Optimism often lies, but hope never fails.
Every year, the first snow is miraculous, the second one pretty, and events go downhill from there. The ski jacket that looked so bright and cheerful in November is getting a little dingy. That beautiful Christmas sweater has been worn more than once now, and its magic is fading.
It is difficult to be hopeful when you get into February. Possibly that is the origin of strange superstitions like Groundhog Day, which I interpret as a form of bargaining: Give me a chance that winter might be over right away, and then maybe (if I lose) I might accept it going on for six more weeks, tops.
The reality is that winter will leave when it is ready, and that April baseball games are sometimes cancelled for snow—but these thoughts are best left for another day.
This year I am running into many people who find hope hard to come by. Not all of them live in northern climates, and winter is not the only challenge that has outlasted the initial rush of adrenalin and determination.
Some have been looking for jobs and not finding them. Some are waiting for loved ones to come home—permanently, without ever needing to go back—from the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Some are wondering what will happen next, as retirement approaches and their preparations have not worked out.
Many are facing personal stresses that know no season: failed relationships and divorce, illnesses that may or may not be curable, children whose disabilities can be managed (with great effort and expense) but not set right, parents whose decline requires ever more intervention and care.
Still others feel their hope for our country slipping away. How can democracy survive when a few have so much and so many have so little? Or when lavishly financed lies and propaganda mock the vision of a well-informed electorate? Or when corporate power begins to surpass human power? Or when partisanship goes past name-calling into waving guns and cheerleading for violence?
The world too faces seemingly insuperable challenges: Just as half the world starts reaching for an American way of life, oil production is peaking; and even if more fossil fuels can be found, burning them threatens to bring cataclysmic changes to the climate and the biosphere. The antibiotic miracle seems to be unraveling, as growing bacterial resistance points towards a new age of global plagues. Modernity's promise of ever increasing reasonability and rationality also is unraveling, as a counter-revolution of fundamentalism rises in all its many forms.
At times like these it is important to remember the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is an expectation of the future, but hope is a way of experiencing the present. Optimism assures us that the oasis we see in the distance is not a mirage, but hope simply inspires us to keep going. Optimism promises specific outcomes, but hope just says that striving is worthwhile, that whether or not good things will happen, creating opportunity is a good thing in itself.
Optimism often lies, but hope never fails. Optimism argues with the predictions of cynicism and bitterness, and is often proved wrong. Hope rejects cynicism and bitterness as unhelpful, and is perennially proved right.
Hope cares for the eggs without counting the chickens that might come from them. Hope plants as wisely as it can, knowing that the rains and the harvest are uncertain. Hope is—right here and right now, whatever may happen in the future—a better way to live.
Hope is itself a challenging issue for Unitarian Universalists because historically we have been an optimistic religion. We are a can-do people. We make plans and project outcomes. Sometimes we have looked down our noses at faiths that keep hope alive through prayer and praise rather than goal-directed action. In good times, when plans succeed and goals are achieved, our way is clearly better. But in hard times, when the challenge is to endure rather than thrive, our advantages are less obvious.
Too often the nineteenth-century Unitarian faith in "the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever" has been taken as a guarantee of improvement day-by-day and year-by-year, when history instead shows long detours and backtracks. The arc of the moral universe may "bend towards justice" (as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it did), but not smoothly.
And yet, if we read our Unitarian prophets more closely, they did not promise that it would. King was echoing the 1853 sermon "Of Justice and Conscience" by Theodore Parker: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
I read that much more as a statement of Parker's hopeful faith than his optimistic assurance. Parker was speaking in a time of slavery, in a country soon to fight a devastating civil war. Optimism would have been foolish; no one could predict when or how the crisis would resolve. But even without a vision of the goal or the path, it was important to keep going.
To the extent that we hang our hopes on specific future events, we may well be disappointed. The application is rejected, the cure fails, the contest is lost, the bill does not pass, the experiment proves nothing, and the can't-miss investment does, in fact, miss. Sometimes entire civilizations collapse and take centuries to recover. It has happened and someday it will happen again.
And yet, history has a way of frustrating the pessimists as well, even when their position seems unassailable. Slavery ends. Jim Crow ends. Nazism is conquered. The Soviet Union falls. Read Bleak House or Les Miserables and then imagine taking Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo on a tour of the modern welfare states of the United Kingdom or France. How, given the rock-solid foundations of the vested interests of their day, could such a thing have happened? Even Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher never described as an optimist, had to admit: "No lie can live forever."
The onward and upward progress of humanity does not happen by clockwork, and yet it happens. Even in the best of times, the daily headlines do not march steadily and inexorably towards goodness. If you pick out a period of history that seems particularly glorious from our perspective—the Golden Age of Greece, the Renaissance, the founding of the American Republic—you will almost always find that the local commentary was pessimistic. Whatever is big enough to be obvious is probably already in decline, and whatever is rising seems negligible by comparison. In every era, the doomed dinosaurs are more eye-catching than the evolving mammals.
Consequently, if you ask me about some specific issue, on any scale from the personal to the global, I may well be a pessimist. And yet I have hope. I keep striving. I keep planting the seeds of good things to come. Which ones will sprout and grow? I have no idea. Will any? Maybe not. But I choose to plant. It is a good way to live.
Tomorrow, February 1, will be the holiday the Celts called Imbolc, which literally means "in the belly." It was the time of year when the ewes were said to begin lactating in anticipation of the spring lambs. Like the lambs in the wombs, the seeds that had fallen during the fall harvest were also in the belly of the Earth, waiting.
Here in New Hampshire, those seeds are buried under the snow. There is no sign of them. We can only imagine that they must be down there, and anticipate that some will sprout and grow.
Maybe soon, maybe not. Someday.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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