There is only one thing I am absolutely sure of when it comes to the future: people who don’t get their hopes up will never see their hopes realized. Nothing can be created that has not first been imagined.
It may be slightly tacky to quote oneself, but since they say that all the cells of the body are replaced every seven years—and since the same principle seems to apply to the U.S. body politic—I feel like the Arlene Goldbard who published those words in The Culture of Possibility in 2013 is not the same one writing this essay.
I’d like to bridge the gap, though. Seven years ago, I found it irritating that people so often called me an optimist. I never predicted a rosy future, I complained, merely pointed to the possibility of positive change. Nowadays, with so much fear and horror swirling through the atmosphere, I think one qualifies as an optimist merely by daring to suggest the possibility of a livable future.
I absolutely understand the dynamic, and I imagine you do too. So many deeply disappointing things have happened, it’s human to tamp down any sense of possibility so as to avoid even greater pain of disappointment. But it’s a terrible paradox. Insulating oneself from disappointment by abandoning hope and possibility always backfires, because all it amounts to is choosing to be pre-disappointed. Think about it. If I say, “Oh, well, that’ll never happen” and allow myself to accept that prediction despite the impossibility of knowing the future, I experience all the pain I am trying to avoid—only sooner and for less reason.
If I look at the epidemic of police murder—1000 fatal shootings a year, with 2020 right on track, with Black people killed at twice the rate of white people—if I think of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, the river of blood shed by public officials who find Black lives infinitely dispensable, the cynical spirit that wants me to accept this as just the way things are raises its ugly head and laughs at me for thinking otherwise. That hopelessness is precisely what the enemies of freedom and justice want, because it makes us easy to manage and hard to rouse.
But if I think of the vast outpouring of pain and outrage on the streets of this nation, the powerful demands, the refusal to back down, the growing sense that this can truly be a sea-change not only in policing but in every aspect of the racism that underpins both social institutions and individual patterns of behavior, my heart opens, excited at the unprecedented possibility laid out before us. I want to be part of the change.
If I think of the insoucience with which #IMPOTUS and his minions demolish human rights and undermine accountability—blithely firing every inspector general and U.S. Attorney who has investigated the administration’s corruption, to pick but one small category of democracy abuse—then I’m overwhelmed with despair at the apparent indifference or powerlessness of the elected officials who could move to stop this, and my own power saps.
But if I think of the half-empty arena in Tulsa where #IMPOTUS’ pandemic super-spreader triumph was supposed to take place (half-empty in part due to a public spanking by young people on TikTok who flooded the campaign with fake ticket requests) and of the increasingly desperate excuses they give for the spike in virus infections that is actually due to their own callous inaction, then I see Republican poll numbers dropping and the apparatus of lies crumbling under its own weight, and I have energy to move toward November when a key aim will be accomplished, getting immoral, narcissistic, power-mad, and cruel #IMPOTUS out of office.
Roxane Gay said this so beautifully on Saturday. The refrain of her wonderful essay in the New York Times: “I want this time to be different and there are moments when I think it might be.”
“Moments when I think it might be” is such a perfect expression of the cusp of believing in the possible, the hesitation to risk even greater disappointment, and the realization, as Gay writes, that “If a change is indeed coming, we have not yet seen the shape of it — and the enemy we are facing is powerful beyond measure. Understanding this truth and persisting nonetheless is how we will save ourselves.”
I know only one way to move forward that honors this moment and the true magnitude of desire to make it a turning-point, and that is to wake up each morning resolving not to be contaminated by the forces of despair, refusing to shrink for fear of disappointment, hoisting our hopes high, and actually living each day as if the world we who believe in freedom, justice, and love desire is in our grasp. I still know this for certain: people who don’t get their hopes up will never see their hopes realized.
I am in love with the new Lucinda Williams recording, Good Souls Better Angels. This is a live version of “Good Souls,” my prayer for us all. When we first got the recording, my husband and I sat on the porch gazing out at the birds and windblown grasses, listening hard. When we turned to look at each other, tears were streaming down both our faces.
Keep me with all of those
Who help me find strength
When I’m feeling hopeless
Who guide me along
And help me stay strong and fearless