A couple of years ago I started sometimes asking, at the end of my conversations: “What makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?” It turns out that answers to the two parts of that question are more often conjoined than oppositional. The puzzle of us, the contradictions alive in each one of us and in this moment we inhabit — these are the crucible of my hope.
I should say that hope for me is distinct from idealism or optimism. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is a muscle, a practice, a choice: to live open-eyed and wholehearted in the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. We are strange creatures. We mask fear with rage, and despair with violence. Growth is always messy, never linear. We have so far to go to live into our name, Homo sapiens: the creatures who are wise. And we may not get there. Yet I know that in life and society, wisdom emerges precisely in those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.
We are at one of those in-between moments as individuals, as nations, as a species. I cleave to a line of a poem by William Stafford, on vocation: “Your job is to figure out what the world is trying to be.” You could make a persuasive case that humanity is hurtling backward. But hope calls me to attend, too, to the world that wants to be born. Our strangeness turns up as ugliness and betrayal and destruction, and it turns up as bravery and creativity and unfathomable dignity. I see beautiful lives, everywhere, stitching new relationships across rupture, seizing new life out of loss.
Hope keeps me amazed at the larger narrative of our century too, of the learning and wisdom unfolding right alongside our better-publicized dysfunction and decay. In self-understanding as in social planning and science, we’re working with words and disciplines that did not exist when I was born and others that are a mere century old: neuroscience, social psychology, ecosystem, biome, tectonic shift. Evolutionary biologists in our day are rediscovering humanity’s superpower of cooperation and so are redefining how the fittest might survive, the principle around which the Western world has organized.
In that world, we advanced by dividing our bodies and minds and spirits, our territories and our knowledge. We perfected systems for making an “us” and an “other”; we made of the natural world an “other.” Now, on frontiers of seeing inside our brains, we are grasping new forms of agency to change. Now, as we explore the cosmos above and underlands below, we’re understanding that we live in stardust-infused bodies — and that we’ve inhabited ecosystems while we organized around parts. For us, all of life is being revealed in its insistence on wholeness: the organic interplay between our bodies, the natural world, the lives we make, the world we create.
We should allow ourselves to pause, every once in a while, and draw a long collective astonished breath. Culturally, we are the generation of our species that is redefining elemental human fundaments like community and marriage and gender. We are, that is to say, retreating famously into either-or, tribal feeling and organizing. At the very same time, life by life, we are softening the either-or that has defined each and every human from birth. And for all our awakening to the power of digital technologies to divide and isolate us, this too is true: our technologies have given us the tools for the first time in the history of our species to begin to think and act as a species.
We are strange creatures, hope reminds me: again and again we are made by what would break us. O