Hope In The Sadness
A few weeks ago it was a beautiful Monday in Northern Virginia, where I celebrated the Fourth of July with my family. I felt good about life and at peace with the world, a rarity for me these days. Late in the afternoon, a headline popped up on my phone about the Fourth of July massacre in Hyland Park, Illinois.
Suddenly my mood fell off the cliff. My God, I thought, not again. And today of all days. My hiatus from an all-too-familiar despondency abruptly ended.
Many of us have been feeling profound hopelessness over the past few years. What with a recent barrage of mass murders, a shattered political culture, a troubled economy, a senseless war raging in Ukraine, and the ongoing uncertainties surrounding COVID, we’ve been living through a seemingly endless period of drudgery and despair.
Where Do We Find Hope?
I don’t mean pollyannish, feel-good fantasy, or escapism, but a more radical kind of hope that requires us to acknowledge the dumpster fire we’re currently living through while empowering us to believe in a better tomorrow and do the hard work needed to make it a reality.
In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson talks about this kind of hope when describing his career dedicated to exonerating those (predominantly Black) citizens sentenced to death for murders they didn’t commit.
Stevenson says that what has kept him going through all the difficult years is “not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather…the kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a helpless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in the future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”
There are those, like Stevenson, whose strength comes from their dedication to fighting injustice. There are also those who have been the victims of such injustice, or simply a raw deal in life, and who have found the strength to rise above their circumstances—not just by dreaming of a different future but by availing themselves of every possible opportunity to make that future a reality.
I witness this daily among the incarcerated youth I work with in my Books Behind Bars program. These young men and women have suffered abuse, family trauma, addiction, social neglect, racism, and other forms of social inequity. They are painfully aware that something in their society, and often their own lives, is badly broken, and yet they are fiercely committed to doing whatever it takes to get off the tragic path they’ve been on.
Many of them have been released and have not returned to prison. Some have applied to and enrolled in college, a possibility they hadn’t considered before enrolling in Books Behind Bars. One former Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center resident, Bradley Brewer, told me in 2016 that he was determined to get out of Beaumont one day and start a business to support his siblings.
He’s since been released and has become a successful entrepreneur. You can hear him talk about his story here.
I can’t help but observe that Bradley’s story, like Bryan Stevenson’s, embodies one of the messages at the very heart of the Russian books I teach and write about:
Life is what happens to us, but destiny is what we do with it.
Russian Writers And Hope
I’ve written about this recently in connection with the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine: How the People of Ukraine are Living Out the Deepest Lessons of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Russian writers are unflinching in their depiction of suffering and injustice. Many were themselves victims of that injustice and sentenced to prison for criticizing the government. Dostoyevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison and was committed to four more years of mandatory military service for participating in a socialist revolutionary circle, and that was only after receiving a last-minute reprieve from execution by firing squad.
A little over a century later Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested for having criticized Stalin in private correspondence to a friend, and was sentenced to eight years in one of the worst prison camps in the “Gulag.” Yet their writings continually remind us not only what human beings are, but what we can become.
Yet they emerged from the hell of prison neither cynical nor embittered, but with a redoubled commitment to creating works of art that celebrate human life and perseverance amid the pain all around them.
This is exactly the kind of radical hope we all need now more than ever.
Connect with Dr. Kaufman on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, his private FB Group, Linked In, Instagram, Goodreads, and YouTube, and sign up for his newsletter here.