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Hope Is a Discipline: Notes Toward a Better Year

2020 did not destroy us. 2021 will not save us. Only we can do that.

The first time my wife and I separated — before I moved back in, before things fell apart again, before our marriage finally ended — I went to stay with a friend on the opposite side of the city. I would sit out back every night, perched on a step of the classic Chicago wooden staircase, chain smoking Marlboro Lights and talking to myself. I went over our past conversations again and again: the sweet nothings, the terrible accusations, the many, many promises. The names we’d picked out for imaginary future children. Our private language, made up of phrases that defy spelling but had such specific meanings to the two of us. When you’re a writer who’s married to a writer, words take on incomparable importance. The stories we told each other became the stories we lived out together. This argot was the bedrock of our relationship. Argot: a word she taught me.

That winter, I rewrote myself. I looked for new words everywhere, reaching for the ones that would make me whole. Hope is a discipline, I said, and I set out to learn it like a language. Instead of downloading Duolingo, I saw a therapist. Instead of joining conversation groups, I meditated. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t easy. It’s not my first language. But now I speak it every day.

Although I didn’t realize it until years later, I am not the first person to say this phrase. Mariame Kaba, prison abolitionist and anti-racist activist, uses it as a touchstone in her work. “Hope is not an emotion,” she says. “Hope is not optimism.” Instead, for her, it is a practice. It is the decision to keep fighting in the face of overwhelming odds based on the rock-hard belief that most people want real justice. She was first introduced to the idea by a nun who counseled that we should use hope as a way to be “of the world and in the world.” I’m willing to bet this is an ancient concept. Spiritual though it is, hope is also very practical. It is a tactic that propels us forward.

With the new year just days away, we all have the same opportunity I had in my divorce; the same opportunity everyone has in moments of upheaval. We can set intentions. We can shift perspectives. We can’t rewrite the past, but we can change the future.

Since the great celebrity die-off of 2016, we’ve gotten into the habit of blaming each year for its events. It’s a joke we use to make sense of our grief. More than that, it’s an excuse. This narrative lets us evade responsibility for the mess we’re in. It encourages an empty kind of optimism; one in which we pretend that time will save us even though we refuse to save ourselves. This learned helplessness is short-sighted and damaging. January will come and go, and we will not yet have recovered from the events of 2020. What then? Will we start blaming 2021?

It’s time for us to take responsibility for the state of the world. I am not encouraging a sense of guilt, but a spark of inspiration. The majority of people alive today are not to blame for the choices of 1980s politicians or the greed of current billionaires. Remorse will not save us. Changed behavior will.

In the act of hoping, we recognize that there is a difference between the present moment and the future we’re dreaming of. Before we can move forward, we have to accept our current reality for what it is: a world that people built. This didn’t just happen. The pandemic was not fated. Even as you grieve for the actions that got us to this point, take comfort in the knowledge that we did this. We are not helpless. We can make different choices.

When you set intentions for the new year, think about the world you want to live in. How will you accept our current reality without sinking into despair? How will you support your community? What will you do to work toward justice? Who do you need to become?

I knew my marriage was over in the fall of 2019, although I didn’t leave until January 2020. In retrospect, I can pinpoint the exact moment I felt it break. I was in the guest room of my father’s house in California, talking to my wife on the phone. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked her a question and got no answer. She was completely silent. I prodded a little further — are you still there? Did you hear me? Are you able to make words right now? She couldn’t even respond in monosyllables. She cooed into the phone, expressing affection but unable to say anything that resembled a coherent sentence. I tried to take it in stride. I told her I loved her, hung up quickly, and cried myself to sleep. The person I once knew had disappeared. Our story had come to an end.

In the vacuum of her silence, I was hopeless. I couldn’t yet see that end as a beginning. That version of me was completely unprepared for everything I would face in the coming year. Changing jobs, major surgery, quarantine. And now (because hindsight is 2020), I’m grateful for the timing. Living through this crucible taught me more about hope than I ever imagined. If I survived that, I tell myself now, I can survive anything. I will survive this, too.

2020 did not destroy us. 2021 will not save us. Only we can do that. Hope is a commitment to tell a better story. By imagining the future we need, we empower ourselves to build it.



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