Regardless of one's beliefs, this is the season of hope. This time of year, we each hearken to the same seasonal chord: the dawning of the light and the promise of the New Year.
Emily Dickinson (Dickinson, Pocket Poets series, Alfred A. Knopf, 26 pages, $12.50) wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul." In her inimitable way, the poet put her finger right upon it: Hope is perhaps the most elusive of all human traits; it can leave at any moment, fly out from our souls, never to be coaxed back.
Oscar Wilde put it equally -- if obversely -- succinctly when he determined that "a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
We are living in a time of great cynicism (although not without reason) in which Dickinson's words may carry a New Age-y tone, while Wilde's descriptive comes off as somehow pragmatic rather than damning. Specters of 9 / 11, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Darfur, daily car bombings in Iraq and other horrors hover like Marley's ghost at the edge of our moral periphery. Is it any wonder that hope seems flown forever from our collective soul? Yet without hope, how can we -- as individuals, as a society -- go on? Wherein lies the promise of change, of the future, if not in those feathers beating fast against the parameter of our souls?
As Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman asserts, "This is the bedrock of who I am: a man who cannot live in this world unless he believes there is hope" (Heading South, Looking North, Penguin, 288 pages, $15). Dorfman is not alone. Cynics many may be, but when hope comes within reach, we tend to grasp at it like the drowning at a rope. Several new books are guaranteed to roust the cynic lurking in all of us and soothe that small-feathered thing, so evanescent and so fragile.
Paul Rogat Loeb has never strayed far from the concept of hope in his work. His latest collection, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books. 422 pages. $15.95.), is one of those books to keep close at hand for a quick infusion of hope.
The pieces are many, varied and acutely personal. Within these pages lies a retinue to be reckoned with; a plethora of commentary from those dedicated to the concept of a better world, among them Sherman Alexie, Arundhati Roy, Alice Walker, Jonathan Kozol. Activist theologian Jim Wallis asserts that "hope is the single most important ingredient for changing the world." Tony Kushner declares that "the arc of the universe bends toward justice." The hopefulness in Loeb's collection is relentless, the polemics in his overview essays and the collected works deeply moving and motivating.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired the most harrowing committee since the Nuremberg Trials, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating crimes perpetrated during apartheid in South Africa. Yet Tutu's latest book, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Doubleday, 143 pages, $16.95), covers that horror and those of a post 9 / 11 world with grace in its most literal sense.
Tutu espouses a philosophy that need not be accompanied by religious faith: Hope is a byproduct of compassion and forgiveness; compassion and forgiveness are essential to heal a riven world. Tutu explores "ubuntu" -- his belief that we are all interconnected, that the political is most definitely personal and that what each of us does affects the lives of others.
Accessible, colloquial, full of warmth and humor, Tutu's deceptively simple approach is a countermand to violence and mayhem everywhere.
Hope doesn't always take on a global aspect. Personal trials can illumine the path to forge ahead in the face of personal terror and grim realities. Mattie Stepanek wasn't quite 14 when he died in 2004 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. An extraordinary boy with an empathic and intellectual clarity few adults achieve, Stepanek wrote several books of inspirational poetry, drawing on the turmoil and pain of his own life. These best sellers (with forewords from Maya Angelou and Gary Zukav) are filled with raw, emotion-laden poems. Yet, those verses resonate with Stepanek's irrepressible desire, in the face of encroaching death, to take a stab at making the world a little better. In Hope Through Heartsongs (Hyperion, 80 pages, $14.95), he takes on that fragile thing with feathers, writing in "Choice Lesson," "It is essential that we cope / With a pure and chosen hope. / Not a blind faith, / But a strengthened choice." That differentiation between blind faith and the strength of choice made Stepanek an architect of hope.
Parker J. Palmer has penned many books with hope at their center. His latest, A Hidden Wholeness (Jossey-Bass, 208 pages, $22.95), theorizes that most of us are on a collision course with ourselves. The struggle for career and success in the temporal plane vies with our inherent desire for love, community and a sense of the spiritual. How do we meld those together to become less fragmented people, a less fragmented society? Hope, asserts Palmer, is the regenerative element that keeps our souls alive. In a descant of Dickinson, Palmer contends that hope maintains our souls and, by extension, the soul of the world at large, of global community. The personal practice of nonviolence in everyday life, the palpable necessities of truth and trust, creating relationships that bolster our integrity -- these are the essentials Palmer argues for in creating an undivided life. He urges connectedness -- with those closest to us as well as others, but most importantly calls for interior connectedness, a willingness to bridge the gap between the cynicism wrought by external forces and the hopefulness within.
There are many who would assert that the clearest indicators that God -- and therefore hope -- is dead, was the Holocaust. But in his harsh yet exquisite book After the Darkness (complemented by archival photos from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Schocken, 50 pages, $20), Elie Wiesel pens an essay that is historical and ultimately hopeful. In his concise history of what led to the rise of the Third Reich, Wiesel (an Auschwitz survivor) also records tales of the ghettos, resistance and survival in the camps. He indicts Churchill and FDR, memorializes Jewish heroes. After the Darkness also explores the very essence of hope -- to bear witness to the lost, to break the silence of memory, to re-create humanity in the face of abject inhumanity.
In The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles Philocetes (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 96 pages, $12), the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney echoes Wiesel. He writes with characteristic and breathtaking clarity of why we ache for hope: "History says, Don't hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime, / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme. / So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here."
The montage of inhumanity and violence that constitutes the evening news remains a constant barrage against hope. In times like these, we seek sustenance from those who have made the furtherance and maintenance of hope their life's work. These men and women are the keepers of the fragile ecology of our collective soul. Their words, with all their poignancy and fervor, can aid in eliciting the strength to move forward into a world whose bleakness can often seem insuperable.
Victoria A. Brownworth's most recent book, Day of the Dead and Other Stories, will be published in 2005. She is at work on a history of faith healing. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her great-great uncle wrote "The Night Before Christmas."