When Hope is Hard to Find

Today’s virtue is hope. That title is from a hymn called “ Come sing a song with me,” and the line is “and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.” Hope is a virtue, a habit of the heart in the words of sociologist Robert Bellah. It is one of four attitudinal virtues—hope, faith, love, and grace.  Three from Saint Paul and one more that are the ground for all the behavioral virtues that we observe in ourselves and others.

Like all virtues, hope lies at the golden mean between its opposite—despair or pessimism—and its extreme—optimism. I used to think of myself as an optimist, but that was before I learned the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is just expecting things to turn out well.  Hope, or what theologian Joanna Macy calls Active Hope, means having a vision of how things might be, could be, should be, and working to bring it about. Hope in the heart is the mother of virtues like courage, responsibility, engagement. Hope’s motto is Yes, I can, or even better, Yes, we can.

Hope requires two tools to direct and sustain active hopeful engagement.  One is a vision of a better way, a better life, a better world.  The other is a community that can share or at least “catch” the hope and provide mutual support in working toward it. Vision embraced by a community is how we put our hope to work.

Hope has to confront risk and move beyond it.  One of the most fascinating concepts in statistics is the two types of error.  Type I is accepting a hypothesis as true when it is, in fact, false.  Type II error is rejecting as false a hypothesis that is, in fact, true.  A high standard for truth, which is the goal of science, minimizes the first risk but increases the second.  Hope means accepting a certain amount of risk of being wrong in order to move on.  Risk invites fear, and fear can paralyze active hope. All the great heroes of history and literature kept hope alive, confronting an even embracing risk in order to achieve what they did—Mandala in ending apartheid in South Africa, suffragists in the 72 year struggle for voting rights for women, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement.

So where do we find hope when hope is hard to find?  First, in having a big enough vision that the most we can do is propel it in the right direction. Second, in being part of a community that shares that vision and passes it on. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  The suffragists in Seneca Falls in 1848 did not get to vote, but my great grandmother, born in 1854, marched for women’s suffrage with countless others and voted in the presidential elections in 1920 and 1924.  She was saved by hope, which she caught from her foremothers and passed on to her grandchildren.

Hopes need to be big hopes, shared hopes, inspiring hopes.  Restoring civility to our nation. Protecting democracy. Reducing violence. Resisting climate change. Caring for the vulnerable. Pick one or two hopes for the future and find companions to work toward them.   Which hope will you embrace and work for both alone and in community to bring about?

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