That hope thing

I’ve been thinking these past few days–no surprise–about what the word “hope” really means. Because I think it’s something neither as idealistic nor as simple as it looks, and I’m trying to figure out how to articulate this.

As the election results came in Tuesday night, I found myself unwilling to feel optimistic about them–not even when Pennsylvania was called, and then Ohio. (But was it too soon? Would the results change?) I didn’t really believe those results at all until Senator McCain gave his (surprisingly gracious) concession speech–which left no doubt that he really was conceding. And then I began to feel this surge of–well, of just feeling good about the world, which grew as I listened to Obama’s acceptance speech.

The feeling remained when I woke up the next morning. It remains now. I felt–hopeful, yes–about my country’s politics for the first time in a long time. And–here’s the complicated thing–that feeling scares me.

Once I’d decided who I would vote for in this election, I stopped paying attention to most election news. I couldn’t bear to watch it–the whole business made me want to run away, to bury my head in the sand. My own decision was clear to me; I told myself I didn’t need to do anything else. Little bits of news would trickle in–nothing that changed my thinking–and then I’d hide again. Friends wanted to talk about the election; this made me uncomfortable, even when I agreed with them. They sent me emails, and I wished they would stop, but didn’t want to be hurtful–and on some level I knew it was good that they cared deeply enough to send those emails.

The truth was, I’d been slowly withdrawing from even the small bits of political action I was involved in–the email lists, the letter writing to my representatives and to my local papers–small things, but things, if asked, I would have said mattered. When everyone else tuned into the presidential debates, I found work to do in my office. The small bits of the debates that I saw in passing made me flinch and head back there–I couldn’t even stand to listen to most of this stuff anymore.

Last presidential election, I went out election day to help (one of those organizations whose emails I used to get) urging folks to vote. This year, I felt like getting to the polls and voting was almost as much as I could manage. (Until I did vote, in itself an energizing act.) Mostly I just wanted it to be over. And I also didn’t want it to be over–I was terrified of waking up under the same crushing weight of depression I felt four years ago.

I remained a believer in improving the world in small one-on-one ways. If asked, I would have even said that of course human beings can change the world, and have, repeatedly, in large ways and small. Yet I realize now that some part of me had stopped believing that, or maybe just stopped believing it as fully. When you’ve seen an election stolen once (maybe twice) in eight years, when you’ve watched your country pull out of treaties you thought no sane country would pull out of and lose the good will of an entire world in a frightfully short time, when the few things you did do felt like they had no effect at all and changed the mind of no one who didn’t already agree with you–over time, it becomes hard to believe that, politically, something good might actually happen someday.

For me anyway. Others managed to keep acting, of course. Maybe I forgot that eight years is a pretty short time, given the scope of history; or about all the small gains that have been made and that do matter; or about the fact that pendulums never swing in only one direction, not forever.

So anyway, on November 5, I woke up feeling good–and truly believing, for the first time in ages, that the world truly could change for the better, not just over the long term and in a global sense, but in the short term in my own nation.

And that scared me. Because eight years–and all the years before that, too–told me something else: “Could” isn’t the same as “will.” Nothing is certain. Hope isn’t a promise–it’s a possibility.

But the thing is–and the thing I think I’m trying to articulate here is–those of us who are feeling good this week, who are talking about hope–we get that. But we feel good anyway, because–well, even that sense of possibility-without-promises is powerful stuff.

As writers, we tend to write the books we need to read, and I’ve been finding myself thinking a little about Liza, the protagonist of Bones. Liza lives in a world where the worst thing really has happened–where the very world around her has been destroyed. Not surprisingly, she mistrusts hope from the start: she calls hope treacherous, tells herself she knows better than to feel it, tells herself hope has no place in her world. It takes the course of a long journey and an entire book for her to really believe in hope, and even then, she reminds herself there are no guarantees: No one could promise, she thinks, not after the War [that destroyed her world], not after so many other things that couldn’t be undone.

Those of us who are hoping now–we too know there are no promises, no guarantees. But in our world–which hasn’t ended yet, which in the end isn’t as dark as Liza’s–many of us are seeing, for the first time in–a short time by historical standards, a longer time by human ones–the real possibility that some things will change, and change for the better. We’re not denying the problems–but we’re not denying the possibilities either.

The realistic possibility that things will change for the better–it sounds so simple, and yet it’s such heady, such world-changing stuff. Getting there will take work, there will be setbacks, not everything we want to change will change–we know that. Hoping doesn’t mean we’re ignoring it. It means we know it, we understand it (understand, too, all the times we’ve failed before), but we’re also not letting it keep us from seeing the real possibilities that exist now. We’re allowing ourselves to hope that the best, not the worst, of the possibilities will come true. And to look for ways we can help them to do so.

Hope isn’t naive or foolish–but it is scary, and it does take strength. Yet sometimes, it can be a catalyst that helps set things in motion–that helps the changes to happen–too.

And it feels a whole lot better than despair.

I think I’ll go sign back on to a few email lists. And write a letter to my senator, before he returns to congress this winter.

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