One of my Christmas gifts from a friend was a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel Unsheltered. Since finishing it, I find myself thinking quite a lot about a primary theme in the novel, a theme given expression in debates among the characters and in settings and in the image of a house falling down, the theme of the earth being beyond repair. Our collective actions, as wasteful inhabitants of our planet who seem determined to disregard environmental warnings and make nothing more than cosmetic changes to our lifestyles, so Kingsolver suggests in her novel, have pushed us past the point of no return. The result is that we now live in a world which cannot be fixed or made right.
What might it be like to live without that hope on the horizon, without our cherished belief that change is always possible and that things can always get better? What would keep a person from falling into despair without that hope? Without giving away the conclusion of the novel, I can say that Kingsolver comes up with a response other than despair–but it may not be a response that is palatable for many.
As a minister, I work in the realm of finding hope, especially in situations where there might seem to be none. Spiritual traditions of all kinds insist that hope is central to our existence and that we can find hope in various kinds of beliefs, in images, in sacred stories, in the experiences of those gone before us. With so much hope offered, to simply turn away and insist that hope is groundless makes no sense to me. Yet I can see how Kingsolver is not only reaching what seems an inescapable conclusion, namely that we are not going to reform soon enough to keep the planet from falling into ruin, but also pressing towards a valuable position. Hope is critical for us–yet that hope needs to have some basis in reality. To cling to false hope wastes energy and creativity that could be put to better use elsewhere. I have made the greatest strides in my own personal growth when I have been willing to discard false hopes about my capacity for change, the willingness of others to change, the likelihood of circumstances changing. Once I am finally ready to play the hand I am holding rather than waiting endlessly for a better hand to arrive magically, I start to get somewhere.
When did you last evaluate the hopes you hold for viability? Are you holding hopes long past the time they might have come to pass, and it is time to get rid of them? Are we collectively holding to kinds of hopes for our culture that have outlived their usefulness? And when outmoded hopes are discarded, what remains? Reconsidering the hopes any of us hold–and why we hold them, and what gives us reason to hold them–is a difficult but necessary spiritual exercise. May the hopes we hold dear be worthy of our commitment.