By disposition, I am not much inclined towards feelings of hope.
I am more fatalist than pessimist, though. It is not that I think the worst things are going to happen so much as we are inevitably inclined to do bad things. As a species, we are wired for self-destruction, a plague meant to destroy the Earth and each other.
Job 5:7 sounds about right to me, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”
If I were a believer, I would identify as a Calvinist, all of us born sinners, subject to “total depravity,” our occasional acts of goodness a defiance of our natures, rather than a demonstration of them.
But because I am not a believer I do not have the benefit of salvation as a comfort for my particular world view. I do not have faith that a more glorious future exists for me on Earth or elsewhere.
For me, this is it.
What sense can I make of this work I do, of this life I lead?
The impending inauguration of an unserious, unqualified, moral degenerate to the most powerful position in the world is a source of distress for many, including me. As a response, those of us who feel this way are asked to either “STFU” by those who see me as an enemy, or cultivate “hope” for a better future by those with whom we are allied.
Perhaps because I am faith-impaired, I cannot feel this hope. (And I am definitely not going to STFU.) As inspiring as Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric is, I’ve never believed that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.
Because I never viewed the election of a black president as a sign of progress in the first place, his replacement by a reality television personality does not shock me. We are capable of anything. In many ways I see the choice of Donald Trump as a collective admission of hopelessness. We’ve tried everything else, why not this?
Hello wall, meet this pile of orange shit. Do you think it will stick?
For me, I believe we’re experiencing the fulfillment of a prophecy from an old spiritual, one invoked by James Baldwin, a man I believe saw the essential nature of America and the import of our sins more clearly than King.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
no more water the fire next time
I look around. I believe I see a world on fire.
What to do if I don’t have hope?
I wonder if my disposition makes “hope” less necessary for me.
In my day-to-day life, I do a lot of “pointless” things.
For example, I drive an electric car and I use only fluorescent or LED bulbs in our household fixtures, even though I cannot go more than 40 miles from home in the car and make it back, and the fluorescent light is sickly and the bulbs themselves emit a low hum that may someday drive me crazy.
Of course, I am well aware that neither of these acts has any impact on the rate of disappearing polar sea ice and the ultimate trajectory of sea level rise. Even if my habits were adopted on a near-universal scale, absent other large-scale changes we likely wouldn’t see any significant difference in the ultimate outcome.
As an act, it is quixotic, but it is at least action. Writing at his personal blog, education researcher Tod Massa says, “Hope is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. Hope is action. Hope is found in motion.”
I do not have hope, but I do have my ideals, and I think this may be enough, provided I continue to act.
Can my actions be simultaneously pointless and meaningful?
Take this blog, for instance. My impact on the moral arc of the universe through this writing is less than negligible, bordering on non-existent. This is not humility, but reality. Very few writers, including those with superior skill or larger platforms have more than a fleeting impact on their audience.
For the most part, in this space, I am either preaching to the choir, or shouting at the unconvertible. Over and over I have tilted at the windmill of the exploitation of contingent faculty, and I do not believe I have moved anyone even a millimeter. It is a system that still works well enough for some that we can rationalize away (supply and demand!) obvious injustice.
Nonetheless, I have no doubt I’ll charge forward with my lance on this issue a few more times this year.
Of course, choosing to write at all is an act of defiance - a willingness to make words despite knowing they may never be read, and if read they may not be understood, and if read and understood, they will probably not make a difference anyway. I suppose I made peace with this reality long ago.
“Hope is found in motion.”
I do not know if my teaching is pointless.
Weighed against the rest of the world, it often feels that way. “Teachers make a difference” is one of our hoariest clichés, but if teaching were important, surely it would be given more resources and more respect up and down the educational ladder.
Like anyone who has taught long enough, I am aware that I’ve had an influence on the arcs of individuals with whom I’ve intersected in the classroom, just as they’ve influenced me, but does it add up to much? Are we changing the world?
Should we have reason to hope?
Calvin believed that when it came to salvation, all that mattered was faith in a divine Christ. Justification is found entirely in that belief.
But once justified, one’s salvation should also be “sanctified” in good works that are only made possible by having been saved.
For Calvin, doing good works were evidence of faith, but were not the ticket to heaven themselves. That was reserved for the much harder work of belief.
But those good works still mattered. I have to at least believe that.
So this is how I will think about hope in the coming year: I do not have it, but if I am going to find it, it will be through action, through motion.
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