November 1, 1989: the 28-year-old Berlin wall (and the cold war it symbolized) was going to last forever.
November 9, 1989: the Berlin Wall fell. (The West German president was out of the country at the time because no one saw it coming.)
Most people seem to prefer certainty to hope. We seize on bitter, despondent narratives where we think we know exactly what is going to happen.
Optimism and pessimism are both built on a foundation of certainty. “Relax, everything will be fine” and “don’t bother trying, everything is going to suck” share the belief that the outcome is already determined.
The difference between hope and optimism is the capacity to welcome uncertainty. The truth is we don’t know what will happen, and maybe there is room for us to intervene.
February 1, 1990: it seemed the 42-year old Apartheid regime in South Africa was going to last forever.
February 2, 1990: the South African President’s opening address to parliament announced the beginning of the end of Apartheid. (9 days later, Nelson Mandela was released after more than 27 years in prison.)
Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann asserts that hope is grounded in memory. Hope, in other words, is not forward-looking. Hope is fueled by the memory that the seemingly unchangeable can change, that unpredictable things happen, that there was a time when slaves would never be free and women would never have the vote.
History doesn’t just tell us what happened yesterday. It encourages us to dream of what we might accomplish tomorrow.
January 1, 1998: it seemed the three-decades-long “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were going to last forever.
May 10, 1998: the Good Friday Agreement was signed. (Ratified in referenda in November, it came into effect in December. For the most part, the agreement has held.)
The future is dark to us – in the sense of being unknowable. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit likens the past and present to daylight, and the future to night. In that night there is a mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion. Unknowability is fertile and rich with possibility. We can choose to think of the darkness of the future as the darkness of a tomb. We can also choose to think of it as the darkness of a womb.
Alexander Dubček was the de facto leader of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the hero of the Prague spring. Forced to resign after the Warsaw pact invasion and expelled from the Communist Party in 1970, Dubček became Chairman of the federal Czechoslovak parliament after the Velvet revolution of 1989 – the year in which the European parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Hopelessness is the fruit of amnesia and the burden of the poor stories we tell ourselves. We forget that the present has been constructed by certain forces to serve certain ends, which means that it can be deconstructed – as it has been in the past. We tell ourselves that things have never changed and that we have no power to change them.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a terrible event; thousands died and the heart of the city was destroyed. Across the bay in Oakland, 8-year-old Dorothy Day observed how people came to each other’s aid. She saw in humanity a desire to help she hadn’t experienced before. When she grew up she founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
The truth is that things are always changing. We can claim agency to participate in that change – or not. All the power is not in the hands of people we see on the nightly news.
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