Home > Books, Social Justice > Hope in the Dark

Hope in the Dark

In 2015, my goal was to read one book per month. I barely reached it, but was glad to have beat my 2014 reading. Having grown up immersed in books, it depressed me to have lost my stamina for reading.

This part-year, by contrast, I’ve already read almost twenty books. I’ve crammed in minutes of reading wherever I could, trying to learn more about the many connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Understanding these connections has felt pivotal for being able to describe them, especially those least intuitive, and perhaps find ways to help effect much needed, positive change within and outside my home country.

I spent several months last year in a state of genuine shock at the world I saw uncovered by my book reading. I’d vaguely understood there were some injustices happening somewhere out there, but only began to comprehend their scope and scale last summer. Seeing how many millions of people have suffered and died needlessly, whether of hunger or treatable illness here or bombs and drones abroad–for decades, under command of U.S. Republicans and Democrats alike–sent me toppling into despair.

I don’t regret raging. I don’t regret grappling aloud with my despair. These are understandable, even appropriate responses to discovering what great and sweeping cruelties have been and are being worked by my country right now.

Even when the shock finally wore off, anger and great sadness lingered. I stumbled forward with little hope, desperate but clueless about how to start working effectively now for a better world for my children … indeed, everyone on this planet.

Genuine hope finally found me a few weeks ago. It came (wouldn’t you know it?) in the form of a book.

I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities without prior knowledge of book or author. Reading its foreword in an urgent care waiting room a few weeks ago, I found tears slipping down my cheeks as my heart responded to the compassion behind Solnit’s words. She wrote pieces of terrifying histories, but did so to demonstrate the beautiful things that people made happen in their wake. Yes, horrible things happen, her words informed me, and they will keep happening. But that is only a part of the story. Beyond what usually gets told are powerful acts of love and courage that must be remembered as part of all these stories.

Writes Solnit:

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s a belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

She continues soon after, “It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.”

Gently, kindly, she pointed to tragedies and then invited me to see the countless acts of love and courage on their outskirts. She shifted my focus from all that is terrible in this great big world to the many acts that have made it less terrible, and sometimes even kind.

My heart softened as I read. My anger, fear, and despair cowered, making way for my seeing other stories and possibilities that have existed together with tragedy; for seeing some of the kinder possibilities that might yet become reality.

In Solnit’s words, I found inspiration and … community. All the people whose stories she shared became part of the world within my heart; their sacrifices, lights that illuminate it.

I don’t really understand how Solnit fit so much wisdom and possibility–borne of witness to history, not aversion to it–into 131 small pages. The fact remains I am glad she did. Thanks to her, I journey now with a sense of hope, for not all is yet written. The fact it’s unwritten means my acts could be part of shaping a world much kinder to many more people.

I can’t know they will, of course. That’s the point of action from hope: giving it a chance, not because the outcome is certain … but because it’s pliable, ready to be shaped by you, me, and the loving stories we’ll tell with our choices beginning now.

Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for down by nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.

— Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

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  1. March 18, 2017 at 6:41 am

    I have learned a lot through books as well. That highlighted line is meaningful to me. I sometimes want to hide under the blankets when I think about all the suffering, but reaching out to those I can does make a difference.

    • March 18, 2017 at 11:39 am

      I so agree. I struggled with a sense that all was hopeless. Reading Solnit, it was so clear that failure to save everything isn’t a total failure. How, then, to minimize what’s lost and maximize what good remains? That is a beautiful question that, for me, inspires me to see possibility instead of only gloom ahead. ❤

  2. March 18, 2017 at 9:29 am

    Rebecca Solnit is a national treasure.

    • March 18, 2017 at 11:40 am

      Seconded. I have another of her books on my dresser, for reading a page or two at night so that I go to bed with a sense that … tomorrow is another chance to seek and build hope.

  3. March 18, 2017 at 11:34 am

    A nice reminder and a good book recommendation all in one. Thank you.

    • March 18, 2017 at 11:42 am

      💕 I’m trying to devour all these other books, but I’m going to make a point to savor every Solnit book I read … going as slowly as I can, so I can soak it all up.

  4. March 18, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Hope finds us in all sorts of places. I am glad you found some hope.

  5. March 18, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Perhaps this kind of hope is more obvious in a small town than a city. “Everyone” knows we got hit with huge medical bills last year. They can’t help with the bills, but they can (and do) bring us dinner — or help us save gas money by saying, “I’m headed into town, do you need anything?” One neighbor who’s bought firewood from us for years at a fixed price decided to pay the going rate. Out here it’s just being neighborly, though, of course we’ve been part of this “neighborhood” for almost 40 years. If one hears of someone in trouble, one helps in some way.

    • March 18, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      I’m glad that has been your personal experience, but I can tell you both anecdotally (which is, as always, to be taken with a grain of salt; there is not one universal life copied and lived by all) and from readings deriving from law school to now that your individual experience is far from the norm. Indeed, I’m reading a 1962 book on poverty that lays to shame a country that would categorically deny tens of millions of people the merest semblance of an opportunity and then have the audacity to blame them for structural assaults of which they are victims, not perpetrators.

      Everything described in this book has grown worse since the book was written. In fact, I was shocked to read and discover that what I thought were new trends are deeply woven into our society: a society literally built to atomize people from each other, the better that each will judge and castigate those who never had a chance while quietly praising themselves for surviving while supposing everyone who didn’t just must not have been as good a person.

      It’s this idea that gave me despair, honestly. This idea that so many people who see themselves as good would fall for this extension of the free-market ethos (the best always win!!! whomever lost must have deserved it!) and accept it as true simply because so many people say it. I accepted it pretty uncritically until less than a year ago, a fact which horrifies me.

      Sometimes, good people happen to be around just the right, well equipped good people to make it through hard times. Other times, surrounded by only others who are similarly struggling, they simply barely live until they die, victims of a brutal U.S. that lags behind other developed countries and yet still perceives itself as mighty.

      Did you know that all this hubbub about the U.S. school system failing conceals one simple fact? Middle class and well to do students match or beat other countries’ students in performance. It’s the performance of poor students, who often can’t even count on a single meal a day, who bring the nation’s scores down. Apparently, not having food and the stress of barely even being able to survive makes it hard to focus, for reasons physiological and psychological. And there, we set them up for lifetimes of poverty and despair, forever able to find more trillions of dollars to bomb and drone people from any of our copious military bases overseas while never seeming to be able to find enough to simply feed and educate our children.

      They suffer so that defense contractors will survive. What a terrible travesty.

      And yet, there is hope. More and more, people are seeing how many lives are lost and how much suffering wrought by saying society has no role, and that the individual must be responsible for the catastrophes he or she has endured.

      In each of those people and the efforts they begin to haltingly take that none suffer and die for lack of basic necessity, there it is: hope.

      • March 18, 2017 at 2:40 pm

        My comment above relates to a brief post I wrote on neoliberalism (defined as “a modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism”). The post is called “An imbalance of freedoms” and describes, in brief, how neoliberalism fosters an imbalance of freedoms dramatically favoring corporations over human beings.

        https://learningtospeakpolitics.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/an-imbalance-of-freedoms/

        That post was inspired by this Guardian post:

        https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

        It’s well worth a read, and begins thusly:

        “Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

        Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?”

        (I hope more people will read it.)

  6. March 18, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Hope is a fragile essential.
    Emily Dickinson nailed it:
    ‘Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.’

  7. March 19, 2017 at 3:19 am

    Interesting post!

  8. March 22, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Damn. That was deep. Thanks for reminding us to keep the course and know that we can be the change. We just have to believe it.

  1. March 29, 2017 at 12:03 pm

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