I read an article recently by Ian Bogost with the self-explanatory title, “I’m Starting to Give Up on Post-Pandemic Life.” After two long years of living with the “novel” coronavirus, there is still no real end in sight for what now feels “ancient and eternal” by Bogost’s description, and his article chronicles the grief, exhaustion, and increasing resignation he felt approaching Christmas – a time that should by most popular (or at least commercial) conceptions be sparkling with joy, energy, and hope.
It was an interesting, if deflating, read, and I was struck by his final thought. He reminisces on the plans for “after coronavirus” that he and his young family made back in early 2020, his language capturing the innocent confidence of early pandemic life that only hindsight can call naivete. As the entire country picked up sourdough bread-baking and flooded social media with videos of the goofy things they were doing to keep themselves sane on day seven of lockdowns, no one was imagining that two years later we would be this haggard and fractured and still very much dealing with a global pandemic. Bogost concludes his ruminations with, “Everyone knows the past is gone, but now the past’s future feels lost too.”
We came to grips early on with the fact that the pandemic is a thief – of life, certainly, for the hundreds of thousands of people gone too soon, but also of experiences. It has stolen graduations, weddings, senior recitals, concerts, dream vacations planned for years, family reunions, and so many more moments, big and small, that mark our passage through life. They were moments we couldn’t get back. “Everyone knows the past is gone.”
But until I read Bogost’s concluding line, I hadn’t considered the perspective that the pandemic was stealing the future, or at least the vision of the future we had when we celebrated the arrival of a new day, a new month, a new year, and a new decade two years ago at New Year’s, just before our worlds fell apart. It’s not just about how many more moments or experiences will be taken – it’s about how the pandemic has transformed the way we look ahead into time. It’s not just deciding whether or not to pursue that grad program next year because COVID has restricted funding opportunities and lowered acceptance rates; it’s reckoning with a systemic instability so intense that planning of any kind feels fruitless, causing an operational paralysis that is as demoralizing as it is debilitating. What’s the point of looking to the future at all if we’re stuck in this interminable nightmare of “now”? What are the odds of things changing for the better?
But contrary to the set-up, I am not concluding on a council of despair here. I’m not even really interested in talking about the pandemic (excuse me, just unearthing this lede I buried, won’t be a moment…). Bogost’s lament that the past’s future feels lost, which smacked of despair, made me pause because it actually brought something into focus for me that is much larger than the pandemic, namely the surprising, jarring, gritty, tenacious, true nature of hope.
For some, hope is tied to emotion. When life feels good, when the ducks are in a row, when signs all point to the road being smooth, then we can be hopeful about the future.
For some, hope is actually expectation in disguise, which I imagine is the more prevalent and certainly the more insidious mindset. Expectation may masquerade as hope, but it is really the hidden refuge of our sense of control – the rigidity of our own desires unburdened by the mess of others’ humanity or the brokenness of the world. We expect other people to behave in certain ways, we expect to be able to obtain the things we want, we expect the future to play out as we’ve planned, we expect a million things we don’t actually have the power to effect, and their failure to materialize reveals to us how deep our human helplessness actually runs. This confrontation with our own lack of control is often a greater affront to our sensibilities than the mere fact of our plans going awry.
Either way, the last two years haven’t given us much to feel positive about and every day is a new obliteration of our expectations, so if our hope is tied to either of those things, we’re going to have a bad time.
Apparently I differ from Wikipedia here, but I think of hope a little differently. I conceive of hope as trust extended into the future – trust in God, trust in another, or trust in yourself. Understanding hope in this way takes it out of the realm of the saccharine and gives it space to move even when things seem hopeless.
I have found myself returning recently to a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien – a stupendously gifted and deeply human writer who had the uncanny knack of articulating emotions that most of us can barely process we’re feeling, much less put into words. One of my favorite examples is this:
“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”
This is from The Return of the King, at a point in the story when there is nothing left to propel our heroes forward beyond sheer grit. The Ring is ultimately destroyed (spoiler alert, I guess), not because Sam or Frodo have any remaining confidence in their survival or optimism about their lives following the completion of their quest, but because they simply keep trudging forward in spite of those facts. They are drenched in grief but not drowned. They are wearied by toil but plod on anyway. When their hearts fail, they fall back on the will, which strengthens and rises to the occasion.
That’s moral enough, to be honest, but what I particularly love about this quote is the gorgeous inflection moment captured in the phrase “even as hope died… or seemed to die.” Because even when he was brought to the extreme edge of himself, I don’t think Sam’s hope actually died. I would argue that it was purified. When he set out from Rivendell, he had envisioned his road stretching to Mordor and back – through peril and mischance, certainly, but all the way home, nevertheless. In the passages preceding the above excerpt, he accepts that this will not happen. This acceptance isn’t a loss of hope but a surrender of expectation, and it made room for something more powerful to take its place.
All Sam had left was the task before him and the trust he had in Frodo and himself to see it done. And see it done, he would. When all that was left was this kind of hope – unrecognizable to Sam, but recognizable to the author whose parenthetical tip-off tells us that appearances can be deceptive – Sam becomes untouchable. Despair, weariness, and the length of road left to go had no power to prevent him in its accomplishment.
And that’s been me for the last year. Perhaps that’s you, too. Everything has been stripped away and the only thing left is the task before you – your job, raising kids, fighting illness, navigating family drama, just surviving. In the face of it all, if you can find something to trust, you can hope. I don’t know what that means for you. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s your family or friends. Maybe it’s your own heart. Maybe it’s the sure knowledge that either the world will end tonight or the sun will come up tomorrow and you can trust the universe that those are the only two possibilities. Maybe it’s trusting that every day, there’s a baby discovering their toes for the first time, or that somewhere there’s an old, gray-haired couple walking down a street holding hands. Maybe it’s trusting that factually speaking, someone today had the biggest grin on Earth, and their joy was real even if Guinness never puts them in the record books. If you can find something to trust, you can hope, and hope will fuel you even if it doesn’t feel perfect.
That seems pretty resonant to me. 2021 didn’t go like I thought it would, and I’m not feeling tremendously optimistic about 2022. Many of us are skidding into the end of this year with more sadness, grief, and temptation to despair than we ever have before, even if the fundamentals of our lives may be holding steady. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t really know what to do with that. So I’m using my dusty, mostly unused corner of the internet to remind myself – it’s okay if hope right now feels hard and looks gritty and has claws, because it’s not meant to feel like blind optimism.
Hope is meant to dig in. It is meant to persist. Its very nature is not to make us feel warm and fuzzy or deliver to us everything we demand of life, but to sustain us in trial and animate us when the weight of a disordered world is felt most oppressively on our shoulders. Hope is an act of rebellion in a world despondent, a work of defiance against despair when we have reached the end of our confidence and certainties. It may not look or feel like we expect it to, but it does make us strong enough to face the road ahead.
So that’s where I’m at this New Year’s Eve. Yeah, maybe the past’s future was lost, but hope was not. Maybe life hasn’t worked out as expected and maybe things hurt right now. Sure. I’ll keep trudging on anyway, hardened only in the sense that I’ve coalesced my will around a kernel of hope that has only seemed to die. It will give me strength as I grit my teeth and move forward. It’s not a Hallmark hope. It is a hope hard-won and precarious. But it is hope, nonetheless.