Hope, Not Optimism

~David Inglis, February 2021


Exactly two weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were peacefully inaugurated in an inspiring ceremony with the theme “America United.” But the “peace” was secured by 26,000 troops, and a majority of Republicans still say they would vote for Trump in 2024, a fact not lost on Republican lawmakers.


Within hours of his inauguration, President Biden presented a comprehensive national strategy for defeating the rampant Covid-19 virus. But an even more contagious strain is now spreading through the US, and scientists cannot be sure that future strains will be controlled by current vaccines.


As promised, on day one of his presidency, Joe Biden signed a letter to put the US back in the Paris Climate Accord. But scientists warn that the limits on emissions set by that accord are not low enough or soon enough to prevent the tipping points that threaten to take our planet into runaway catastrophic climate change.


Biden and Harris are committed to creating new legislation and standards to address the all-too-common police killings of people of color. But white supremacy and black repression are so deeply ingrained in our attitudes, systems and culture, it is hard to imagine legislation and standards from Washington turning things around on the ground.


So…are you optimistic or pessimistic about our future? Actually, don’t answer that. It’s the wrong question. Both options are traps.


Optimism seduces us into feeling positive about the world without having to do anything to make it so. It protects us from anxiety by giving us a sense of safety and security that ignores threatening forces. Many of us were lulled into a complacent optimism after Obama was elected and even believed we were now in a post-race society.


On the other hand, pessimism seduces us into a resigned acceptance of the world’s ills. If we don’t expect much good to happen, our hopes won’t get dashed. And believing that bad times are inevitable excuses us from putting forth the effort to make good things happen.


The question to ask ourselves in uncertain times is not, “Am I optimistic or pessimistic?” The crucial question is, “Am I an agent of hope?”


Hope is often confused with optimism. But the kind of hope I’m referring to isn’t about the state of the world. It’s about the state of our soul.


It doesn't expend its energy reacting to what happens. It devotes its energy to creating what can happen.


Hope isn’t just something we have - it's something we do. Instead of waiting for the news to get better so we can feel hope, we step up to make the news be as good as we can, simply because that’s who we choose to be and what we aspire to do.


Where does this radical kind of hope come from? 22-year-old Amanda Gorman pointed to it in the inspiring poem she read at the Inauguration. It ended,


When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it,

if only we’re brave enough to be it.


Being an agent of hope is living with the courage to be that light - that ephemeral yet powerful energy that illumines the darkness, that sparks potential into reality, that ignites visions into movements.


How do we activate that light?


The root of “courage” is the French word coeur, which means “heart.” We can think of courage as “heart-age.” It’s what empowers us to meet the world’s darkness, not with the absence of fear, but with the presence of heart that is big enough to see what fear can’t see. It is our hearts that see that we are part of “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said. And so our hearts break at the snuffing out of so many of our fellow species. Our hearts ache at our massive desecration of oceans, forests, and wilderness areas. They grieve at the injustices that suffocate people’s bodies and spirits. It is our hearts that can shift the dynamics of our society from “me first” to “we first,” from domination to cooperation, from over-consumption to regeneration. This is love in action. This is living in hope. This is being the light.


Being bearers of this light is our birthright. No matter how dark our corner of the world is or what its prospects might be, no one can take away our human capacity to respond with love, generosity, service, forgiveness, truth, and a vision of hidden potentials waiting to be born.


The light of this radical kind of hope is contagious. It inspires radical hope in others. And when we embody radical hope together, we move


from victimization into vision,

from isolation into connection,

from powerlessness into a force for change.


We don’t know what the future holds. But we know there will be both challenges and dangers, and also opportunities and potentials. The world needs us now as never before. This is our time to come fully alive, our time “to step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid,” and put our love into action as bearers of light and agents of radical, invincible, courageous, contagious hope.


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