It’s kind of a stressful time in my personal soap opera. Every once in a while I pause to give myself a boost, repeating two words that have a remarkable ability to lift my spirits: President Obama!
When friends are in the vicinity, I tend to add a few more words of rational exuberance, such as, “Imagine! He’s going to be President!” I don’t think Obama has magical powers, nor do I believe that one person can change the future single-handedly. But his personal decency, his genuine interest in dialogue and the groundswell of electoral democracy sparked by his campaign give me hope—hope grounded in reality.
Here’s what each and every person has replied: “I’m afraid to get my hopes up.” Some of them say it’s because they’ve been disappointed so many times before: people mention Bobby Kennedy or even JFK, how they invested hope in these politicians and were repaid with loss. People invoke Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the vague, irrational feeling that if they allow their hopes to infuse Obama’s candidacy, his life will be in jeopardy. People look at me with huge, sad eyes, like toddlers afraid to reach for a cookie lest their hands be slapped.
What I see in their faces isn’t just about an election: it’s a human tragedy that turns on the human tendency to downsize our sense of possibility with each defeat, until we forget what it was like to want full-on, to feel the pleasure of desire unmitigated by past disappointment.
When you have the identical conversation with a one person after another, you know you’ve stumbled across an eruption in the Zeitgeist. As the late, great Paulo Freire taught, every era is characterized by a multitude of themes, tensions, ideas in dialectic interaction. Here we see one of those dialectics rise like Jack’s beanstalk. Call it hope versus fear, desire versus self-protection—call it anything you want, but the culture is putting it in our path, giving us a major opportunity for growth as individuals and as a society.
Ungrounded hope is a drug that fails to heal: if I focus every day on the hope that I will soon sprout wings and fly, I live in a dream world, cheating myself of an open-eyed look at the infinitely richer world of reality. But hoping for something that has a good likelihood of coming true is salubrious, a way of experiencing anticipatory pleasure, prolonging through imagination the good feelings generated by attaching your hopes to the object of desire. Just as neuroscientists tell us that athletes who rehearse their feats in the arena of their own minds will enhance their prowess on the field, anyone who spends a little time in the theater of personal desire and social imagination prepares for fulfillment when it comes.
In contrast, the damage done by being afraid to hope is that removing hope from the equation doesn’t just take us to a neutral place. Instead, eschewing hope puts us in a state of preemptive or unearned disappointment. Life is full of defeats (and victories, of course). But by choosing not to risk hope, defeat becomes our default setting. It’s like deciding not to buy a lottery ticket, then feeling crappy because you didn’t win the big jackpot: every breath is flavored with disappointment and defeat.
Fear of hope is neither good for the body politic nor for the soul. If Americans downsize our hopes for democratic government much more than the last eight years have shrunken them, the ideologues who want to neuter authentic democracy will prevail, fulfilling the dream of right-wing crackpot Grover Norquist, who said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Without hope grounded in reality, we are trapped in a privatized world with a horizon so low, we bang our heads trying to stand on our feet.
So here’s what I’m advocating: daily HopeAerobics. My friend who knows everything about the human body says it takes three weeks to build muscle and three weeks of inactivity to lose it. Think what hope muscles you’ll be able to build between now and the election! Experts say we should begin any exercise program cautiously, so take it slowly. Start with a few minutes a day. Sit in a quiet place or put on some music you love. Breathe. Then let yourself say it without restraint, without self-protectiveness, without fear: President Obama!
Let yourself think for a few moments not about the many obstacles to “a social order of justice permeated by love” (as the Reverend James Lawson wrote in SNCC’s founding statement of 1960), but about the delicious prospect of its fulfillment. When the voice of fear arises, tell it to take a nap: none of us knows what will happen, but minds uncolonized by preemptive disappointment will equip us to face it, heads and hearts at the ready. Get good at daring to hope, and our hopes just might come true.