Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Audacity of Hope-lessness

He's there again. Curled inside the subway entrance, his emaciated body prone, his hand clutched tightly around a bottle. The other arm is tucked under his head as a pillow, his faded sweater draped over his still form like a flag. I pause, as I always do, and then walk past. It makes me feel, but I can't identify the emotion. Pity. Compassion. Anger. Indifference. Every time it's different, and it worries me that a sad sight would make me feel something other then sad. Must our response to the world always emanate from our own selfish projections? Must it always be about me?

It's been a long day and I try not to think about it as I head down the long flight of stairs to get to the train. It will be good to sit down. This past week I received a few emails, but none that touched me so deeply as one from a dear friend, who had read my blog and, in her own way, echoed the comments of others. "How am I to find hope, as you say, when my life seems only to return to the same troubles and heartaches, time after time?"

The train arrives and it is surprisingly empty. I take a seat near the back and ease into it. Two women drape themselves into the seats across from me, carrying their conversation onboard. Their voices are loud and angry, but when I close my eyes, I am able, for a time, to ignore them.

I'm thinking about my friend, and about the many who have written me, not just this past week, but the past few years, telling me their story and asking the same question, if phrased differently, about hope. How do we find hope in a world that returns, as it were, to the same rotten pool, year after year, century after century, civilization after civilization? Despite our accrued knowledge, the human condition has changed little. Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it is that while the world changes, people do not. We all want joy. We all search for love. And we all need hope. And yet, no matter how rich our country, no matter how high our education, too often hope remains an ideal. Very rarely does it enter into our life as anything approaching reality.

"That bitch needs to be shot."

I open my eyes, no longer able to block out the conversation from the two women, who are cursing and complaining about their day at work at so loud a volume I find my hand groping for the remote. The train is two stops from home, but the force of their negativity is so stifling I nearly ask them to be quiet and complain somewhere else. Not everyone wants to share your anger. We all have problems. I take a deep breath and swallow my frustration. I've had days like that, too.

Two seats over is a copy of the morning newspaper. On the cover is a picture of Sarah Palin, but it isn't another Lenscrafter advertisement. She photographs well (with one exception), and she is always smiling. But listening to her is difficult. The words from the "pit-bull with lipstick" seem quite in contrast with her smiling pictures. Not particularly eloquent, she is forceful and direct and, beneath the looks and smiles, seems every bit as vicious as the dog in her now infamous "joke."

In the middle of the paper is another article about Obama, about the man "selling" hope. No doubt "Obama-mania" is, as one writer expressed, a "runaway train", with the finances and smooth workings of a machine-like campaign. And Obama himself, who uses the word "hope" perhaps more than any politician in recent memory, at times feels as abstract as the theme of his campaign. But is he real? Does he really believe in hope? Or is he merely a projection of that which we all long for?

The train squeals to a stop, and the two women leave, still complaining, their voices carrying until the doors hiss to a close and washes the subway in blessed silence.

If hope were easy, it would never hold the thematic weight of a presidential campaign. If hope were something endemic to the nature of humanity, it would not capture our imagination to the extent that it does. And it certainly would not hold us in its wake as such an integral, if mysterious and hidden, principle for a better life. That said, as difficult as it seems to find hope in our lives, the audacity of hopelessness seems equally shocking to me.

The train stops for the final time, and I wearily climb the three flights of stairs to the surface. The sky has begun to fall, and the tall glass buildings outside the subway seem almost liquid in their reflections. I pause at the hot dog stand just outside the exit. They remind me of times when I was young, when my friends would come over during the summer months, when we would play basketball in the driveway and the carport would be filled with the sounds and smells of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. I'm still deciding if I should have one when a man in his mid-forties wearing a gray suit and red power tie steps in front of a woman in line and orders before she has a chance. The look she gives him could scald a small planet, but he blithely ignores her and takes his time fixing his food. The look on his face is as empty as his actions. I shake my head, my decision made, and head toward my car.

Unlike many, I do not believe hopelessness to be merely a reflection of our education or circumstances. Hopelessness is a reflection of our attitude. It is true that often it is hard to find our way, when unmet expectations and disappointments crowd our life. People lose hope (especially as they age) because, like the woman at the hot dog stand, they realize that things will never really change. That people will be selfish. That people will disappoint us. That life will never be truly easy. And that the distractions so easily available in our culture are probably worth more of our time than the relationships around us, the ones that too often break our hearts. Hopelessness, I think, is a direct result of our loss of faith in humanity. The Enlightenment taught us that humanity was progressing, that we were becoming more civilized. More just. More humane. But any casual glance at history, and at the world around us, reveals otherwise.

The church has done it too. Religion has often taught that to follow a particular viewpoint, a particular creed, is what we need to keep us safe and give us hope. If not now, then certainly in the afterlife. We hold fast to these creeds, cling to them as if our lives depend on them, because, in so many ways, they do. It is the way, seemingly the only way, we can justify the extremely un-relational tendencies in our lives. We pass the broken woman on the street corner, ignore the news about the poor, and then hand out tracts and pamphlets and argue with strangers to promote "God's love." And yet, in those small, still moments, we wonder why the darkness still follows us, don't we?

The day has turned to twilight, and the heavens burn a bright orange as the sun sinks low for another day. I hunch forward, pulling up my hood, eager to be home. I remember what it is like to be without hope. I remember because I still wrestle with it at times. What I've learned however, is that often my lack of hope is a result of my own unwillingness to spend my life for those around me. It seems a paradox, but I've learned that the only way to find hope, is to give it away.

My car is alone on the street. I'm the last one to go home tonight, it seems. About ten feet from my car, an elderly couple is crossing the street. They walk slowly, holding hands. At the sidewalk, the man gently helps his wife up onto the curb. She smiles at him, and her smile says more than words could convey. I watch them shuffle past me, their hands gripped tightly, their bodies leaning together, until they pass from view. My stomach clenches, and I can feel the emotions rising inside me. I shake my head, breathing deep, happy to have witnessed such a tender moment.

Hopelessness asks one simple question: "Why bother?" A person of hope has only one answer: "I exist to love the people around me. It is who I am. More importantly, it is why I am."

To my knowledge, serving others is the only way to stay off the inevitable treadmill of self-perpetuating disappointments in the endless search to "have more" and "get more." And accepting God's help is the only way I know to keep us on the right path.

The truth is that we will never find the life we seek through our successes. Not through our accomplishments or even the recognition we receive in the moments we are unselfish. Hope, real hope, the kind that breathes into your life and fills your soul, exists only when we accept what it means to be human. So long as our lives serve to echo the love that God offers to us, so long as we do all we can to give encouragement and love and yes, hope, to the people around us, we will know what it means to walk as we were meant to walk, and to live as we were meant to live.

My car starts easily, and for a moment, I am still. I breathe a prayer of thanks for my job and my life, for those who have made my life possible.

There is an audacity to hopelessness that most of us do not like to admit. Some days I prefer to dwell on what isn't. On what I've lost and on the failures and disappointments in my life. It's easier then working on this thing called hope, and this other thing called humanity. People may never change, but we can.

You have much to offer the ones around you. Over the years I have no doubt that you have faced discouragement, that people have cut you down and cut you off, that loved ones have abused your love and taken advantage of you. I understand it because I've been there too. We all have.

My prayer then, this week, is that you will realize how much God loves you. Not one we so often create, the one we remember from our childhood, with all the petty rules and harsh vindictiveness of humanity, but the Creator who is so much greater than we could ask or imagine. The One who loved us so much that for a time, He joined our race to help lead us toward home. Toward a life of hope. More than any religion, precious is this understanding, this understanding of a God who longs to extend his love to us, and to those in our lives who need it most. I believe it is in those moments, when we are able to ignore the pressing urge to serve ourselves, when we see in others what we so desperately long for in our own lives, and when we push through our own struggles to offer just a bit of light to those around us, that we will find our path, and hope will come home to stay.