, and your behaviour influences your life. But behaviour is about action. Winston Churchill did not simply light a candle and trust the Universe: on the contrary, he took vigorous action to maintain the struggle with Nazi Germany in the face of apparently impossible odds.

We should also bear in mind that apparently impossible usually are indeed impossible. “Wizards know,” says Terry Pratchett, “that million to one chances come up nine times out of ten.” This is funny because it’s only true in the kind of fantasy universe that Pratchett is affectionately satirising. Yes, it always happens in the movies; in real life not so much. We remember and celebrate Churchill in 1940 because it was improbable. The previous year, the Polish President Ignacy Mościcki had also faced apparently impossible odds, and that didn’t turn out so well.

Yet even if the light which Desmond Tutu speaks of is not actually there, we are still well-advised to hope. It may be that no action we can take will avert disaster. In many areas, I would say that is clearly the case; we are not going to “fix” climate change, for example, however much pious hot air politicians may contribute. We may however be able to mitigate disaster, or at least to adapt to it. (Jem Bendell’s notion of “deep adaptation” is relevant here.) Crossing your fingers is definitely not going to help, and neither is giving way to mere despair.

How then to sustain and nourish hope? Archbishop Tutu has the consolation of a strong personal religious faith, and if you have one of those I strongly advise you to make the most of it, unless your strong personal religious faith is atheism, which may not help much. It does seem to me that faith of some sort is going to become more important to many people in the future, if only in the sense of there being no atheists in foxholes. Stoicism is certainly an approach that will be of help to many and is entirely compatible with atheism, for that matter.

For my part, I take comfort in the larger view that life on this planet is incredibly resilient. It has been through much worse things than we can throw at it: the Permian extinction, for example, and before that the Great Oxidation Event. The grass will still grow, albeit at slightly higher latitudes.

I remain impressed and encouraged by the vision of the future outlined by Chris Smaje in his book A Small Farm Future, which I recently reviewed. There are people all over the place doing good and useful work: off the top of my head I can think of Incredible Edible, the Agroforestry Research Trust, Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown in the US, and that’s just talking about food. Every day the penny drops for more people that we can’t go on like this. and at least some of those people are starting to take action. That which is unsustainable will not be sustained, after all.

It’s easy to get too fixated on current events, the froth on the surface, and overlook the deeper currents. Things will be rough, certainly, but they won’t stay that way for ever. These upheavals may be what we need in order to bring about necessary changes. We need to cling onto that hope if we are to notice the opportunities that may emerge; but we also need to seize those opportunities and make something of them.

At any rate, those are my thoughts. Let me know yours in the comments.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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