We live in dark days and dark times. Just two days away from the Winter Solstice, our nights are long, the time between sunrise and sunset is as short as it will be all year. Much of our day is actually dark. Our times are dark too. One need barely read a newspaper or watch the news to know the suffering and sadness washing over so much of the world. The slaughter in Syria continues unbroken. Wars, old and new, batter the people of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. The people of the Philippines dig out from the worst storm in recorded history. Here, in the United States, the political system seems as broken as it’s ever been. Progress is impossible on the vital issues of income inequality, gun violence, climate change. I could go on. But you know the darknesses too.
In the midst of all this, can we detect hope? Is it here, just small? I do see moments of hope. Sometimes they are small but they are here. I have students who work hard, who honestly ask questions trying to get to the heart of ideas that challenge them in the literature we read together. I taught seniors Classic Literature where we explored The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Inferno, and Hamlet. I saw students drop their postures and listen to each other, ask questions of the texts, of me. We discussed what it means to be a man, the causes of war. We wrestled with questions like: Are we free? Are we good? I also taught American Literature where I saw students challenged by Emerson and Thoreau. I listened to them worry about conformity and non-conformity. I watched them read in awe of Frederick Douglass and his pure insistence on human dignity. I listened to them discuss Emily Dickinson and her quiet, sometimes odd, but always searing insights into human behaviors. In all of this, I saw hope.
I certainly see hope in many of the poets I know. Poets here in the Washington, D.C. poetry community who give so much support and kindness to one another– as well as poets around the country I’ve come to know in the last year or so. In some ways, poets serve as an army of hope. We write, we work, we try to find ways to use the language and our art to create beauty, to add to the goodness in the world, maybe even to stir up hope.
We recently laid to rest Nelson Mandela, among the best people our world has produced. The world seemed to stand in silent respect at his life of courage and forgiveness. Some commentators reported that when he came out of prison, after twenty-seven years, he had to leave bitterness behind. I found myself thinking that was not true. He didn’t have to. He chose to. And there is an ocean of difference. Mandela could have turned South Africa, and who knows where else, into a blood bath if he demanded an even repayment for the suffering of apartheid. But he knew that would not move his country forward so he chose–he decided– that truth and reconciliation were better tools.
We too can choose. We too can ask, explore, and live the questions my students asked. In our choices: how we treat one another, how we spend our money, how we earn our money, how we vote, how we write, if we read, what we read. We choose our future. In this there can be hope.
Photo: J. Ross, Lights on the scaffolding alongside Gonzaga College High School, Washington, D.C. December, 2013.