The Tenacity of ‘Pessimistic Hope’

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Advent is supposed to be about hope, at least in part. And hope, especially this year, is something that seems hard to come by. Maybe this is because I’ve always been part of a people group that pretty much saw things going my way and I’m finding out what that’s not like now, or perhaps things really are worse than usual in the world, or perhaps I’m just now aware of them because I’m out of the cocoon of school—but whatever the reason, hope seems particularly lacking. It feels markedly hope-less in the world around me.

One thing I’ve learned recently is that hope can come from unexpected places. I’ve been teaching a unit on the power of protests, and what struck me about some of the protests my students and I studied was that the situations felt hopeless. The protests didn’t seem to change much of anything, at least not at the time. Instead, they were a way for people to gather and be together while calling for change. And then, at the end of the night, people (usually) went home. They didn’t see anything happen that changed their lives dramatically. They got up the next morning and went to work, cared for their children, went to school—and nothing seemed to have changed.

When I considered this, it seemed rather depressing. After all, what’s the point of protesting if you can’t change things? Why bother? If the world is falling down around your ears, why keep walking?

Then I realized—going to work the next morning is a form of protest. Getting up, eating breakfast, riding the bus, trying to make your corner of the world a little better, a little brighter—that is protest. It’s a stubborn and persistent hope that declares it will not cave in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles. It’s what I like to call pessimistic hope. You don’t so much hope that things will get better as much as try desperately not to make them worse. I think this is the meaning of hope in advent—not that hope is some grandiose elevation of spirits or elation, but rather a dogged tenacity that refuses to give in to the pressures shouting at it to just give up.

This Advent, I’m choosing pessimistic hope.