All too often in dinner conversation, book group discussions, or even my church men’s group meetings, people freely (and sadly) share dire (and confident) thoughts about the future. Humanity, it seems, has doomed life on earth. The promise of America was a charade. How lucky, my age-cohort friends say, were we to live in such a golden age. Our grandchildren will be trapped in a future of deteriorating lifestyles, oppressive autocracies, increasing political violence, scarcities, extinctions, and rampant inequality. Plus Covid and its inevitable sequel. Sometimes I think my friends are channeling Eeyore.
I am increasingly bothered by the unquestioned acceptance of these thoughts in my social circle and find them to embody the biases of privileged, prosperous, educated (often scientifically), white elites (my circle). I find that the banter in deep pessimism, bordering on cynicism, disrespects the accomplishments and struggles of our ancestor activists. We live in the imperfect world their dreams strived to create, sometimes failing, often progressing. A proud air of cynicism, anchored to a belief in an accelerating and inevitable loss of a better past, marks otherwise informed and earnest opinion. Overt white supremacists lament a lost, and presumably more glorious, past. Have prosperous, liberal, anti-racists, in accepting narratives of downward spiral, unwittingly succumbed to a parallel myth?
An implicit consensus prompts unquestioned expressions of impending doom among too many of my contemporary colleagues. Are these views widely held among peoples from communities that have recently emerged from, or are presently mired in, despair? I do not know but suspect not. Indeed, combining extreme suffering, relentless destruction, and mass death has the power to defeat an individual’s faith. But communities rebound as faith reawakens among survivors, kindles hope, builds on empathy, and motivates virtue.
The image of hope anchors the Christian calendar—in the birth of a child and the rebirth of the spirit. At the same time, the archetypal myth of a fall from grace has plagued Western thought for centuries, infecting science and politics. Has the degeneration of Creation, asks Simon Schama, been inevitable since the first plow scarred the soil (Landscape and Memory)? Or does the temptation to think in this manner risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, sapping confidence from the will do to better?
Perhaps, in an attempt to acknowledge the accurate anger of disaffected youth expressed by Greta Thunberg or maybe as a cry for the forgiveness of social sins history has placed at their doorstep, my friends seem to accept, then discard, the stories disadvantaged and exploited communities tell from generation to generation to kindle hopes of a better future. Theologian Yolanda Pierce has written eloquently to embody the voices of Christian Black women—her grandmother in particular—in America (In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit). No sense of defeat ever tinges these voices. Scholar and author David Oates interprets the biblical Garden of Eden a restorative myth, not the symbol of a lost, pristine world (Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature).
Have we become careless in using our imagination to choose futures, succumbing to the pain of the present moment and extrapolating the surrounding and obvious suffering beyond hope? “Hope” is imagination’s most precious commodity. Nothing seems more cruel than to place hope beyond the scope of a child’s heart. To shortchange hope is to advance cynicism. To dream the cynic’s dream and act accordingly is to clear the path to destruction.
The likelihood of defeating idealism does not inevitably rise in proportion to the daunting scale of a challenge. Nor does progress, however conceived, necessarily follow hope and good intention. The wishful illusions of Pollyannish perspective must not displace Eeyore’s discouraging depression. The future inevitably unfolds in ways unanticipated and unintended. Just muddling through feels unsatisfactory; doing better requires a decent respect for the aspirations and accomplishments of lives lived before our own and a faith that our descendants will see beyond our inescapably compromised visions.
Much heartens me. Poverty has receded in China. Forests have returned to northeast America. Whales have not become extinct. Medicine reverses many malignancies. Vaccines work. Beauty abounds. People migrate, at a minimum to survive, but, in the long run, to find a better life. And even The Flats neighborhood in Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire, flourishes.
The birth of each child restarts a small part of Creation. The parents gaze into the face of the newborn, into the expression of pure innocence, knowing instinctively that compassion is the font of all humanity. May they raise the child with faith that this new person, like so many others, will strive to extend the circle of compassion across all humanity and throughout nature.