Day 5: Tired hope
A (humanist) sermon for myself
“You would think now hope would be tired…
You would think tired, ragged and oil-brown”
—Karen Peris, “Go”
I’m tired. My friends are tired. Emotionally drained. Wounded, hurting, a little (or a lot) frightened.
One friend died this week. Alone. In a motel on the other side of the country. Seemingly of her own doing, intentional or not. She harbored a darkness that she hid from most of her friends. Now, they are left to untangle a Gordian knot of emotions.
Other friends are embroiled in a controversy around a community arts program. They poured their hearts into an initiative to bring art, economic development and hope to a long-neglected part of the city. They fought for this, secured funding and spent months burning brain cells and shoe leather to engage residents and make this their program. Then disgruntled visiting artists without real knowledge of the community accused the organizers of trying to expel residents so monied interests could profit.
Meanwhile, other friends hear this and express concern, only to be dismissed by those who know what went into the planning of the project. Now they are hurt. They know this displacement has happened in other communities. It’s happened in this community before (though probably not through an art program). Their concerns are real, even if they may not fit the facts in this case.
I don’t know all the ins and outs here, and I suspect — I hope — that the controversy opens up communication and leaves the broader community better for it. But I do know that my friends are tired. Hope is strained.
My LGBTQ friends are still traumatized by events in Orlando — and a seeming lifetime of feeling ostracized, if not mortally endangered. Hope was strong in June of 2015, but it’s strained a year later.
My black friends are tired of side glances. Of fearing a simple traffic stop. Of being told to be on their best behavior. Of explaining why “all lives matter” is true and completely missing the point. Hope is strained, and we’ve seen how dangerous hopelessness can be.
My brother-in-law is a deputy. I haven’t really had a heart-to-heart with him, but it doesn’t require much in the way of imagination to feel the fear that many in his line of work face routinely or how straining it must be to regularly confront humanity’s worst instincts.
And we’re all tired of this election season.
Hope is, in fact, tired, ragged and oil-brown.
But maybe it’s alright. Maybe through these crucibles we find each other.
I’m reminded of a scene from Angel, the spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (stay with me here).
Kate is a cop, and Angel has saved her from a suicide attempt. Angel, himself, has just recovered from his own dark night of the soul. He’d spent months distancing himself from friends, preparing to do battle with ultimate evil and be rid of it, once and for all. In the previous episode, Angel literally descended into hell for the epic take-down, only to discover hell is actually earth and humanity is very much complicit in the evil devouring it. He would have to destroy humanity to destroy evil. He plunges into a nihilistic spiral but emerges with an epiphany, which he explains to Kate.
KATE: “I feel like such an idiot.”
ANGEL: “A lot of that going around.”
KATE: “I just couldn’t…. My whole life has been about being a cop. If I’m not part of the force, it’s like nothing I do means anything.”
ANGEL: “It doesn’t.”
KATE: “Doesn’t what?”
ANGEL: “Mean anything. In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”
KATE: “You seem kind of chipper about that.”
ANGEL: “Well, I guess I kinda … worked it out. If there is no great, glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Because that’s all there is — what we do, now, today. I fought for so long. For redemption. For a reward. Finally, just to beat the other guy. But … I never got it.”
KATE: “And now you do?”
ANGEL: “Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”
Maybe the way we fight for justice engenders more injustice. We transform oppressed and oppressor alike from flesh and blood into symbols. In this act of dehumanizing them, we join the ranks of the oppressor.
Maybe the way we seek security undermines that which we seek. We turn the whole world into enemies and leave ourselves with no safe place.
Maybe, as Bono wrote, “… you become the monster, so the monster will not break you.”
Hemingway didn’t just write that we are strong in the broken places. He warned that if we do not break, we die. Our refusal to let the world break us is our undoing.
I once heard an interview with the Dalai Lama (or maybe it was Thich Nhat Hanh — I can’t find it). He said that if he were to believe in a heaven, he wouldn’t want it to be free of suffering. Without suffering, he said, we would have no means of developing and sustaining compassion.
Maybe my romantic notions about life have been all wrong. Maybe the perfection that I long for — in myself, in the world — is not to be desired.
If nothing else, it would be meaningless. We wouldn’t appreciate it. We wouldn’t even recognize it.
It would be like T. S. Eliot’s arriving where we started without ever having left. Knowing the place requires leaving in exploration. It would be like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ simplicity this side of complexity. Not worth a fig.
I should add that our beliefs about metaphysics and greater schemes don’t need to negate this. That scene from Angel ends with this:
KATE: “…I got cut a huge break and I believe — I don’t know what I believe, but I have faith. I think maybe we’re not alone in this.”
KATE: “Because I never invited you in.”
Angel’s entering without an invitation violates the rules of this universe, so it seems a higher power may have been at work after all.
Jewish theology, Buddhist philosophy and humanists of all stripes emphasize this life, focusing on the little kindnesses. There’s also a long line of Christian thinking (generally abandoned in 20th Century evangelicalism) that emphasizes the here-and-now (see Brian McLaren for a modern version).
I think we should fight the good fight. If we care about others, we must. But if we grasp for a final victory, we will be left spent and worthless, if not transformed into the monsters we fought.
Like many on my end of the political spectrum (and others all along it), I fear the rise of fascism in this country. But maybe I should be more concerned with the “fascist architecture of my own design” that locks up my love and my ability to be human and recognize the humanity around me.
Elsewhere in that Innocence Mission album featured above, Karen Paris sings of a simple but supreme comfort: “I am — I’m held now.”
Let’s hold each other. Let’s hold each other tight.
I don’t care whether you see your arms as extensions of the loving arms of Jesus or of the Buddha within, or as the last expression that matters in a world where little does.
Hold, recognizing our collective and individual fragility. Hold, in apology for how we’ve hurt each other and recognition that we will do so again.
Hold, as a statement that fear, hatred, loneliness, greed and all of the other ills that we contend with will not win.
And even if they do, we have this, right here. We have this moment. We have each other. We have our will to be together and to exercise whatever tiny thimble of grace we can muster.
Hope is tired, ragged and oil-brown. But maybe it’s also alright.
By Bruce Cockburm
Fascist architecture of my own design
Too long been keeping my love confined
You tore me out of myself alive
Those fingers drawing out blood like sweat
While the magnificent facades crumble and burn
The billion facets of brilliant love
The billion facets of freedom turning in the light
Bloody nose and burning eyes
Raised in laughter to the skies
I’ve been in trouble but I’m ok
Been through the wringer but I’m ok
Walls are falling and I’m ok
Under the mercy and I’m ok
Gonna tell my old lady
Gonna tell my little girl
There isn’t anything in the world
That can lock up my love again
Can I get an amen?