A couple of friends came over to help us celebrate the third night of Hanukkah. While I fried potato latkes, we talked about one friend’s difficulty in shaking post-election fear and despair — indeed, in facing the horrors of the daily paper. When the holiday began, she’d found herself thinking that lighting the Hanukkah candles perfectly expressed her challenge: to keep the darkness from overwhelming the light.
Most faith traditions have a holiday in the dark time of the year that embodies the hope and faith of light returning: Hanukkah, Christmas, Dewali. Hanukkah commemorates the events of 165 B.C.E., when Jews evicted the Syrian Greek rulers from Palestine. The Temple in Jerusalem, which Antiochus IV had converted into a shrine to his own gods, was cleaned and rededicated: “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” According to the Talmud, when the priests were ready to rekindle the Temple menorah, they could find only one jug of kosher oil, enough to keep the lights burning for just a single day. Miraculously, the oil burned for a full eight days, which is why Hanukkah is celebrated for that time period. So you could say it is a holiday of victory over great odds, or a celebration of miracles, and both would be true. But I prefer to think of Hanukkah as celebrating the fact that even what has been contaminated through hatred and violence can be redeemed through acts of repair and holiness.
My friend described her struggle as feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of greed and oppression unloosed in the world, the senseless hatred spread by those in power. What will become of us? All I could offer in return is the simple truth that keeps me going: we can’t know. I imagine imprisoned anti-apartheid activists despairing of ever lifting the yoke of oppression from their country. I imagine some in their cells, the day before apartheid fell, beaten down by decades of incarceration and torture, feeling it would last forever. As Euripides said 300 years before the events commemorated by Hanukkah, “There is in the worst of fortune the best of chances for a happy change.” We can’t know what awaits us.
To me, this kernel of truth is at the heart of that old philosophical chestnut, Pascal’s wager. If you believe in God and God does exist, Blaise Pascal said 400 years ago, you?ll be rewarded in the next world, if not in this one; but if you disbelieve, you deprive yourself of consolation and risk punishment. If you believe in God and God does not exist, so what? You win nothing, you risk nothing except credulity. So the odds are with belief.
If the philosophes will forgive me for saying so, this seems a weak argument for God, because it is so clearly predicated on one particular idea of God: the Great Judge in the sky, who’s making a list of who’s naughty and nice. My theology isn’t very reliable, but on any given day, my notion of Spirit is far more diffuse, so rewards and punishments don’t really animate my beliefs.
But Pascal’s is the strongest possible argument against despair. Follow me: if you believe in the possibility of redemption for our societies, in the balance someday being tipped by our efforts (and miracles) toward liberty and justice, that will give you energy and heart and to work toward that day, in effect creating rewards for future generations, if not for our own. But if you despair, you poison your own spirit, enduring punishment in your own life and doing nothing to stave it off for those who come after. If you have sustainable hope, grounded in action, nourished by connection, and it turns out to be wrong — the world goes to hell in a handbasket — so what? You win nothing, but you also risk nothing except credulity, because betting on the side of hope has made your life more meaningful and fulfilling, and extended help to others.
There’s a pervasive cynicism in our culture, one that has placed the highest value on cool, and the darkest stigma on looking foolish by seeming to care. But what a terrible philosophical wager that is! Eschewing all hope of redemption on the grounds that the odds are against it (and you don’t want to be caught looking foolish for believing in a cause that appears to be lost) — this is like volunteering to live in hell. Betting on despair, you win nothing and risk everything but your cool.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Dylan Thomas, in what only appears to be a different context. One of the things we are not given to know is the day of our death. If, God forbid, I were to go tomorrow, I could not bear knowing my time on earth had been given to defeat and despair. That dread animates my beliefs.
The odds are against despair.