It seems an odd thing to admit during Advent, but—full disclosure here—the last number of years I’ve sometimes had difficulty hanging on to hope.
Maybe it’s partly the line of work. After all, as the media continually reminds us, we are no strangers to things falling apart.
A woman bursts into tears during the morning meeting at the village which was shelled during an overnight artillery raid outside Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine. MCC Photo by Sergey Ponomarev
Every day we read accounts of people displaced by conflict and war. Personal stories coloured by sickness, loneliness, and loss. Reports of broken political systems and structural injustices our governments do too little to rectify. Admittedly, the chaotic spin of the world can leave me feeling off-kilter, unnerved, and groping for answers…
We say that God’s peace will come to its fullness.
But sometimes the price of our experience is high. As a person committed to the Christian story, perhaps my hope is not supposed to wax and wane. Yet there can sometimes be an unbearable mismatch between predictable theological explanations and the unpredictability of our lived realities.
But this Advent season, in spite of (or maybe because of?) this dissonance, I am on a personal journey to retrieve hope. It’s a journey that is leaving me at once fascinated, inspired, and befuddled in equal measure.
What exactly is hope? Is it endless optimism under-girded by a certainty that “things will work out”? A mental or emotional state? A gift that comes from holding tight to a particular theological narrative?
Is hope practical—a pragmatic tool to help you navigate the muck-and-mire of life? Or is it about shattering the practical so that new possibilities can be dreamed, imagined, and birthed?
For all its mystery, I know that hope is important. I know because I’ve wrestled with the apathy, resignation, and despair that befriend you in its absence.
“Hope,” American poet Emily Dickinson famously penned, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops — at all.”
There is something really beautiful about this image of hope as a winged melody-maker—a constant friend that “no storm” can break, and that keeps you warm on “the chilliest land,/And on the strangest sea.”
Hope is always present, she says, and “yet never, in extremity…asked a crumb of me.”
This, truth be told, is where Dickinson loses me. In my own eye-of-a-storm, swimming-upstream, wandering-in-a-desert (or whatever other metaphor) kind of moments, I’ve often waited for hope to arrive, crossing my fingers that it might spontaneously re-emerge somehow.
Well, perhaps waiting is not my forte, but more and more I believe that hope does ask something—often a lot (and usually more than just a “crumb”)—of us, particularly in our darkest moments.
Hope, I think, is participatory.
In my own preoccupation with hope, I’ve been trying different images and metaphors on for size. I’ve imagined hope as a habit that must be practiced. Or as a muscle that must be flexed—a muscle that, admittedly, I’ve let atrophy in recent years. I’m still exploring what practices help me rebuild that muscle, what tools might challenge the muscle memory of cynicism (built up over years!), which can quickly pull me back into old stories and habits of thinking.
To circle back to Dickinson’s metaphor, I believe more every day that for hope to live, thrive, and be resilient, I need to feed it. After all, what you choose to feed gets stronger.
In the world of advocacy, quite frankly it isn’t hard for me to feed my cynicism. When years of political engagement result in only minor improvements to policy, and new world crises quickly overtake existing political agendas, one’s hope can be tried. Transformative change is a long process that often takes years or even decades to bear fruit.
Yet we are still called to enact hope in a world that isn’t always entirely hospitable to our dreams—to say “yes” (or even just “maybe”!) to possibility….to the surprises of the Spirit.
This is the mysterious dimension of faith—we are in relationship with the divine that admits to no easy or quick resolution for all of life’s challenges. Sometimes things change for the better; other times we don’t see a way out. And this tension is made all the more pointed, depending on what side of privilege we are on.
An honest faith must live through these “gaps,” and move forward through the shadows. This, I’m realizing, is precisely where hope lives—deeply entangled within all of life’s messy rhythms.
As American novelist Anne Lamott wrote, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”
Though for me it requires more than a dash of vulnerability and a pinch of risk, this Advent season—the season of light birthed in the midst of darkness—I am committed to giving more than a crumb to hope.
Jenn Wiebe is the Interim Ottawa Office Director