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Audacity of Hope?

Christmas is over; the winter solstice has come and gone; another new year (western calendar) is upon us. It is the ever-repeating change of the seasons when, for us, hopes of better days to come seem germane to our dispositions.

On Christmas Eve last week I heard a sermon on hope. In the lead-up to his main point that we should by all means choose to be hopeful, the minister commented that he could not recall when in recent years he had heard so many discouraging comments about the course of events as he had in recent weeks.

Our country and the world, it seems, are not fully aligned with classic Christmas expectations of “peace on Earth, good will to men.”

He then went on to advise us all to seek peace, and love and social justice but, I thought, without much conviction that doing so would make much of a difference. And so he confirmed to the congregation the very sensibility of despair he had brought to our attention.

He didn’t mention what occurrences had given rise to despair and discouragement among his parishioners, but as his congregation was a religiously liberal one we can be fairly certain of what those circumstances were.

Ferguson was one. Putin’s turning his back on the hard won, post-WWII international order of international law and peaceful resolution of disputes among nation-states were another. Killings and barbarities on the part of ISIS and Boko Haram after years of a global war on terrorism, a war which has now gone on longer than the Trojan War. The suspicion that President Barack Obama’s presidency has failed. The Republican electoral victories last November casting substantial doubt on the belief that Americans are firmly on the road to a progressive, soft left, entitlement state.

What, then, should we decide to hope for even if our hoping won’t necessarily change our world?

Here is one such hope which I ran across a few days ago:

“You don’t need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans — Republican, Democrat, and independent — are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we’re from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of false or cramped choices. Religious or secular, black, white, or brown, we sense — correctly — that the nation’s most significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don’t change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.”

Who said this? Who laid before us this agenda to give substance to our hopes?

Why our president, that’s who.

It was a powerful paragraph in the prelude to his second book “The Audacity of Hope,” published in 2006.

As I read through his book, I came closer and closer to the realization that, in retrospect, Barack Obama’s presidency has not given us much on which to ground our hopes, the very hopes he spoke to in his prelude of 2006. We seem more divided than ever into the red, the blue and the neither-of-the-above. Gridlock in the Congress and unilateral actions by the president have pushed us toward constitutional confrontation.

We need hope to feed our willingness to commit. We need hope to support optimism that carries us through disappointments and dark hours. We need hope to overcome our distemper and mutual distrust.

Maybe this need for hope lies underneath our ever repeating annual celebration of renewal, whether due to the Earth’s turning again so that the sun may bring us warmer days, or to faith in the mystical incarnation of heavenly justice in human form, or to the arbitrary ending of one period of measured time and the start of another.

Without hope, we have low morale. And once we have low morale, it is hard to decide to hope.

Without hope, a vicious circle of fear-tinged lassitude sets in and great works are never started as hopelessness and low morale reciprocally spin each other downward.

My friend Paul Stone, professor at the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota and student of political history and culture, spoke to me of morale as a function of politics and governance. It was a new thought for me, a new way to measure the quality of a politics, of leaders.

Paul was asking himself what leads to low morale and, on the other hand, what can bring our morale up to a boiling point of engagement and taking action to make things better around us.

How, Paul asked, do we keep our morale up? Who, he asked, is well-qualified for this task?

Good questions I thought and fundamental to a constitutional democracy like ours. Before resolving the questions, for example, of whom to tax and how much to tax them, or what to do with the parents of American citizens who entered the country illegally, it might be very important to work on our morale, to give us reasons to decide on hope.

Once we have a lot of hope on hand, I’ll bet that getting to compromise, respecting others, working together for a common future, would be easier than it is now.

Sustainable hopes can’t last if events turn against expectations. Hopes at some point reflect the realities of the times. They shine or dim with the flow of power in the world. We can only hold out hope so long when facing disappointment after disappointment, when we have nothing to believe in that can make a difference.

The hope of Christians associated with the birth of the Christ child comes from belief and trust in a God who will keep promises and who actually cares for humankind and will redeem its sinners.

The hope engendered by the change of seasons or by the end of a calendar year may come more from a sense of probability, that the past does not always determine the future, that new trends can begin.

But morale is less dependent on the facts than is hope. It is internal to our emotional life, to our psychology. With high morale, we become a different fact, one making waves with our own self-directed energy and the acts it brings into effect.

We can work internally on our morale with our values and beliefs. Creating morale is a work of culture. It is therefore a duty of leaders to be architects of culture. The duty of leaders — political, educational, religious, business — is to lift our morale and keep it strong.

They can do this in various ways with words and deeds. But to do their job well, they need a touch of charisma. Not the energized personality or the driving ego which we sometimes mistake for charisma, but the conduit to high purpose that is non-rational and intuitive but nonetheless meaningful and inspiring.

Our leaders need core values of a special kind, not just any faith or ideology. Hitler and Stalin each had his charismatic appeal but one based on drawing on the depths of evil.

The audacity of hope in a constitutional republic, upon reflection, lies in courageously taking a stand in a way that changes things for the better. So giving higher meaning to our lives lifts our morale and lets us decide to hope.

Stephen B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.

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