I know I’m not alone in needing hope these days. After the election, Haymarket Books knew a lot of people needed some hope, so they made ebooks of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark available free. I snagged a copy then. And then, after listening to an Advent sermon at church last week that may as well have been titled “Hope in the Dark,” I decided I should go ahead and read it. I did find it helpful, up to a point, but it wasn’t quite the life raft I was wanting.
Originally written in 2004 and updated in 2015, this book examines how action results from and produces hope. No matter where we are, the future is dark, but that simply means we don’t know what it will be and still have power to change it. Solnit writes:
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 recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s that belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
This last bit reminded me of Every Man Dies Alone, where an older couple take what appears to be a futile and fruitless action against Hitler by leaving notes questioning his action around the city. But the couple in the novel is based on a real couple, and their story lives on and inspires. And, even in the world of the book, where they are told what they did was useless, that every note was found and turned in, I can’t help but suspect that a few people who found the notes were changed or encouraged, even if they turned the notes in out of fear.
Solnit points out that change doesn’t happen on a smooth and constant trajectory. It comes in fits and starts, with massive steps forward followed by huge steps backward. Sometimes victory is little more than making sure things don’t get worse. Progress can feel like it happens so slowly that we only see it if we step back. Think of marriage equality and how recently it seemed like an impossibility. History, Solnit notes “is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.” Plus, not every action is going to be perfect. We may need to ally ourselves with people we disagree with on some issues to make progress on others. We may need to accept incremental change at times if there’s to be any change at all. That doesn’t mean we abandon our causes in the face of a small victory, but we can celebrate those small victories while knowing that there’s more work to do.
Perhaps the most heartening part of the book was Solnit’s observations on how people are quick to do good in times of crisis, how people led those with disabilities out of the World Trade Center or how the “Cajun Navy” rescued people during Katrina. They couldn’t do everything, but neither did they throw up their hands in despair and do nothing. This was good for me to read because I have been overwhelmed lately at how little I can do. I can donate, and I can call or write my congressmen, but I can’t demolish the fake news industry or convince everyone who voted for Trump that he’s a liar. I can’t tear apart the electoral college tomorrow. Right now, to some extent, I’m having to wait for the opportunities to act, preparing myself for what might come. But I worry that I’m one of the lazy people Solnit writes about, allowing myself to get mired in despair.
And here is where Solnit’s book fell short a bit for me. The foreword and early chapters were galvanizing about hope and action, but the forms of action Solnit discusses didn’t light me up much. Some of this is simply because a book written in 2004 is going to be focuses on the problems of 2004 and the actions taken around them. She writes largely from an activist lens, going out to marches and demonstrations. This is good work, important work, but I wanted more stories and examples of other work. Solnit focuses on climate change, and she notes late in the book that the climate organizers need to be better at reaching out and giving everyone a place in the movement, whether it’s writing letters or taking direct action.
Right now, while wounds from the election are still fresh, there are almost too many opportunities for action, and I’m having a hard time sorting out which ones are most valuable and where it’s best for me to use my limited time, energy, and money. Solnit was writing from another time, so I wouldn’t expect this book to tell me what to do. But the focus on direct action in the form of demonstrations made me tired and a little frustrated, because that’s something I can’t do on anything like a regular basis.
So, in the end, this book left me with some helpful frames for thinking, but I’m not sure that it gave me much more hope than I had before. It perhaps sanded down some of the spiky edges of my fatalism, so that’s something. And as I keep pondering and looking for the right time and place for action myself, maybe the hope will continue to grow.
And, since it is Advent, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Advent songs of hope.