Hope springs eternal, but for it to flourish it must be shared
Now, in the waning of this dark year, let us try to remember how to hope. A vaccine and a new US president are on the way. We have done enough of dreading, and even in these dreadful times our worst fears have not come true. The world did not collapse into anarchy. A global pandemic has not led to instant cannibalism – despite prior predictions from novelists and filmmakers. Even the worst leaders eventually topple. There are reasons for hope.
But real hope is something we have to make together, as a community. The hope an individual can have is only ever rather thin: perhaps I’ll get a better job, write my book, meet someone special. Nice ideas. On the small side. But the hope we can have as a group is profound.
In my mid-40s now, I came of age in the late 80s and early 90s which was, I’m increasingly aware, a time of astonishing hope. After decades of cold war, there was glasnost and perestroika, the Berlin Wall fell, the risk of nuclear war dwindled. The age of consent between men was lowered so my gay friends at college were no longer breaking the law when they slept with their boyfriends. We’d feared that the hole in the ozone layer would give us all terrible cancers – but after we banned chlorofluorocarbons it began to shrink. While I revised my chemistry GCSE, I watched on TV as Nelson Mandela was at last released from prison. Nations that could not have been more different united to press South Africa to end apartheid. The song that played everywhere in my youth was Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Jo’Anna. Hope was an audacious thing to demand from a regime of cruelty and suffering. But we had to have it then – and the world bore us up.
The hope we can have as a group is profound
The problems that confronted us then, like those that surround us today, were of our own making. And we can solve them, together. We need to allow ourselves to believe that things can get better. To imagine together what the world will be like when the coral reefs start to grow back, when the oceans become cleaner of plastic every season, when the rainforest begins to advance year by year back into land that’s been farmed, when the world’s population of wild creatures, of insects, of birds, rises again.
Imagining it together will – and this is critical – help us to do the actions that will get us there. Hope was the last item left in Pandora’s jar, the jar that contained all the evils of the world. It’s not exactly clear whether that lambent hope was a consolation or the last curse in the jar. Perhaps both. Hope that we don’t act on is an evil. Hope that we just let sit there and expect somebody else to sort out, or false ridiculous grandiose hope. Like the hope that everyone in the world might suddenly agree with me on every point tomorrow. But hope as a belief that with all our differences we can work together to make things better than they are today – that’s the one I’ll stake my life on.
We’re living in an age of despair and fractured communities. Our technologies push us into one-viewpoint media bubbles and this year the virus has forced us into physical bubbles. The less we interact with each other, the less tolerance we feel toward each other. It’s been a year of kneejerk temper and defensive misunderstanding. I increasingly hear people saying that they can only bear to interact with, only love people, who believe exactly the same things they do. The same dynamic that demands instant ideological purity on the left (and there are so many different ways to be pure, the fast-spinning wheel demands constant attention, no time for learning or pondering) is the operational mode that left us with an inexperienced cabinet of Brexit true-believers during the global pandemic.
If you think that the most significant problems that confront all of us today will only be solved if we all agree… then despair is the only answer. We never will. The only way to create a monoculture is to cover everything in weedkiller and pesticide and we all know where that’s got us. But I have good news. We can work together with people we disagree with, don’t even like, to pull towards those outcomes we do agree on. And that’s called a community.
We can work together with people we disagree with. It's called community
I grew up in a close-knit community and let me tell you: community isn’t about friendship or liking people. It’s a way to get along with people you can’t actually stand, people you find boring or annoying or objectionable. Because the challenges that face us as a group are more important than our personal likes and dislikes. Community means doing the right thing. You bring a casserole when someone’s had a baby, you visit the bereaved, they do the same for you. It doesn’t matter that you can’t stand each other. You’re part of something together.
If we really want to turn hope from a curse into a blessing, we have to stop trying to make windows into men’s souls to see what they believe. Jews are good on this. In the Jewish worldview, it doesn’t matter what people believe, what matters is what they do. Stop asking about beliefs. Agree on actions. Working on important problems with people we can’t bear, even with people who hold views that repel us, is the way to set the world right.
Eddy Grant sings: “Oh, gimme hope Jo’Anna” as if his “oh” could wring justice from the world. The nation that Mandela led has its problems like all nations. The ozone isn’t fully fixed yet. Gender and sexuality remain complex. Even the “solved” problems demand continuous negotiation with people unlike ourselves. Hope isn’t a static object found in the bottom of a jar. We have to make it together. It’s in working together – finding that our areas of agreement are much larger than our ideological and personal differences – that we daily forge our hope.