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This Thanksgiving, I’m having some trouble giving thanks. The increasing horror of mass shootings and senseless loss of life; the revelation of unthinkable acts of sexual harassment; the moral and spiritual decay in Congress; the combination of incompetence, corruption, and mean-spiritedness of the Trump administration; the ugliness, racism, and hatred unleashed through fake news, misinformation, and outright lies online; the cataclysmic natural disasters—all leave me feeling on the verge of hopelessness and despair.
But I don’t think I can give in to that hopelessness and despair. And so I turn, as I so often do, to one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, who reminds me that
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
That “never stops - at all –” becomes a mantra for me, and it takes me to another thinker I admire and often turn to on dark days. Cornel West, Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, has written and spoken extensively and eloquently on the need for hope, as in this excerpt from a commencement address he gave at Wesleyan University:
Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it's not optimism. I'm in no way an optimist. I've been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there's sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better. I don't believe that. I'm a prisoner of hope, that's something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called "The Sentiment of Rationality," where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that's what I'm talking about.
What particularly lifts me up in this passage is not just the emphasis on hope but the linking of hope and courage. In a tweet on November 21, 2013 (right around Thanksgiving time), West wrote, “Faith, hope and love are the three pillars of deep spirituality -- yet it is courage that enables all three.”
Those words have what my grandmother called “stick-to-it-iveness”: they stick to me like they are a part of me, tattooed on my heart. It’s not enough to hope, or to be a “prisoner of hope.” Rather, we need to activate that hope through courage. And in this regard, I begin to feel more hopeful and more full of thanks: for the good, decent, strong women (and men) who have the courage to run for local and national offices for the first time ever; for the very few in Congress who have the courage to speak truth to power; for the teachers all over the United States who have the courage to enter their classrooms day after day full of hope and love; and to the women (and men) who have the courage to come forward and name those who have sexually harassed and abused them. In all these cases, it is the courage that enables hope that allows for hope.
And that’s a lot to be thankful for this season. I wish peace and hope and love—and courage—for you and your students this Thanksgiving, and always.
Credit: Pixaby Image 2261476 by andreahamilton264, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License
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