It is intrinsic to my nature to see possibility, to see it with precisely the type and intensity of focus a donkey brings to the carrot swaying on a stick before its eyes, and like the poor donkey, to follow it until I can’t.
Some of my hopes went on past the point of possibility, wearing me out. But I don’t want to give up hoping. So I have been thinking about the problem of hope, in the little worlds of our own lives and the big world of our societies.
We Americans dislike being fooled. We dislike being disappointed. We dislike these things a little too much, and consequently, we fear allowing our hopes to rise because that rising motion foreshadows the long fall to follow.
Yesterday, upon hearing difficult news about another person’s conduct, a friend told me, “I’m not surprised.” These days, that is one of the most common conversational tropes: how many times does someone say it instantly upon glimpsing another’s failings, another’s dark side? Why is it the first thing? Because it insulates against our true reaction, against the pain of recognizing our own willingness to embrace a cover-story, our own capacity to be deceived.
Yesterday, a friend who has been struggling with a loved one’s illness said, upon receiving a new and potentially promising diagnosis, “I don’t want to get my hopes up.” She didn’t have to say “because it would hurt too much to be disappointed again.” It was understood.
Yesterday, among countless others, someone pronounced his own determination that the hopes invested in President Obama had been proven false. In the President’s campaign, that single word—hope—was the keystone of a heroic arch. Had it been removed, had the fear of disappointment overwhelmed hope’s attractions, the whole edifice would have tumbled into rubble before the election. And now, as the President chooses to spend a vast sum on a surge in Afghanistan, yet responds to epidemic unemployment by saying “our resources are limited,” disillusionment spreads, and the fear of seeming foolish speeds its progress.
We humans are forever declaring our own moment pivotal to the course of history. I have no doubt that the first person to raise a spark from the friction of two sticks paused to announce—accurately, I suppose—that civilization had reached a crossroads, was now in possession of a force that could be directed for common good or world domination. So I am aware that only history can justifiably pronounce such moments, and half the time, the determination of history is premature.
But I can’t help thinking my own willingness to look foolish, however tentative, holds sufficient promise of serving greater awareness to be dubbed a virtue. So I will exercise it now to describe the conundrum we face.
All political campaigns are personal. The nearly 70 million citizens who cast their votes for Barack Obama had many reasons, conscious and not. But to an extent remarkable in such contests, people felt they perceived the human being behind the symbols and slogans, voting for the promise of warmth, kindness and wisdom in his eyes, and the hope that these qualities could inform his administration in a deeply transformative way.
Yet the practice of politics is horse-trading. It has been so from time immemorial, when the ritual exchange of gifts and honors lubricated relationships between tribes. On the local level of retail politics, it is easy to see: you vote for a new community center in my neighborhood and I’ll support that park you want in yours. In Congress and its environs, the economy is both more subtle and far more serious: tax breaks for a powerful industry in trade for votes on healthcare reform, or approval of judicial appointments for new public works in a legislator’s district.
President Obama knows this very well. Indeed, his talent for compromise is legendary. I imagine that for a person so comfortable in the marketplace of votes, there is an almost irresistible pull to get into the game as it is played and to excel—again.
But here’s the irony: to the extent that he does this, every day brings disappointment to so many who voted for the hope that he would change the game instead of simply playing it well. A tremendous goodwill has attached to the remarkable change represented by his election, and the palpable relief that he is not George Bush persists in so many ways. Yet every day brings the fear that one has been fooled, and the creeping withdrawal from the public sphere that follows disillusionment.
History may prove me wrong, but it looks like a crossroads to me. On one side sits the even greater demoralization that follows deep disappointment, the reluctance to open again to hope. On the other, the choice to move toward something that makes the risk of hope sustainable.
I know what that would be for me: a whole different horse-trade in which truth and transparency are risked in exchange for belief in possibility, for the engagement and activism that could unleash.
President Obama has asked Congress for $73 billion for war in Afghanistan in 2010 (that’s in addition to $65 billion for the Iraq war). The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments calculates the cost per troop in Afghanistan at well over $1 million. Contrast this with the cost per non-military job. For private-sector entrepreneurship, it’s estimated that less than $30,000 is needed to create a new job (not to cover the salary, but to create the conditions and incentives). The Council of Economic Advisers estimates that on average, government spending of $92,000 is needed to create and support a new job for one year.
The cost of that year in Afghanistan could thus create nearly 800,000 public service jobs or provide the stimulus for nearly 2.5 million entrepreneurial jobs in the private sector. We aren’t stupid. When the President says “our resources are limited,” it is clear that he means “I choose to spend them on war instead of job creation.” Or education, or community development, or health or culture.
To prevent the death of hope, it is necessary to break the trance of politics as usual. If the whole political enterprise is intrinsically horse-trading, then the question comes down to the value we place on our horses. I value social well-being, full employment, whole person education, art’s public purpose, equal justice, universal healthcare—the basic goods of a decent and human society—above punishment and conquest, the horses most beloved of the debased politics we too often practice. If the Obama administration bets on those same sick and tired horses, the will to hope may be among the casualties of war.
As much as we fear getting our hopes up as a harbinger of disappointment, being surprised in the other direction—receiving a happy surprise—is perhaps the supreme human pleasure, unleashing a flood of chemicals that bathe the brain in a banquet of excitement, delight, awareness of the ineffable and one’s capacity to experience it. But even there, the aversion to looking foolish runs deep. Dollars to donuts, nearly all of those people who greet bad news with “I’m not surprised” will exclaim as follows upon hearing unexpected good news: “I don’t believe it!”
It looks like a crossroads to me. We still have the opportunity to allow and support the hope that brought Barack Obama into the White House, if only he will push himself away from the poker table of politics as usual, seeing and speaking the truth that is perceived by so many beyond the Beltway. I would love that delightful surprise. It would galvanize the 70 million and more, aligning us again into an arrow of hope and possibility.
What we want in the little world—reasonable hope of the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones, to invest our hopes with a full heart, to trust, to matter, to sometimes be happily surprised—we want for the society we help to make each day. I woke up this morning with Esther Phillips echoing in my ears, a song to the little and big worlds simultaneously. The song is by the late, great Percy Mayfield, written 60 years ago. But to me, Little Esther sang it best:
Heaven please send to all mankind
Understanding and peace of mind
But if it’s not asking too much
Please send me someone to love
Show the world how to get along
And peace will enter when hate is gone
But if it is not asking too much
Lord won’t you please send me, send me someone to love
I lay awake at night and find the world full of trouble
And you know my answer is always the same
Unless man bring an end to his destructible sins
Hate is gonna put the world in a flame, what a shame now
Just because I am in misery
Well I don’t beg for no sympathy
Well if it’s not asking too much
Please send me someone to love.