In this perilous nexus in history, we should remember the words of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’”
In reality, hope springs from love and faith.
Optimism and pessimism are invariably shallow sentiments at the best of times. Far better to be a realist, tackling life with faith, hope, and love. Faith is confidence in a rational cosmos in which the good is framed by the natural law that transcends human laws, and holds the rich and powerful to account. Love is the willingness to sacrifice self for the good of others, as did Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, and so many other great leaders. In reality, hope springs from love and faith.
The radical importance of hope in human life is illuminated by the phenomenon of playfulness in both children and adults. Play is often said to be engaged in for its own sake, but the vital role it performs in development and the maintenance of both physical and psychological well-being is a tried and tested scientific fact. And people without hope are disinclined to take part in games.
A wonderful example of this is provided in Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman’s memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Driven by a love of tinkering, which is where many children enter the world of play, the preteen Feynman concocts what he calls a ‘puzzle drive’. This prevents him from abandoning any problem until he has solved it, and leads him to untold hours of joy in tinkering with electrical circuits, then radios, and then mathematical problems and theorems.
At age eleven, he scared the wits out of his parents who, after a night out, tried to quietly check on their sleeping child. As they opened the door, his super-loud homemade burglar alarm went off, and the boy leapt out of bed yelling, “It worked! It worked!” The hope that fueled the genius of Richard Feynman sprang from the love of his parents, and the confident community and nation that nurtured him.
Bukovsky endured the ordeal for 12 consecutive days, but his torturers could not break his will.
Hope is also essential at the opposite extreme of human experience in the grim realities of violence and suffering. Between 1963 and 1976, when he was released to the West, the dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, was imprisoned by the Soviet authorities. In 1986, in a forum at the University of Chicago, Bukovsky recounted to the audience how he had been tortured for going on a hunger strike in support of a friend who had been denied a lawyer for his trial. The torture took the form of force-feeding the prisoner through the nostril by means of a thick rubber tube with a metal nozzle. The tube could only penetrate the nostril by bursting through the skin and cartilage, causing massive bleeding which then threatened to suffocate the victim. Obviously, this was intended to cause great pain and discomfort. The procedure was repeated on the following day, just as scabs were forming to heal the wound. Bukovsky endured the ordeal for 12 consecutive days, but his torturers could not break his will. He explained why:
I developed a technique which many people develop under these conditions – you just pretend it doesn’t happen to you; you pretend it’s somewhere outside of you; you just externalise the pain – it’s just somewhere over there, it’s not here. And it does help. You just don’t feel it that way.
In the most dreadful circumstances, Bukovsky never relinquished hope in justice and freedom, in the triumph of good over evil, and a more civilised future. He exemplified the exhortation of Teddy Roosevelt: “When you’re at the end of your tether, tie a knot and hold on.”
It was the great German historian, Leopold von Ranke who told us, “All ages are equidistant from eternity.” The fear we all feel as we confront the severe crises of our world today is perfectly natural, but the despair being engendered is not. Every other society has experienced existential threats, from the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt to the sack of Rome; from the Mongol invasions to the Black Death that killed 20 million people in Europe, almost one-third of the population; from the Mfecane in southern Africa to the inferno of Hiroshima.
Sadly, the cynical, nihilistic, consumer society of the postmodern West has swallowed the utopian ideal of limitless material progress hook, line, and sinker, and presumption is its default position. In times of crisis, that turns quickly, and rather irrationally, to despair. This is an indictment of not only the people responsible for providing leadership, but also of the electorates who have allowed complacency to cloud their judgment and accountability.
The speed with which the response to the pandemic has reduced the West to docility and despair is the most disturbing aspect of the current situation. Freedom, the sovereignty of the people, and the Rule of Law, envied by less fortunate peoples in other parts of the world, are being swept away, enabled by the sense of hopelessness in the hearts of leaderless people.
But leadership is a choice that belongs to each individual human being, and self-leadership too can only be built on hope. If your worldview is rigorously rational, properly informed, and attuned to the transcendent realities of truth, goodness, and beauty, and you believe there is much more to being human than mere consumption, then you will have the hope in your heart that will inspire you to exploit the opportunities to serve your community and build a better world.
As a slave, Frederick Douglass was in a seemingly hopeless condition, but the humiliation and suffering finally sparked a surge of resistance in him. He gave his ‘master’ a thrashing and was never again bullied, escaping to freedom soon afterwards. Similarly, Vladimir Bukovsky discovered in the brutal treatment he endured, how the hope in the heart of just one individual can change the world:
In fighting to preserve his integrity, (a man) is simultaneously fighting for his people…It is such individuals who win the right for their communities to live – even if they are not thinking of it at the time. ‘Why should I do it?’ asks each man in the crowd. ‘I can do nothing alone.’ And they will all be lost. ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’ asks the man with his back to the wall. And everyone is saved.
Our pampered postmodern society shrinks before the responsibility demanded by hope. Martin Luther King Jr., flawed like all of us, was nonetheless crystal clear in defining it: “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”