On what makes hope so hard, and why that’s what makes it so important too.
When it comes to representations of hope in American popular culture, I doubt anything can compete with the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The film’s culminating and inspirational power rests on a particularly beautiful quote voiced by Tim Robbins’ Andy: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” But while the film as a whole certainly illustrates that idea, it’s worth noting that the quote is the second half to a dialogue begun long before by Morgan Freeman’s Red, who notes that for men in a world like that of prison, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” And while for Andy and Red hope is indeed rewarded, it’s worth noting that when it comes to many (indeed most) of their peers, Red is not necessarily wrong—that in the darkest situations genuine hope can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to find and achieve; and that striving for it in such situations can be a painful and even self-defeating quest.
At the very least, Red’s idea is an important rejoinder to the easiest versions of hope, the ones that suggest it’s simply a matter of positive thinking in the face of, well, pretty much anything. Such easy hope is to my mind no different from the simplistic type of patriotism about which I’ve written multiple times in this space, the kind that recites “God bless America” and “greatest country on Earth” and pledges allegiance by rote. Just as I have argued that genuine patriotism requires significantly more engagement and work than do those recitations, so too would I argue that hope is not just—and not really at all—a matter of frame of mind or attitude. The very suggestion of such simplistic solutions implies an equality of situation that is frankly utterly divorced from reality—the thought that an inmate serving a life sentence can simply will him or herself to hope in the same way that, for example, an American Studies professor depressed by national narratives can is, among other things, insulting and patronizing to the inmate.
So how do those of us who try to stay in the reality-based community find a more hard and genuine hope? I think that Barack Obama’s recent DNC speech exemplified that pursuit—Obama more or less overtly admitted that the hopeful rhetoric of his 2004 DNC speech and his 2008 presidential campaign has had to give way before many of the realities he and we have faced and experienced over the last four years; but his speech ended with a powerful series of images of Americans who continue to give him hope nonetheless. The last such example was to me particularly striking: a veteran and amputee who has become a Wounded Warrior participant and athlete, and who in that role is working to give the same hope he has found to other wounded veterans. Such hope cannot, it seems to me, be naïve or blind to the world’s realities—an amputee must live every day with the reality of what has happened to him or her—but neither is it circumscribed by the worst or hardest of them. If anything, such an example speaks to an ability not to transcend the realities exactly, but rather to make them into something forward-looking, something that moves both an individual and his or her community into a future that includes the realities and yet includes so much else and so much more: so much potential, so much life, so much, yes, hope.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Texts, takes, thoughts on hope in America?
9/17 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two iconic and iconoclastic 20th century American authors, William Carlos Williams and Ken Kesey.
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