Hope in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances has been a perennial theme in the stories we humans tell ourselves. The narrative of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, of course, is all about holding out beyond the point that hope seems remotely reasonable. The Biblical story begins with Abraham, who was improbably told that he would become the leader of God’s chosen people, and even more improbably, that he and Sarah would have a child when they were like 300 years old. (I didn’t grow up in church; forgive me if the details are a little off.)
Abraham, being human, gave up hope and slept with his slave, Sammy Hagar, unfortunately spawning Ishmael and the Arab people as a whole. (I can say that; I’m Arab-American.) But then God was like, dude, I told you that you and Sarah would get lucky, why didn’t you trust me bro? And thus there was Isaac. And then God told Abraham to kill him. God has a funny sense of humor.
The theme of sustaining hope continued throughout the canon of Western lore. The Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, but had to believe they would eventually find an On the Go or at least a Quiktrip. Jesus had to believe that things would work out for the best even though the big plan involved his torture and crucifixion, which he understandably had doubts about, and his followers have spent the last two thousand-odd years waiting for him to come back after going out for a pack of cigarettes. (Any day now, inshallah.)
I’m being flippant, of course. I’m already going to Hell so it doesn’t really matter on the margins at this point. But I am quite serious about the nature of steely determination in a doleful and depressing situation. The hero’s journey, from The Odyssey to Pilgrims Progress to The Wizard of Oz, always involves a protagonist beset by challenges and detours on the way to a goal that often seems to be receding from reach. And poor people throughout history have held on to the hope that things will get better, against all evidence, whether on this earth (a revolution, a lottery ticket) or the next (Heaven).
In the twentieth century, such a posture was often framed in explicitly political terms, in large part because of the ideological struggle between Right and Left, or the existential battle between capitalist and communist states. My number one boy Max Weber talked about the innate moral and psychological challenge of politics, in the wake of Germany’s catastrophic defeat in the Great War and the fall of the Kaiser.
Now then, ladies and gentlemen, let us debate this matter once more ten years from now. Unfortunately, for a whole series of reasons, I fear that by then the period of reaction will have long since broken over us. It is very probable that little of what many of you, and (I candidly confess) I too, have wished and hoped for will be fulfilled; little–perhaps not exactly nothing, but what to us at least seems little. This will not crush me, but surely it is an inner burden to realize it.
In short, things are going to suck, probably pretty hard, and we might be able to get a little of our agenda accomplished but probably not much. Sucks to be us. But we keep plowing ahead anyway.
The Italian theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci gave perhaps the best formulation of this seemingly contradictory posture: optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. More recently, the essayist Rebecca Solnit talked about “hope in the dark.” She was writing during the George W. Bush years, which seemed bleak enough, but the era of Trump and regnant white supremacism is a notably different flavor of shit.
So where do we go to find hope? Many people in many places and many times in history have faced far worse circumstances than anyone reading this blog, for sure. But that does not diminish at all the pervasive fear of ecological catastrophe, which today grips the sensible part of the human community; the humdrum terror of financial insecurity, which most American families face, to one degree or another; the threats to bodily integrity that people of color experience from police and other government authorities, or that women and LGBT people understandably see in just about any random person on the street.
That of course brings us to Trans Day of Remembrance. I know this feels like a circuitous route to an unlikely destination, but stay with me. That this is a “holiday” (of sorts) speaks to the long and ruinous history of unconstrained bigotry and violence that has afflicted gender-nonconforming people for as long as anyone can remember. The visibility of the Day of Remembrance, though, also speaks to the fact that trans, genderqueer, nonbinary, and nonconforming people have parked themselves more squarely in the public square than ever before, in a way that gay men and lesbians already did, at least to some extent, in their own search for recognition and acceptance. A trans person is probably being beaten up somewhere in America as I write this, so there’s no need to festoon the room with streamers at this point. But these stories are being told and understood more and more.
Hope is in compassion; hope is in forgiveness; hope is in the natural human inclination to resolve conflict rather than inflame it. Life does not have to be a war of all against all, or a zero-sum game between purely self-interested parties. (This is part of the reason why I adored the 2016 film Arrival, but that’s a story for another time.)
Contra Hobbes and even Marx, really, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin pointed out that cooperation marks the evolution of life—including that of humans—at least as much as competition and domination. The ants build their little mound. Neighbors look after each other; people help total strangers in the street if they are stricken ill or hurt. Human society simply would not function without the voluntary and even thoughtless cooperation of people that keeps everything glued together. Some of this is reflexive, but much of it comes from an instinct toward empathy that all but the most sociopathic or ideologically blindered possess.
I can say from my own experience that people, while often selfish and narrow-minded, often err on the side of good. Open minds can grow closed, but at least as often closed minds open up over time. Prejudices reveal themselves to be brittler than they may seem at first, as changing attitudes about race and sexuality in American society in recent decades have shown. (The stubborn persistence of misogyny as an organizing principle in our culture runs against the trend of this argument, unfortunately.) Love, empathy, and compassion can prevail if people are willing to reckon with each other in good faith—what the writer Liz Bruenig often talks about as “public reason,” but which can be just as simple as a frank and open conversation.
More important, though, than the good will of others is the courage of people who refuse to be marginalized and instead take the gamble on being themselves and demand a place. Whether it was fighting Jim Crow or declaring that “black is beautiful,” battling police at Stonewall or staging a die-in in a Catholic cathedral in the 1980s, or just the ordinary business of walking out the front door in the morning, people have often opted for the less easy and more dangerous choice. As ACT-UP said long ago, “Silence = Death.” And the lack of silence itself is a reason for hope.