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[Chalice] Hope and Realism in Difficult Times [Chalice]

Presented via Zoom on June 21, 2020, by Doug Muder

A couple months ago, at the height of the lockdown, someone I follow on Twitter wondered how doctors can diagnose depression these days.

Think about it: Ordinarily, if you went to your doctor and said, “I hardly ever leave the house. Some days I don't even bother to get dressed. When I do go out, I stay as far away from other people as I can. I wash my hands obsessively, and I worry constantly about getting sick.” in no time, you’d have a prescription for Prozac or Zoloft or some other anti-depressant. But now the doctor would probably say, "That's normal. That's how we all live."

And that's one way to look at it. Normal life is just different now. But another way is to recognize that normal life has started to resemble depression.

In his memoir Darkness Visible, William Styron describes the inner experience of depression as a constant sense of loss. And that too seems familiar, because we are all suffering losses day after day. Even if you haven’t had the virus yourself, you may have lost a parent, a spouse, a child, or some friend you had imagined growing old with. Maybe you’ve lost a job or a business; many people have.

Nearly of us have missed events that we had been looking forward to: maybe the birth of a grandchild, or a semester studying abroad, or a big June wedding with all the trappings.

On a smaller scale, think about church services. This talk was originally supposed to happen last month in Quincy, as part of my annual spring road trip from New England back to my hometown. That trip usually kicks off with lunch at my favorite diner in Connecticut. There's a museum I like in Columbus, a brew pub in Indianapolis, and a bookstore in Champaign. In Quincy, I see old friends, wander through old haunts, and maybe spend a lazy afternoon on a boat in Mark Twain Lake.

But not this spring. And probably not in the fall. And beyond that, who can say?

Stryon says that the most damaging losses are the ones that we never adequately mourn. But opportunities to mourn are another part of what we’ve lost. Often we can’t be there when our loved ones die. We can’t gather our community together for a funeral where we hold each other’s hands or dry each other’s tears.

Some of our losses have gone unmourned because they snuck up on us. Many high school seniors were happy, at first, to get a couple unexpected weeks off school. They were less certain how to feel when they got a few more weeks. And then there was no prom, no graduation, no real chance to say goodbye to people who might be passing out of their lives now.

And the virus, the lockdown, and the ensuing economic troubles are not the only challenges we’ve had to face. We’re in a period of major social unrest that calls attention to our persistent lack of progress against racism. The checks and balances of our government are under unprecedented stress, and I am probably not the only person here who wonders whether this fall's election might be America’s last chance to avoid the kind of authoritarianism that has already replaced democracy in countries like Russia and Hungary and Turkey.

For a lot of reasons, then, it’s been difficult to stay hopeful.

At Valley Forge, General Washington read his troops the Thomas Paine pamphlet that begins, "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine was using "try" in the old sense of “test”, the way an assayer might test a nugget of ore by dropping it in acid. Hard times, Paine was saying, tell you what you're made of.

Hard times also test our religions. Just about any belief system is good enough when things are going well. But in hard times we have to ask: These principles, these beliefs and ideas that we've built our lives around, do they work? Do they stand up to the challenge?

These particular hard times motivated me to revisit what I’ve said and written about hope. I was surprised to discover just how much there is and how far back it goes. I wouldn’t have said that hope is a major theme of my work, but apparently it is.

Satchell Paige advised, “Never look back. Something might be gaining on you.” It’s always risky to review your past writings. You may discover that you were just dead wrong, or that the various things you said here or there don’t assemble into any coherent view at all. It happens.

But fortunately, not this time. I think my various discussions of hope do assemble into a single message, and I find I still believe it. So today I thought I would try to pull it all together.

As so often happens, the way to start is to get the definition right, and in this case that means not confusing hope with optimism. Hope is a way of approaching the present moment, a belief that here and now striving for better things is worthwhile. Optimism, on the other hand, is a claim to know something about the future: that it's going to be OK.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism, which claims to know that the future will go badly. But the opposite of hope is despair, a belief that, in this moment, striving for better things is pointless.

Despair is often a reaction to defeat, and so in December of 2016, a lot of UUs were despairing about the political situation. So I spoke about hope at the UU Church of Palo Alto. I don't think I can improve on this example, so I'll just quote it.

"Pessimism is going to the plate in the ninth inning when your team is behind, assessing the situation, and concluding that you’re probably going to lose. Despair, on the other hand, would tell you not to bother taking your turn at bat, or if you do step into the batter’s box, to let the pitches go by without swinging. Because what’s the point? What difference could it possibly make?”

Being a hopeful batter, on the other hand, doesn’t imply that you know anything one way or the other about how it’s all going to come out. You just go up there and swing, and whatever happens will happen.

It’s true that despair is often associated with excessive pessimism. Whatever you propose doing, a person in despair can explain to you why it won’t work. And so, faced with someone in despair, you may find yourself arguing for optimism. But those arguments usually miss the point, because a depressed person's pessimism is an effect, not a cause. The cause is despair, their intense conviction that striving can't possibly make things better.

Responding to despair by committing yourself to optimism can lead to self-delusion and denial. For example, what if you had believed all the happy things the president has told us about the virus? It won’t come here. Or it will go away, like magic. Soon the economy will recover, and before long, we’ll be back to normal, as if the pandemic never happened.

You would have been disappointed again and again. Each new denial may provide a small jolt of energy, but it's a sugar high that fades as the world refuses to cooperate.

The human condition is that we can never really know what’s going to happen, or whether the future will be good or bad.

So in my view, the path away from despair is not to claim to know things we don't actually know. Instead, we should acknowledge, humbly and courageously, our uncertainty. Whether the subject is the pandemic, the economy, the election, racism, or something in our personal lives, we don't know what's going to happen, and that is precisely why we strive.

Two of my Quincy talks have delved into my personal sources of hope. As you may have read in the newsletter, I write a weekly political blog. And as you probably have noticed for yourself, politics these last few years has not been a source of joy for people with UU values. So friends are always saying to me, "I couldn't immerse myself in the news the way you do, because it's just too depressing."

Both times, trying to address that comment eventually led me to talk about faith, which is a controversial topic to raise among Unitarian Universalists, because many of us do not hear the word “faith” gladly. (So if mentioning “faith” has already made you tense up a little, I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a minute or two, because this discussion of faith may not wind up where you expect.)

One of the things I observe when I examine my own hope, is that it has an irrational aspect to it. And I think that irrationality needs to be there. Because any really resilient hope has to keep you going even when it looks like you’re failing.

Like it says in the song “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees.

When the odds are saying you’ll never win,
that’s when the grin should start.
First you gotta have heart.

It’s not an entirely rational thing.

If you look closely at just about great development in human history, I think at some point you'll find a person who by all logic should have quit, and just didn't. You may observe the same pattern in your own life. I know I can see it in mine. If I look back at any accomplishment I'm particularly proud of, there was almost always a moment when I was sure it wasn't going to work. And if I had quit then, it wouldn't have.

So we don’t just need rational hope. We need a certain amount of irrational hope. And irrational hope, I believe, needs to have roots in some kind of faith.

But there’s a common mistake here that explains why this whole line of thought has developed such a bad reputation among UUs. Usually what you’ll hear is: “My hope is rooted in my faith. So if you want to have hope too, you need to adopt my faith.” For example, a traditional Christian might say: “I live in hope, because I have faith in a loving God who will not let bad things happen to His people. So that’s what you need to believe.”

Now, I grew up in a religion like that, and trust me, I’ve looked everywhere inside myself to find that kind of faith. And I just don’t have it.

It turns out, you can’t choose to have faith in something just because it would be convenient. St. Paul said, "Faith is a gift of God." And when the Unitarian King John Sigismund of Transylvania proclaimed the Edict of Torda, the first guarantee of religious freedom in post-Reformation Europe, that was his justification: Faith is a gift of God. If God gave your neighbor a different faith than God gave you, you just need to accept that, because nothing can be done about it. If we’re talking about real conviction rather than pretending, other people can't just decide to believe what you believe. You can't force them and they can’t force you.

So rather than suggest that you take up somebody else’s faith and try to fake it until you make it, I recommend that you look deep inside yourself until you find the faith you actually have. Then you can plant your hope there.

The way I think you'll recognize that faith is that you didn't choose it. You can't; you're just stuck with it. "Here I stand," Martin Luther is supposed to have said. "I cannot do otherwise." That's what it feels like when you really find your faith: You're helpless. You can't not believe it.

So those two talks consisted largely of me rummaging through the discard pile of faith and trying things on until I found something that fit me. In that spirit, let me suggest a couple of hope-nurturing faiths you may already have, even if you don't usually call it "faith".

One classically Unitarian faith is a social version of that traditional Christian faith I just mentioned. In other words, maybe you can't believe in a God who is going to make your personal story come out the way you want. But you do believe in something larger, in the progress of humanity, or in what Theodore Parker called “the moral arc of the universe” bending towards justice. To the extent that you can make your story part of that larger story, you can believe in your eventual triumph.

That's what's going on in Martin Luther King's Mountaintop speech, the one he gave the night before he died. He envisions his people arriving in the promised land of freedom, and says, "I may not get there with you. … But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.”

His personal story was going to end the next day. But even anticipating that possibility, he does not view his striving as pointless, because it has been part of a larger effort that he is sure will not fail.

At the 1980 Democratic convention, Ted Kennedy gave a speech that acknowledged the end of his personal presidential ambitions. That could have been a sad moment, but instead it was inspiring, because Kennedy invoked a vision larger than himself: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Maybe you have that faith. And if you do, that's a ground you can plant your hope in.

There's also a classically Universalist kind of faith, which rests not so much on God or progress, but on people. Universalists believe that no one is beyond redemption, that there is in everyone, somewhere, at least some tiny spark of goodness that could be nurtured and grow.

In times that are dominated by fear, the goodness in people can be hard to see. That little flame of goodness inside you may become something that you hold closely and even hide away, for fear the winds of the world will blow it out. And if everyone gives in to that fear, then none of us can see each other’s goodness, and the world looks very dark.

But even in that darkness, miraculous things still happen. Because, as Michelle Obama put it, "History has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own."

And so, in certain wonderful moments, one person decides not to be afraid any more, and stands there in front of a tank. And another person says, "I can't let her die by herself" and stands with her. And then there are ten people, and then twenty. And then somebody inside the tank says, "I can't just run over all those people." And now you have a revolution.

An oppressive ruler who seemed to have all the power in the world on his side, can fall, just like that, when the contagion of courage and hope gets rolling, and we all discover that the people around us have far more inside them than we had ever imagined.

Maybe you have that faith.

When I introspect, I find that I have both of those faiths, most of the time. And most of the time, that’s enough to keep me doing what I do.

My tiny blog is just a small part of the larger movement of people looking for truth and sharing the kind of reliable information that allows a democratic society to govern itself. And whether I succeed or fail, that movement will continue and will ultimately triumph.

I believe that, most of the time.

Also most of the time, I believe in the goodness of my readers. I believe they want to understand. They want to be more involved. They want to be more idealistic, have more courage, and take more effective action.

So helping them do that is not just me shining my light into the world, it's uncovering their light, which will shine further and brighter than mine ever could.

And I believe that too, most of the time. But now and then, my skepticism overwhelms those faiths. And I think, "I don't really know which way the moral arc of the universe bends. And while I do believe in the hidden goodness of people, it’s kind of like dark matter. I'm not really sure there's enough of it to keep the Universe from flying apart."

I hate to admit that, because those are beautiful faiths. I miss them when they're gone. But I find I can't hang onto them, at least not all the time. And that's a problem, because a faith that you only hold most of the time will fail you at precisely the moments when you need it most.

So I had to look deeper. And when I did, I eventually found something that is maybe not as grand, but is much simpler: I believe that knowing is better than not knowing, that understanding is better than not understanding, and that if you can pass your understanding on to someone else, you've done a good thing.

In an objective sense, I don't know that those statements are any more convincing than the other faiths I've talked about. But they turn out to be the faith I have. Knowing, understanding, explaining -- those are good things. My skepticism can't touch that, because I can't not believe it.

I don't know where that came from. I understand why St. Paul described faith as a gift of God, because I don't remember anybody instilling that faith in me, and don't believe I ever chose it. I'm just stuck with it. Here I stand.

And it keeps me going, no matter what happens.

So what point do I want you to take home from this? It's not that you should share my faith or share my hope or do what I do. But I do strongly recommend that you take your own journey of introspection, until you find the unique faith that you happen to be stuck with. That is a place where your hope can take root.

And one more thing: Hope doesn't just need roots, it needs branches. There needs to be something in your life, something you devote effort to, that expresses your unique faith and your unique hope.

Now, once you have that thriving hope with roots and branches, I wish could promise you that everything will turn out OK, that you'll necessarily succeed in what you do. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. You could still fail. All your efforts could come to nothing. You may swing hard at that last pitch, and not hit it.

But here's what I can promise. If you nurture a hope that's rooted in your own faith, whatever it turns out to be, and that expresses itself in your life, however you manage to do that, despair will have a hard time claiming you. And whether your efforts succeed or fail, I doubt you will ever be sorry that you tried.

©2020 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2020. Hope and Realism in Difficult Times, /talks/20200621.htm (accessed July 16, 2020).

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