Holding on to Hope in an Age of Distress


As we approach the holiday season, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope.  For Christians, the season of Advent which commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (December 3 this year) is a season of expectant hope—hope for the coming of the Christ Child.

            I am basically an optimistic person with a hopeful nature, but I’ve had a hard time holding on to hope this year. I’ve enjoyed so many personal blessings, but when I see the state of the world around me, I have sometimes plunged into despair. The lives of people in our nation and around the world have been ripped apart by catastrophic hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Wars rage in the Middle East and Africa, and the people displaced by these wars struggle to find safe havens. Climate change is moving us toward a global ecological disaster even as many leaders refuse to acknowledge or address the threat it poses. Our political leaders seem bent on enriching the most privileged among us while taking away vital protections from our most vulnerable citizens. Our president recklessly spouts language of divisiveness every single day. And just a few weeks ago, a gunman mowed down 59 people and injured more than 500 others in a mass shooting that was surely much worse than it might otherwise have been because our nation lacks the will to enact reasonable gun regulation. It has truly been hard to hold on to hope.

            I know I’m not alone. When I get together with friends, we share our fear and despair. Clients tell me that they’ve felt paralyzed by the relentless bombardment of disturbing events they see in the news every day. Lots of us are finding it hard to hold on to hope, and we feel increasingly helpless to do anything positive to address things.

            Thinkers far wiser than me have grappled with the challenge of finding hope in our current world. I recently listened to journalist and theological thinker Krista Tippett interview Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist teacher and medical anthropologist. Speaking in 2012, Halifax noted that the 24-hour news cycle bombards us with bad news all the time. As we face this barrage of stories about injustice and violence, she said,

We enter into a state of moral distress and futility. . . . And yet, we can’t do anything about it, and we enter into a state either of moral outrage, or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just don’t want to deal with it, or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze. And I think that a lot of the world that is hooked up in the media right now. . . is going numb. I think what we’re seeing is . . . empathic distress, where there’s a resonance but we’re not able to stabilize ourselves when exposed to this type of suffering.

            Halifax suggests several antidotes to our problem of empathic distress. When we get to the edge of being overwhelmed, she encourages us to spend more time in nature and in places where “you can touch the stillness” and ground yourself. She also suggests joining with others in rituals—religious rituals or secular ones—where we can feel part of a larger community. She says, “Ritual evokes in us a sense of timelessness. It drops us into the past, it brings up the present. It also projects into the future. But it is also deeper than chronological time.” Ritual can remind us that suffering and the overcoming of suffering are both embedded in thousands of years of human history.

            As a historian, Halifax’s words resonated with me. This year, I’ve repeatedly had to remind myself (and friends have reminded me) that our nation has lived through dark times before. In my own childhood, the Vietnam War ripped deep tears in the fabric of our nation. And then there was the Civil War.  On Christmas Day 1863 as our nation tore itself apart in a war over slavery, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;

"For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"


But Longfellow did not end the poem on a note of despair. He continued:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.


            Longfellow’s words are familiar to most of us because in 1956, composer Johnny Marks set them to music. Dozens of artists from Bing Crosby to Johnny Cash have since recorded the song, and it has become part of our holiday musical canon. (Click here for one of my favorite versions by Harry Belafonte.) 150 years later, Longfellow’s words remind us to reach for hope in the darkness. 

            Hope in the Dark is the title of one of my favorite books this year. The book is a collection of essays first published in 2004 by gifted writer Rebecca Solnit and reissued in 2016. Looking at twentieth century environmental, cultural, and political history, Solnit shows us the ways that citizens have changed their worlds again and again, and she urges us to hold on to “hope in the dark.” She explains, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable.” Solnit reminds us that “hope is an orientation of the spirit,” a way of approaching the world.

            Embracing uncertainty is a challenge for me, but this year I have tried to hold on to hope in the dark in ways large and small—by reaching out to loved ones, by reading deeply and widely, by spending time in nature, by participating in rituals in my own community—funerals and academic ceremonies and other rituals which remind me of my ties to my own community and to the people who came before me. I have tried to do things that make positive differences in my community. Sometimes I have despaired, but I remind myself as Solnit reminds us that I don’t know what will happen and that in that uncertainty lies possibility. In this season of expectant hope, I’ll cling to hope in an age of distress.

            What have you done to hold on to hope this year? Where do you find your hope? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

            And if you want to sample Rebecca Solnit’s writing on hope, check out this essay from The Guardian from July 2016.