In dark times, it can be hard to see past the bleakness of recent events and look to a brighter future.
What does it matter to pass laws aimed at equity, justice and preservation if they can simply be undone by the next person to lead the country? How do we cope when each day brings news of climate calamities, rampant acts of misogyny and racism, and governments seemingly turning their backs on the principles of democracy and inclusion upon which they were founded?
It can be instructive to look to the people who lived through the same (or worse) and came out the other side. Humans aren’t strangers to pain and fear. Here’s advice from a handful of writers, activists and thinkers on what we can do to keep hope alive in dark times.
Use Your Skills to Help People
Most of us aren’t in a position to individually change policy or hold power to account. That’s why it’s important to use our individual gifts to help each other make sense of the world and relate to each other, as author Haruki Murakami told an audience at a New Yorker magazine event this month, per Quartz:
“I was wondering what could I do for the people who have suffered. But I thought, ‘What I can do is to write good fiction.’ After all, when I write a good story, good fiction, we can understand each other if you are a reader and I’m a writer,” Murakami said. “There is a special secret passage between us, and we can send a message to each other. So I think (writing good stories) is a way I can contribute to society or people in the world.”
Writers, of course, will write, as Toni Morrison wrote in her essay for The Nation, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear”:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
Of course (and thankfully), not everyone is a writer. Do what you can. That might mean organising a gathering to brainstorm ways to help neighbours or other people who are struggling; donating to important causes and encouraging your friends and family members to do the same; canvassing for politicians you believe in; sending out an ongoing email newsletter with important information; or a million other things.
Do you have time? Money? A technical skill that could be put to good use? Nothing is too small to make a difference — all of the individual actions add up.
A Few People Can Make a Difference
Journalist and activist Rebecca Solnit has had a long career covering the environment, feminism, politics and art. Her 2003 book Hope in the Dark is a must-read in these times of turmoil and divisiveness.
For The Guardian, Solnit highlights one of the most important takeaways from that book in relation to the fight against climate change: That small groups of people can lead to profound change.
Noting that at the beginning of the 21st century, renewable energy was expensive and inefficient and yet now it is capable of essentially replacing our reliance on fossil fuels, Solnit writes that it’s “awe-inspiring” to watch a once-small movement introduce such rapid change.
The histories of change that have made me hopeful are often about small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition. Whether they were taking on slavery in antebellum USA or human rights in the Soviet bloc, these movements grew exponentially and changed consciousness and then toppled institutions or regimes. We also don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or catastrophic ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.
Be a ‘Prisoner of Hope’
Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is also optimistic after a recent report from the UN said humans need to make urgent, revolutionary change to stave off the worst affects of climate change. Not because the news was good, but because cultivating a sense of hope even after the worst news is what will get us through. She told The Guardian:
I’ve learned from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be a ‘prisoner of hope’, a great expression that he uses. That means the glass may not be half full, but there’s something in the glass that you work on. Hope brings energy.
That means, as Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, embracing small wins when you get them, and not expecting perfection at every turn. Have continued hope in the things you can change.
A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go lounge around until the end of time. Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I’ve long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognise the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win, and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.
Live As Decent People
As Solnit noted in her piece in The Guardian, people have always faced the worst of humanity and continued fighting for justice.
Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a gulag for his work with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, recalls his mentor saying: “They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”
Looking to our collective history is instructive. People died, and are dying. But giving up hope and doing nothing is not an option, as Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark:
Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.
This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change, and deep, profound shifts in ideas, perspective, and frameworks for broad parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).
Hope, then, is not about believing everything is fine and wonderful and turning a blind eye. It is about believing what we do matters.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.
Push Out Apathy
What all of these tips have in common is the focus on doing something, even when it seems that nothing you do will make a difference. This, in my opinion, runs counter to a lot of the messaging among certain internet communities and cultural commentators even though they claim to object to what is currently happening in the world.
Some cynicism is good — necessary, even. But too much can lead to apathy, and apathy leads to inaction. Apathetic people don’t fight for a better future; they settle into the status quo, while complaining that someone else should change it and judging those who don’t do it perfectly. Writes James Baldwin in Notes for a Hypothetical Novel:
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
Progress in any arena is long and fraught. People with power — whether that’s men accused of sexual assault or politicians who ignore the destruction of the planet to appease their donors — do not easily let it go. “Change is rarely straightforward … sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution,” writes Solnit. “Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.”
The only way to effect change to is to make a lot of noise and take action. “I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands,” writes Baldwin. “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”