A word is dead
When it is said
It just begins
To live that day
In this magnificent little poem, the great American poet, Emily Dickinson, is explaining to us the power of each word we speak. There are some people who cynically or hopelessly dismiss the power of words by assuming that once a word is spoken it has no value: it’s only a word whose passage from your mind and your lips into the ears of listeners leaves it, like a bee that has lost its stinger, dead and useless. Our poet warns us that this is not true. For better, and all too often for worse, once a word has left your lips it is very much alive, and ready to do the work of good and evil. A word might create life or cause death, but words themselves do not die, but they are enduring sources of everything human. As the biblical book of Proverbs once put it, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
The past two years, I have been listening to many people talk about the death of one of the most significant words ever invented by the English language: hope. Of course, the word itself is not actually dead, it hasn’t been expunged from the English language. What I think they mean is that hope is dying, as we find ourselves drowning in the overwhelming anxieties distracting us from the gargantuan tasks lying ahead of us. As an example, consider what the renowned novelist and essayist, Roxanne Gay, wrote about hope back in June:
“Because I write about difficult subjects — gender, sexual violence, sexuality, race — people wondering “Now what?” often ask me about hope. They want me to offer assurances that though we are facing many challenges, everything will be O.K., the world will keep on turning. It is very seductive, this hope people yearn for. I don’t traffic in hope. Realism is more my ministry than is unbridled optimism. Hope is too ineffable and far too elusive. Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others. And now, more than ever, as we consider the state of the world… we don’t need to leave possibility to others. So much of what is possible is, in fact, in our hands.”
I find it confusing that Roxanne Gay, a master artist of words whose work I admire, should announce the death or at least the debilitation, as it were, of this remarkable word hope, which possesses such a distinguished legacy. Surely she knows that no word is dead once it is said, that a word such as hope, once uttered from one’s lips, becomes more than a place holder for ideas that have become inert or irrelevant. It becomes the match that ignites the wildfire called hope inside of us simply by reminding us that such a thing as hope exists at all, to sustain us during the eternally long moments of life in danger of being paralyzed by despair. I also find it significant that she should contrast hope with the belief in taking possibility into our own hands, which is precisely what hope is.
Returning to what Roxanne Gay wrote, we find a clue as to why she has done this. Let’s listen again to what she said: “Realism is more my ministry than is unbridled optimism…Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others.” Gay is equating hope with optimism, the persistently sunny and all too passive view of Voltaire’s Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds, thus why work at all to improve it? I don’t think that hope is the same thing as optimism and its resultant passivity. If anything, hope is the active response to pessimism, an exhausting, desperate, last chance resistance to the apathy, the living death created by the dark view that the world will get no better and will only get worse, so why practice any fine art of making it better?
The Bible gets what hope really is. Almost pushing us through the high holiday season are the ending words of Psalm 27, words that we should be extremely careful not to disregard or dismiss as dead and irrelevant: Kave el Adonai, ḥazaq v’yaametz libekha, v’ kave el Adonai. “Hope in God, be strong and of good courage, and hope in God.” This is a strange line of poetry. The poet is commanding us to hope, but how can you command a feeling or state of consciousness? The poet is commanding us to hope in God, but how can you command a belief, especially a religious one? What possible connection exists between religiously motivated hope and the imperative to be strong and courageous? Finally, why repeat this phrase, “Hope in God”? I think the answer to these questions lies in an experience with which you and I are chillingly familiar, because we have all been through it. Imagine the author of this biblical psalm facing down a crisis or moment of extreme emotional or physical danger where she could easily crumble in total paralysis. In that moment, he isn’t commanding us, the readers. He is talking to himself, screwing up his strength and courage, chanting repeatedly a spiritual mantra: “You’ve got this. You aren’t alone. You possess the power to fight back, to fight through and win, and this is a power -God’s power – which transcends you and fills you, if only you would give yourself the chance to discover it. Don’t give in to the abusers, the haters, the dictators, the Pharaohs, the personal taskmasters who would enslave you again and again if they could. Don’t…lose…hope.”
There is nothing sunny, optimistic and passive about this kind of hope: this way of experiencing hope is demanding, active, relentlessly pushing us out of despair, out of paralysis, out of soul-murdering apathy and into action, change, transformation of the self and of the world… reminding us we’ve got this, we can do this, we shall overcome…if only we would keep hoping… against hope.
The Bible gets what hope really is. The biblical word for the noun, hope, is tikvah. The biblical word for the noun, rope, is also tikvah. One of the finest Bible dictionaries I use for my research alludes to this connection in its explanation for the word, hope. What is a rope? A bunch of strings, threads, vines or fibers twisted together whose tensile strength, its ability to resist the tension of being pulled or stretched, is tremendous. For thousands of years, people have used rope to perform high tension, often dangerous tasks that would be otherwise impossible to achieve. One thread or fiber alone cannot do this work, it demands tens, maybe even hundreds or thousands of fibers joined together, twisted into a powerful cord, to do it. So too, hope is not, or at least should not be, about isolated individuals sitting and waiting passively for someone, even God, to come and pick them up and save them. At its best, hope is about all of those individuals – us – twisting and joining together, resisting the tensions and terrors of tyrants seeking to tear us apart, rendering us useless in the face of their monstrous power. It sounds funny to say it, but hope is a rope: hope is the powerful cord binding us to each other that allows us to tie ourselves to God and inner strength, so that we resist the things and thugs that would kill us if they could; it is the faith, whether religious or secular, that, “So much of what is possible is, in fact, in our hands,” as Roxanne Gay teaches us.
At the end of her famous poem about hope, (the one about how hope is the “”thing with feathers”), Emily Dickinson contemplates her own experience of hope:
I’ve heard it in the chillest land-
And on the strangest sea-
Yet – never – in extremity
It asked a crumb – of me.
The esteemed literature scholar, Helen Vendler, points out that Dickinson is praising the way that her hope is there for her but expects nothing from her in return. Vendler writes, “Even…when [Dickinson] asks the most of it—it never asks anything back, not even a crumb.” I wonder if, in fact, Dickinson is not praising but despairing of hope in this passage. She senses that hope is somewhere out there in the chillest land and on the strangest sea, that is, in the worst, most isolating and depressing circumstances. But in extremity, in those worst times of her own life, hope never asks a crumb of her because she is entirely disengaged from it.
We do not have to be disengaged from hope, in our personal lives, in our communal lives, in our political lives, in our religious lives. We dare not be disengaged from hope in any of the many dimensions of our lives. We dare not equate hope with sunny optimism or the simplistic quietism of passive faith that if we only sit long enough God will make it all better. The Bible reminds us that hope is the narratives of courage and dignity that we tell – alone and together – about our inner power, so that we summon the outer power to fight evil and transform our pieces of the world. The Bible reminds us that hope is a rope, a twisting together of so many people who are alone into a people that is one. The Bible reminds us that as God is alive and on fire with visions of a world that can be renewed, healed, rebuilt, so too, the word, the idea, the passionate commitment called hope, this dreaming in league with God, as Abraham Heschel called it, is alive…as long as we take hold of it and hold on to it for dear life. This most awesome word is not dead, it just begins to live this moment, this day, this new year. Let’s say it, let’s believe in it, let’s act on it, on this word we have said and must continue to say: