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[Chalice] Whence Cometh My Hope? [Chalice]

Presented September 30, 2012, by Doug Muder

Listen to a recording of "Whence Cometh My Hope?"
34:30 minutes - 13.8 MB - Whence Cometh My Hope? .mp3 file.

Opening Words

Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. -- Joseph Addison


Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all. -- Emily Dickinson


Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

from "Five Points of the New Theology" by James Freeman Clarke:

The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever. ...
If hope abides, there is always something to look forward to, - some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God.
And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of man; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age; with the gradual diffusion of knowledge, advancement of civilization, growth of free institutions, and ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth.
The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator.

from "Everything Put Together" by Paul Simon:

Oh, spare your heart. Everything put together sooner or later falls apart.
And you can sigh.
You can cry.
For all the good it'll do you, you can die.
But when it's done, and the police come
And they lay you down for dead.
Oh, just remember what I said:
Spare your heart. Everything put together sooner or later falls apart.

Whence Cometh My Hope?

You wouldn't guess from the title, but this talk is a sequel to the one I gave here a year and a half ago. Now, I know you were all there, you hung on every word, and remember it all perfectly, but I thought I'd review a little anyway. I was talking about death, and in particular how to think about death if you lack faith in an afterlife. I didn't criticize belief in an afterlife, I just started from the position that I personally have no faith in it. If I'm worrying about death and you tell me to relax, because we're all going to Heaven, it doesn't help. If it helps you, I don't want to talk you out of it; it just doesn't help me.

So what does help a person like me? And in particular, how can I take seriously the idea that death may end my existence without letting that thought ruin what life I still have coming? In theory, the finiteness of life should make every moment more precious, but in practice it often doesn't work that way. The mere thought that all your plans and dreams and striving will end in death can lead to a sense of nihilism. Why bother? What does anything matter if we're all just going to die anyway?

I came to two conclusions. First, the not-very-deep observation that you need to appreciate the moment. If you missed that part of the talk, you may have picked up the same message from a Hallmark card or a fortune cookie. But even so, it's true: If your existence really is going to be over in 50 years or five years or five hours, then whatever it is that makes your life worthwhile needs to start happening, and you need to start paying attention to it. You can't just live for the future if your future is limited and constantly shrinking.

Second, I recommended that you find a role for yourself in a story that will not end when you die. If the story you tell about your life is entirely self-centered -- if that's where your identity comes from -- then your identity may start to unravel as death approaches. That's when you start thinking, "If I'm just going to die anyway, what's the point?" But if you are involved in a serious, passionate way in a larger story, then your actions can remain meaningful, even if you are going to die in a matter of hours.

I concluded with Martin Luther King's mountaintop speech, in which he considers the threats to his life (that will actually result in his death the next day), but says he doesn't mind dying, because "I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!" He can contemplate his death with equanimity because he is passionately involved in the story of his people's march to freedom, and he knows that story will go on.

The reaction I've gotten to those ideas (both here and elsewhere) tends to be positive, but tempered with a bit of skepticism: It sounds good, it seems to make sense, but how does it actually work in practice? So I thought today I'd talk about my own attempt to write myself into a larger story. Along the way you'll see some of the problems I run into, which may resemble problems you run into.

As many of you know, I write a political blog, the Weekly Sift. It comes out every Monday, and combines my own writing with whatever interesting ideas I've managed to gleen from books, the professional news media, and other blogs. It's meant to save you time. If you're a citizen trying to stay informed on a somewhat deeper level than you can get from the mass media, I've read through a lot of material and picked out what I think deserves your attention. Each week it totals maybe three to four thousand words. Most weeks the problem is cutting it down to that length, not filling it out. A couple Sundays ago a friend asked me how much time I spend on the Sift, and I realized that I have no idea. I don't even always know when I'm working on it. Last week, for example, I was watching CNN with my sister, a recently retired Tennessee grade-school teacher, and we saw a report on the Chicago teachers' strike. At the time, I thought we were just chatting, but it turned out that I was researching an article on education reform. So when did I stop chatting and start working on my blog? However you account for my time, though, it's a sizable chunk to spend on something that doesn't produce any income. So what do I get out of it? Precisely what I was talking about last year: It's my attempt to play a role in a story that is bigger than myself and that won't end when I die.

Now what story would that be? I think about it this way: If we're going to keep our democracy, if the People are going to rule this country in any real sense, then the People have to know what they're doing. They need to be not just well educated, but also well informed. Over the last few decades, though, the trends have all been going the wrong way. As newspapers close and the surviving newsrooms lay off reporters, the resources devoted to providing the information citizens need keep shrinking. Simultaneously, the resources devoted to manipulating public opinion keep rising. Every year, there are more more lobbyists, more political consultants running more focus groups, more ads bought by anonymous money, more phony news organizations hyping more bogus stories, more partisan think tanks that turn out phony research for the phony news organizations to quote, and so on. With shrinking budgets and smaller staffs, legitimate news organizations have less time to get a story right, so they often unintentionally wind up as mouthpieces for propaganda. Occasionally I catch the New York Times or CNN quoting an apparently disinterested "expert" from the Manhattan Institute or the Mercatus Center at George Mason University -- and not mentioning that those are front groups for the Koch Brothers.

Even major universities like Florida State are letting big-money donors veto appointments to the professorships they fund. So, for example, Clemson University's Institute for the Study of Capitalism studies only the good side of capitalism. Anyone whose study of capitalism leads them to criticize it, won't get a position there. So you as a citizen with a job and kids and lots of other stuff going on in your life -- how can you know when you're getting good information and when you're being manipulated? That university professor who tells you genetically modified foods are perfectly safe -- he may be funded by Monsanto. The retired general who analyzes Iran's nuclear capabilities on TV -- maybe he gets a six-figure income from some corporation that sells cruise missiles. How would you know? Who's going to tell you? In short, if you are a citizen trying to make the best decisions you can for your country, every year there are fewer people working for you and more people working on you. That's the larger story I'm trying to play a role in.

I picked that story because (1) it seems important to me, and (2) my particular talents and advantages seem to match up well with it: I'm good at digesting complicated stuff and explaining it in an understandable way. My mathematical training gives me a knack for seeing the kinds of holes in an argument that indicate manipulation. And I'm in a position to ignore the broken economics of journalism, because my wife and I made good money when we were young and didn't spend it.

But even with those advantages, my story has some problems, and some of them are typical of any story larger than yourself. To begin with, any story that is bigger than you is bigger than you. I'm just one guy. I can't cover the whole planet. And even if an occasional Sift article goes viral, my regular weekly audience is somewhere between 500 and a thousand. Fox News reaches millions every day; I don't think they feel threatened by me. So if I tell this story as me against the World, the World wins.

But of course, it isn't really me against the World. If you are a citizen trying to make the best decisions you can for your country, quite a few people are still working for you, probably more than you realize. So my job isn't to cover the planet, it's to find those trustworthy sources of information and connect you to them. For example, suppose you see a TV ad that makes a lot of ominous and disturbing claims, and at the end you find out it's paid for by the Coalition to Save the Republic, or some other name that tells you nothing. So who are these people? How seriously should you take their claims?

Now, theoretically, we could all do our own investigation and maybe find out where that money is coming from. But there's no need, because a non-profit group called SourceWatch is already doing that job. SourceWatch's work is very important, but most people don't know about it. I wish I could tell everybody. But I actually can tell 500 to a thousand people.

Similarly, I'm not an economist, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a Middle Eastern expert. But I've done enough homework to find people who are, and followed their work long enough to trust that they are working for us rather than on us. So that's the first lesson that comes out of the example of the Weekly Sift: You need to have a little bit of Don Quixote in you, but not too much. You need the audacity to start doing something, but you need the humility to find a role for yourself among the other people who are in this story with you.

The Mountaintop Speech wouldn't have worked if King were planning to win the battle all by himself. It works as an approach to death because he saw himself as just one piece of a movement that would outlive him.

The next problem with my story is something that comes up often in conversation. People are constantly telling me, "I couldn't do what you do, because it's too depressing." And I know what they mean, because a lot of Weekly Sift articles don't have happy endings. For example, one of the things that jumps out when you study the Crash of 2008 is that crime pays for the rich and well connected. For all the fraud and other malfeasance that financiers committed, hardly anybody has gone to jail. A few of the big banks have paid fines, but not nearly enough to discourage them from doing the same things again when the opportunity presents itself. There are a few new government regulations, but again, nothing that's going to stop history from repeating.

Or think about the War on Terror. Our government has tortured people, some of whom were probably innocent. But the torturers, the people who ordered the torture, and the people who justified the torture -- they all still walk among us. Even President Obama's executive order to stop torturing people just reinforced the idea that it's a president's prerogative. He's against torture as a matter of policy, but he could change his mind, or the next president could have a different opinion. Torture has stopped being a matter of principle or law or treaty. Not a happy ending. A few weeks ago I wrote an article called "How Lies Work". It examined how, if you start with a popular prejudice, and if you build long-term myths that appeal to those prejudices, then when you need to tell a very specific lie, you can hook it into that background and large numbers of people will believe it, even if there's nothing to it at all. It's fascinating, how lies work. But you can't see it unless you're willing to accept that lies do work. It's not a very pleasant thought, but there it is. So I've had a lot of time to puzzle over this question: If so many readers imagine that they would get depressed doing what I do, why doesn't it depress me? Because it actually works the other way. I get most excited about what I do when I'm writing an article like "How Lies Work". You see, what I find depressing is the idea that Evil is unfathomable, that things just come out badly and no one knows why. But if instead Evil has mechanisms, and if you can put those mechanisms under a magnifying glass and figure out how they work -- I find that empowering.

Similarly, if the people who want to move our country in exactly the wrong direction -- towards more intolerance, more wars, and a greater gulf between rich and poor -- if those people are unfathomable, that depresses me. But if we can peek inside their minds and see exactly what misinformation they've been fed, what inappropriate frames hold that misinformation in place, and what legitimate fears and resentments cause them to resist better information and better frames -- that's something we can work with. So that's the second lesson I draw from the Weekly Sift: What's really depressing, I believe, is passivity and helplessness. If something about the world depresses you, maybe you need to plunge into it rather than avoid it.

And finally, we run into the question: What if I lose? It's entirely possible that when I get too old to do this work any more, I may look back and decide that we're all in worse shape than we were when I started. There may be more disinformation and more propaganda and less effective democracy than there is now. Because that's the general situation when you work on a story bigger than yourself. Your own life is hard enough to control. When you get involved in a story bigger than yourself, the outcome is almost completely out of your hands. And so, no matter what larger story you commit yourself to and how hard you work at it, you face the possibility of failure. You may outlive your children. The business you spent your life building may collapse. Your profession may become obsolete. Your community may fall to ruin. In short, the story that was supposed to continue beyond your death may in fact end in your lifetime, and it may end in failure. This problem of failure very strongly resembles the problem of death that we started with. Because once again, the mere possibility of failure threatens to make the whole enterprise meaningless. Why bother if, no matter what I do, it might all come to nothing?

As with death, religion offers a number of solutions. Psalm 121 basically says, "Don't worry about failure." If you're really on the side of the angels, the angels won't let you down. "The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil." As long as you have faith in that promise, the problem of meaninglessness goes away. You don't have to worry about failure because you just won't fail. This is like the afterlife solution to the problem of death: You don't have to worry about death because you aren't really going to die. Your life and your story and the things that make your effort meaningful will all continue into the afterlife. But once again, I just lack faith. If I'm fretting about failure and I read Psalm 121, it doesn't help. It does help some people, and I'm happy for them. It just doesn't help me.

The James Freeman Clarke reading offers a more subtle solution. You may not win the particular battle you're fighting, but if you can broaden your perspective, if you can see beyond the current failure to the wider sweep of history, your victory is assured. "I'm not in despair," Martin Luther King said, "because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Even as you fail, you can say with Ted Kennedy, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

That's not bad.

It also is a statement of faith, but (unlike Psalm 121) it's a faith that I can almost find in myself. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I do find that faith in myself ... most of the time. But most of the time, it turns out, isn't quite enough. Now, you may have that faith all the time. And if you do, don't let me talk you out of it. But every now and then, my Paul Simon side wins out over my Ted Kennedy side and I think: "Everything put together sooner or later falls apart."

I don't know which side is right.The arc of the moral universe is long. In fact, it's so long, I can't really tell which way it bends. Worse, optimism has always been a fair weather friend to me. It tends to desert me when I need it most. Almost every hard thing I've done in life has gone through a period where it didn't look like it was going to work at all. And if I hadn't kept going anyway, it wouldn't have worked.

And that brings me to what I actually do try to practice, which is not optimism, but hope. As I use the terms, the difference is subtle. Optimism is an opinion about the future: It's going to turn out well. But hope is an opinion about the present, maybe even just an attitude towards the present, a thing with feathers perched in the soul. Hope says that right here, right now, trying is worthwhile. It is a bias towards action and against giving up. Hope says that doing is better than not doing, that finding out is better than remaining in ignorance, that you should keep going even through that period when optimism fails, because ... what else are you going to do? Now, I'm sure you've already noticed that this is yet another statement of faith. Whether you are fated to succeed or fail, continuing to struggle is better than giving up. Says who? If you don't believe that, I have nothing to convince you. The only thing that makes this faith different from belief in an afterlife or a guarantee from God or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever ... is that I actually have this faith. So I guess that's the third lesson to draw: Every answer to the problem of meaninglessness ultimately comes down to some kind of faith. But rather than force-fitting yourself into somebody else's faith, I think a better approach is to introspect until you figure out where your faith is.

I don't know how many of you watch Game of Thrones. I have a favorite scene from Season 1. Against all the expectations of her gender-regimented society, Ned Stark's younger daughter is studying to be a warrior. When she mentions to her swordmaster and mentor that she prays to both the new gods and the old ones, he shakes his head: "For us," he says, "there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today." That's how I feel about meaning and my story and the possibility of failure. There is so much I don't know. I don't know whether or not there's an afterlife where our good deeds will be rewarded. I don't know whether (in this world) some divine power will intervene on my side. I don't know whether the Universe is bending towards justice or injustice, and I don't know whether America is trending towards democracy or fascism. Maybe everything I'm working will come to nothing. Maybe everything people like me are working on will come to nothing. It's possible that money will win out. It's possible that the techniques of propaganda will evolve faster than the techniques of education. It's possible that at some point the People will be so tricked and bamboozled and confused that there's no undoing it. It's possible. I'm taking no position on whether it's likely, but it's possible. For all I know, democracy may be fated to fail. Maybe, someday, even I will have to admit that. But not today. It's Sunday. I have a blog to put out in the morning.

Closing Words

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good. -- Vaclev Havel

©2012 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2012. Whence Cometh My Hope?, /talks/20120930.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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