There is no love of life without despair of life,” wrote philosopher Albert Camus – a man who in the midst of World War II, perhaps the darkest period in human history, saw grounds for luminous hope and issued a remarkable clarion call for humanity to rise to its highest potential on those grounds. It was his way of honouring the same duality that Israeli-born American illustrator artist Maira Kalman would capture nearly a century later, where she observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”
In her own reflections on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves, Maria Popova, founder of “brainpickings,” considered the necessity of these two poles working in concert. The stories we tell ourselves about our public past shape how we interpret and respond to and show up for the present. The stories we tell ourselves about our private pasts shape how we come to see our personhood and who we ultimately become. The thin line between agency and victimhood is drawn in how we tell those stories.
The language in which we tell ourselves these stories matters tremendously, too, and no writer has weighed the complexities of sustaining hope in our times of readily available despair more thoughtfully and beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than the American freelance writer, Rebecca Solnit does in “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.”
Expanding upon her previous writings on hope, Solnit writes in the foreword to the 2016 edition of this foundational text of modern civic engagement: “Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.”
Solnit – one of the most singular, civically significant, and poetically potent voices of our time – wrote these essays in order to speak “directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and preconceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements.” Their under-girding causes and far-reaching consequences have only gained in relevance and urgency today. This slim book of tremendous potency is therefore, today more than ever, “an indispensable ally to every thinking, feeling, civically conscious human being,” writes Popova.
Solnit looks back on this seemingly distant past as she peers forward into the near future: “The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense… Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.”
She adds: “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”
Solnit ends with the metaphor of the rower: “You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, and a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.”
Hope in the Dark is a robust anchor of intelligent idealism amid our tumultuous era of disorienting defeatism. Agreeing with the Holocaust-survivor, Viktor Frankl, for whom “idealism is the best realism,” can we together Solnit hope and despair in our troubled times and maintain the balance? Can we still hope in dark?
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)