Overview:

Optimism is hard to come by this season. Hope is different. Hope is not only available but absolutely required if we are to summon the energy we need.

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To be progressive and politically engaged this summer is to absorb one blow after another, with more in the offing. The demise of Roe v. Wade. Severe limits slapped onto the EPA’s ability to combat climate change through regulation of power-plant carbon emissions. The specter of Republican-dominated state legislatures being turned loose to administer federal elections however they want, will of the voters be damned. That’s just the Supreme Court.

On related fronts, right-wing authoritarianism marches on, here and abroad. There’s always another mass shooting and another new variant of the coronavirus. And if the hackneyed media tropes are to be believed, the right is a lock to win control of Congress this fall. Will the White House be next?

We might think that only naïve dreamers would talk about something as airy and religion-ey as hope in such a time. It’s steely realism that’s needed now, isn’t it? If anyone is succumbing to cynicism or making plans to flee the country (i.e., give up), who can blame them?

Such thinking will not abide. Not only is hope available right now, but it is required if we are to summon and sustain the energy we need to heed the call of responsible, intelligent citizenship. Our hope is what the forces of illiberalism are trying to crush. Secularly conceived and progressively applied, hope is one of profoundest stands we can take.

What hope isn’t

As with numerous terms in the public discourse, “hope” has different meanings. So too is it frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Let me explain what I mean by hope, starting with an explanation of what I don’t mean.

“Man, I hope Lakers win tonight.” Whether the context is sports or some other area of life, this is a common way the h-word appears in our daily thoughts and conversations. It treats “hope” as something akin to wishing. The person doing the hoping/wishing has no agency.

Such is the understanding of hope that drives articles like this 2019 New York Times commentary,  “The Case against Hope.”

“I don’t traffic in hope,” declared the article’s writer, Roxane Gay. “Realism is more my ministry than is unbridled optimism. Hope is too ineffable and far too elusive. Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others. … So much of what is possible is, in fact, in our hands.”

Who said anything about unbridled optimism? Alas, the writer’s conflation of hope and optimism is common. The two are not the same, and there’s more at stake than mere semantics.

Here is the crucial distinction that has emerged for me in my reading and the in-depth discussions of optimism and hope I’ve had in humanist circles: Optimism is a feeling of confidence that desired outcomes will come to pass, confidence that’s based on observable trend lines and key advantages working in one’s favor. It’s based on what we see and know.

Hope? It comes from someplace else, someplace not so easy to see and not so dependent on the ups and downs of a given season.

The astute not-knowing that leaves room for hope

When people are disappointed by an outcome, we often seek refuge in being smart enough to know the bad thing was coming. In sports: “Damn, I knew our team was going to blow that big lead.” In politics: “Of course the right-wingers succeeded in doing this or that sinister thing because that’s who they are and that’s how the world works.”

It’s a kind of cynical consolation—a very thin one. We are unhappy about what happened, but we glean an ounce of grim satisfaction from knowing we’re street smart and hip to the way things are. We knew better than to get our hopes up. Score one for us!

When it comes to the state of the world, this kind of “knowing” deludes us. It exaggerates how much we know. It assumes too much, assuming, among other fallacies, that the current set of social “givens” will hold forever and that the current paradigm—this dreadful timeline we despise so much—will never end. It assumes Republicans will sweep into power in Congress this fall, for example, because gas prices are high and, as conventional media keep repeating, the out-of-power party always wins the midterms.

Here’s the truth: If the GOP does win in November, it won’t be due to some immutable law of the universe. It will be because of millions of human beings taking certain actions, or not. As such, Roxane Gay’s case against hope is actually an argument for it. Better outcomes are possible, and it’s in our hands, it’s our responsibility, to create them. 

Here’s more truth: The anti-majority political power behind the recent Supreme Court decisions might not be as formidable as we think in our depressed state. The rush of blood to the head we see among many conservatives, those sprinting to out-do one another with ever more extreme statements and positions, might even hasten its demise.

“By majorities of two-thirds or more Americans detest these (court) opinions,” Bill McKibben writes. “Those are majorities large enough to win elections and to shape policy, even in our corroded democracy. The right, after decades of slow and careful and patient nibbling away at rights and norms, is suddenly rushing full-tilt. That’s dangerous for us, but also for them. The force of that charge can, jiu jitsu-like, be turned against them.”

It seems odd to say this—especially to an audience of seculars, who pride ourselves on our intelligence and skill at engaging empirical knowledge—but sometimes it’s empowering to acknowledge our not-knowing. Especially when we think we know everything and our supposed knowledge lures us into disempowering conclusions about the future.

The fact is, we don’t know what will happen next week much less next decade. If we don’t know, then it follows that we don’t know that the future will be terrible. We can’t know, not for sure, that the future, at least parts of it, can’t be brilliant.

The fact is, we don’t know what will happen next week much less next decade. If we don’t know, then it follows that we don’t know that the future will be terrible. We can’t know, not for sure, that the future, at least parts of it, can’t be brilliant.

Our knowledge of the future is severely occluded by the givens of the present. But the current formulas are not destined to last. Who says certain voting blocs will always remain in place or behave in the same predictable ways? What fuels hope is the concession that all sorts of formulas and variables can change, in ways we can’t see coming, in ways that might be galling and frightening but, also, positive and exciting.

The political psychosis of the moment is best seen not as a new antiliberal dispensation settling in for a long run but, rather, the kicking and screaming of angry, anxious defenders of an old dispensation that is losing its grip.

“This is not the chaos of the beginning of something,” writes author and pundit Anand Giridharadas. “This is the chaos of the end of something.”

Echoes Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and author of the award-winning White Too Long: “What we’re seeing is a desperate power grab as the sun is setting on white Christian America.”

‘The future is unwritten’

We don’t know what’s developing outside our field of vision. But we can be pretty sure it’s a lot. It can manifest suddenly as a glorious surprise, an “overnight success.” Neither the rapid advance of LGBTQ rights nor the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed likely until it happened.

Overnight successes, of course, are rarely as “overnight” as they appear. They are, rather, the sudden bearing-of-fruit by trees cultivated for decades or, to use Rebecca Solnit’s famous metaphor, vast networks of underground fungi from which mushrooms suddenly spring, above ground.

Hope is always possible, and as long as life is moving and morphing and adapting and creating and pulsating the way life does, it will remain possible. It cannot be crushed.

We need it. Hope sets our sights. More than a crack in the door and a sliver of indeterminate light, it identifies and declares what is good, what is worth dreaming about, what is worth fighting for. It generates and directs our energy.

We need hope because without it we are sunk. Without hope, we can easily fall prey to “why bother?” We might manage to grit our teeth and slog forward with our fatalism, doing what we think is right, determined to be on the right side of the losing battle. We might maintain our grim march. For a while.

To fall into hopelessness, though, is to give up on the idea that something better is possible, that there are solutions to our problems and injustices. Hopelessness saps our will to work. To give up hope is to take a big step toward surrender.

Hope is a fuel, and we don’t need gods or miracles to provide it. Just the awareness that history is full of surprises, horrible but wonderful, too, and we can’t be sure there won’t be more of the latter in the years and decades ahead. Not if enough of us keep pushing for the new world on the verge of dawning.

There will be technological breakthroughs and generational changings of the guard. Great new ideas will emerge, and some great old ideas might finally gain traction. There could be turning-point moments akin to Joseph Welch putting McCarthy and McCarthyism in their place with his famous “Have you no sense of decency?”

These won’t happen because of divine intervention. They’ll happen because people will do them.

In the encouraging words of the philosophizing punk-rocker Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten.” Who is going to write it, and what will it say?

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...