In the often-gray days of winter, laments frequently can be heard about the lack of sunshine and its effect on attitudes and moods. I sometimes join that chorus, having felt the absence of those bright, warm rays. For whatever reason, with the light, hope is not far behind. Around these parts, the complaint often ends with a statement like, “We’re in _______ (insert location). If you don’t like the weather today, just wait until tomorrow and it will be different.” I was reminded of these things recently. Not while pondering weather, but rather while mulling over the dynamics of hope.
It was a brief stroll through a casino along the Mississippi River that renewed contemplation of the topic of hope. My first trip through such an establishment occurred many years ago in Las Vegas on the way to feast on prime rib at a 98₵ all-you-can-eat buffet. Every public room in that establishment was bright. At least one ceiling sported a light blue paint that resembled the sky, significantly altering the room’s feel. And, there was not a clock to be seen anywhere. Time didn’t matter. Whatever the hour was, it was never time to leave. Clearly, the space was designed to draw a person in and keep them there, hopeful that lady luck would smile upon them. This second casino located along the river, however, was darker. Not drab. Not sinister. Just dark. Instead of an inexpensive buffet they offered free fountain drinks with an imbalanced ratio of syrup to carbonated water. Even so, the almost hypnotic focus of players on their machines was consistent with my previous experience. In desperate times, hope is not as perky or confident as it can be in other circumstances, but it lends persistence to the situation just the same.
The floor was lined with “one-armed bandits,” as slots machines were once called. They have come fully into the electronic age. The levers that hopeful players once pulled to start the process gave the illusion that the gambler had some control or influence – pull the lever with just the right flair and you are sure to hit triple sevens or three cherries, or whatever the winning combination is. These days, those arms are gone, now replaced with buttons. Much like a soda machine, all one needs do is feed the coins, push a button, and wait to see what comes out. The activity itself looks less engaging than the lever must have been. I imagine it does not produce pleasure in the same way. People remain pasted to their chairs for long periods of time just the same. With no survey data to back it up, I concluded that hope is the glue that keeps people melded to their seats. If not this time, then surely the next coin will hit a payday. And if not, there is always the next and the next and the next time to look forward to.
I left that day wondering if there is a difference between hope born of optimism and that born of desperation? Is the former positively chipper while the latter is adamantly defiant? Could it be similar to the difference between prophetic eschatology and apocalypticism? (See – you just never know when a doctorate in Old Testament studies will come in handy!) The former looks for deliverance in history brought be a historic figure, possibly within their lifetime; the latter looks for deliverance by God in the next age to come. Suffering may continue in this life, but hope will be realized in the next. I have long suspected the slide from eschatology to apocalypticism occurs when people realize help is not on the way anytime soon but they cannot bear to give up all hope or reframe their perspective. Maybe it is not that complicated at all. Perhaps it is just an indication that people want what they want, and refuse to be easily dissuaded. Maybe the real story here is that “hopefulness” and “stubbornness” are synonyms, or at least distant cousins.
My hopeful musing resurfaced in Charleston, SC over Christmas as we visited some of the historic plantations there. As I walked across sidewalks constructed of bricks produced by enslaved laborers, I thought about long hard days of manual labor. I have found such work is satisfying when it is for your own cause, but not so much when it is extracted, particularly by force, for the sake of someone else’s agenda. The pain of aching muscles could only have been surpassed by the agony of being treated as chattel. How does the human spirit survive such conditions? I remembered lessons learned in a Black Church History class years ago about how the songs sung by those workers often veiled hope and encouragement behind common biblical imagery. What sounded like obedient submission was in fact something much more.
Later we stood in former slave quarters, made from those same bricks. I wondered if they felt pride in the craftsmanship of those houses given their role in the production of materials used in the buildings’ construction; or if instead, their very home was a reminder of their plight and the hard labor that awaited them with each morning’s sunrise. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Israelites who were held captive in Egypt also produced bricks for their oppressors. There, the story says that when the Israelites cried out from their toil and suffering, God heard and delivered them. Perhaps that was another purpose of singing those spirituals. More than just setting pace for the work, those songs solidified hope as calls repeatedly went out to their Creator. Remember us. Renew us. Free us. In the midst of longsuffering, hope, it seems, inspires qualities like strength, endurance, and resilience.
The community where I attended elementary school was named Silk Hope, as was the nearest crossroad where only a little general store and volunteer firehouse stood. Supposedly at one point in the 19th century, an effort was made to begin a silk industry there. Mulberry trees were planted. Silk worms were imported. In a rural community looking for an economic anchor, this proposed new venture likely generated energy and optimism for a brighter future – enough so that the community was named in honor (or perhaps in memory) of the effort. The enterprise failed, and the name is the only remnant of that effort of which I am aware. While it is a nice little community, it leaves me to wonder if hope in name only is really hope at all? Or does hope require some overt commitment to it in order to be legitimate and transformational?
Hope comes easily for some. It functions like an optimism that believes the best about others and expects that good outcomes are always possible. In those cases, it is an elixir-like tonic that provides a boost to our daily routines. Sometimes hope is the product of dreams for a better day, dreamt from the comforts of an already plush life. In some ways, hope in that context sounds a bit greedy. If life is already treating you with abundance, should you hope for more and better when so many others lack the basics or suffer from a variety of social and personal ills? Yet, human creativity finds it difficult to be content with what is, always eager to choose its next project. But on other occasions, hope helps us endure hardship and suffering beyond what appears humanly possible. In these cases, it doesn’t arise from the comfort of dreaming for yet more; rather it emerges like a champion whose strength is the key to survival. It is what encourages the weary boxer to get off the mat yet again, believing that the next round will be different and victory will somehow still be attained. Hope is optimism, fortified; determination incarnate.
A hope that it stops raining or that the sun shines doesn’t strike me as being in the same category as hope to be cured of cancer or liberated from slavery or even to win a jackpot. Hope is more powerful when it works its way into our DNA, becoming one of the forces that helps set our life’s course. As we cope with gray days, gamble for a jackpot, struggle to break free from the things that bind us, or dream a new vision for our community, hope that is transformational can do more than sustain us. It is in midst the pursuing those rays of hope that we just may find ourselves as well. At least, that’s my hope!