The flag of Rhode Island displays our state symbol – an anchor – with the word “Hope” emblazoned below. I have always liked that image, and it took on even more meaning a few weeks ago, when my friend, Emily Jones (who is leaving her job as lead organizer for the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty), shared a beautiful teaching. She talked about the anchor as a symbol of hope in things unseen. The captain of a ship lowers the anchor into the water, unable to see precisely where it will land, and hopes that it will find a secure attachment. The captain has hope in unseen things.
I know I am telling you something you already know – we live in a complicated and frightening world. It is a world that challenges us to hope.
Over this past year, it seems as if the world is spinning even more and more out of control. It can seem hard to believe, and certainly cruel to suggest, that “things will turn out well” any time soon. Things have rarely seemed so bad. The threat of nuclear war, random acts of terror, large-scale displacement of people in Syria and Africa, global warming, to name just a few. And right here in Rhode Island, our economy struggles, schools are failing our children, too many families are worried about basic needs like food and shelter, and too many people, young and old, just feel left out.
What is hope? What does it mean to be hopeful in this seemingly crazy and often out-of-control world?
Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and former dissident who served as the first president of the Czech Republic, said this about hope: “Hope is certainly not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
We are not the first people to think that the world seems irredeemably corrupt, that wringing our hands and feeling despair seem singularly reasonable.
While the threats of nuclear annihilation, biological warfare and terrorism may never have been greater than they are today, those who came before us also faced times of unimaginable cruelty. Throughout history, there were periods when trusted institutions collapsed and violence reigned, when friends disappeared in the night, when civilization itself seemed near its end.
The people who found their way through those times did so by the hard work of hope, not by the thin promises of optimism.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with Shu Wan Li, a Chinese dissident and political prisoner who was released from prison after enormous pressure by the global human rights movement. He came to Rhode Island to live because his daughter, an art teacher at Moses Brown School, lived here. Shu was asked to give the baccalaureate address to the graduating class at Brown University. His talk was wise and tender. He began by telling the graduates much of the usual good advice – live passionately, be engaged in the world. He then gave a bit of counsel that I found startling: Don’t despair, because you can find happiness every day! This philosophy had sustained him during his long imprisonment, which included 12 years in solitary confinement in a cell that did not allow him to stand up.
“How could you retain any measure of happiness in those conditions – torture, humiliation, subjugation, isolation,” I asked Shu after the talk. He told me that he was absolutely sure that the course that landed him in prison – democracy and freedom – was the right and just thing to do. And he held hope that he would one day be reunited with his wife and daughter in an environment of freedom – that is what allowed him to feel joy.
When, during the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa, Desmond Tutu famously announced that he was a “prisoner of hope,” he was calling on the most enduring truths of his religious tradition. He was also recalling a fundamental distinction made by Judaism and most of the world’s religious traditions.
Optimism urges us to have a nice day; hope requires us to work until all days are just. Optimism rests on our individual cheer; hope relies on our communal struggle. Optimism imagines a future without trouble; hope slogs through trouble with the certainty that “something will make sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
To live in hope is anything but irresponsible escapism; it is the bravest choice. It is the prophetic vision of resistance to despair that has ever-threatened to swallow us whole. Hope is the highest calling. And so, even as our world continues to spin perilously close to destruction, let us, at the beginning of the new Jewish year, continue to hope and work for a world with more harmony, understanding, justice and peace.
RABBI ALAN FLAM, recently retired, is on the Steering Committee of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and is the organizer and rabbi for Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that emphasizes silence, chanting, gentle stretching and meditation along with traditional davening and Torah study. He can be reached at email@example.com.