In Response to Hope



So, here, now, I hope to write about hope without knowing how to define it. Yet, I begin.

Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I can see this, the way hope and feathers layer upon themselves. Year after year the birds try to build a nest high up in a soft, wooden space of the roof gable. Year after year, I discourage this by dismantling it. But they won’t be deterred. They make their noises. They keep busy. They stay plump. Gables, I’ve read, act like wings, giving lift to the wind.

I also have a feather pillow that, over time, has become flattish. If what we hope for is contained, say, in images about the size of a pillow case, then our hope ceases to be hope and becomes a plain old common desire.

Hope requires action. Meliorism: the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. I think of how humans are able to change the course of nature by diverting a river, building a dam, or clearing a forest. What we should be doing is changing our own course, not by messing with the order of nature, but by messing with the course and structure of our own beings. Leave the planet alone and divert a human. Dam a human. Plant a human. Prune a human. Action. That sounds angry.

Saint Augustine wrote that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”

Anger is not hate. Anger is the recognition of injustice against humanity, against the planet, against ourselves. Some of us, for a myriad of reasons, deny ourselves anger and seek only to be inoffensive. The desire not to offend makes us into objects. We’ve become a planet of images, many of them beautiful, and all of them dormant.

I once thought hope was having a desire which led to a vision which led to an expectation. But I had it wrong. Vision can be confining like a pillowcase. Expectation can lead to disappointment. The tricky part is learning to be free of expectation. That’s the only door that opens to surprise. And hope rides on the back of surprise and wonder. The only expectation hope can have is that everything will turn out alright.

Then we wait. Mired in the memory of what has come before, we spar and plead and wrestle with God, and worry this doesn’t cause the waiting clock to reset. Meanwhile, the birds go about their business, singing their songs, trying to build nests in unlikely places.

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