The Substance of Hope | St. Lawrence University President's Office

The Substance of Hope

Remarks at Martin Luther King Day Celebration - January 18, 2017

“And you will have confidence, because there is hope.” Job 8:11

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:24-25

When the writer Albert Murray died a few years ago in Harlem at the age of 97, his legacy quickly became an extensive bibliography that covered jazz, blues, American society, literature, and the experience of race. Born in Alabama, a graduate of Tuskegee, he had been an Air Force major, a college professor at Colgate, friends of Ralph Ellison and the painter Romare Bearden, and the co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Throughout Murray’s essays, there are gems of insight about Martin Luther King Jr. whom he profoundly admired and understood.

About a half-century ago, Murray sharply called out some leading American academics for their habits of bi-furcating the past and missing the interrelationships of race: “Perhaps the most significant ‘message’ in Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal report on the Battle of Birmingham, 1963, is that [African-Americans], whose great-grandparents were slaves, today think and act more like true descendants of the founding fathers of this nation than do most Americans who snobbishly trace their actual blood lines back to the American Revolution.”

I personally carry those questionable sons-of-the-revolution blood lines on both sides of my family. And yet, I am convinced that we must embrace Murray’s still timely, unvarnished observation: the true descendants of the nation’s founders, those who “will have confidence, because there is hope,” those that insist there is the better dawn after the despairing darkness, are more and more likely to be the people in our society who do not look like me or my grandfathers.

Martin Luther King did not appear on the national stage out of nowhere to claim the double and coupled heritage of American slavery and American revolution. While the liberal arts at Morehouse College were formative, Murray reminds us, “Indeed, in the Atlanta in which King came to his calling, well-trained activist ministers were as plentiful as, say, big-league saxophone players were in the Kansas City of the young Charlie Parker!” Those preachers were grounded in the slavery and suffering, wilderness and freedom stories of the Bible. They took their congregations through the books of Exodus, the Prophets, the Psalms, and Job, who is also an important prophet of Islam. Martin Luther King, I am willing to bet, had another favorite place to apply his intelligent, exploratory “Charlie Parker riffs” on the Bible; he found a different music in the correspondence of the Christian Apostle Paul.

Dr. King lived by a testament of hope, but he also wrestled constantly and heroically with what it means, how it should be represented and best expressed. I wish to take up with you this continuing thread of his mind and ministry. And so, I have a text this evening. It is one that was deeply familiar to our 20th century patriarch Martin. In a letter to a confused people living in a capital city, Paul, a person of several identities and languages, writes, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

There seems to be a lot of ambiguity about hope; it is real, but never certain; it is felt, but never seen; it is immediate, but far away. In an academic community this ambiguity may run deeper or become overshadowed by a prevailing skepticism necessary in the quest for evidence-based knowledge. One lingering indicator of this possible oversight of hope comes from a famous university curriculum dating back to the 1920s and 1930s at Columbia University and the University of Chicago based on classic texts of western culture, also known as “the great books.” If you look back at the outline of that curriculum, variations of which are still used in a number of colleges, there are over one hundred abstract ideas to study or theories that are implied by an extensive reading list in philosophy, science, and literature.

Topics in this expansive syllabus include art, being, beauty, change and chance, eternity, happiness, history, infinity, justice, love, matter, mind, nature, soul, virtue and vice, war and peace, and space. Hope does not make the list of essential concepts in this well-known, traditional course of a supposedly classical education. And yet, hope in human thought and experience, even for open-eyed undergraduates just beginning life’s uncharted journey, is both necessary and contingent, whatever your view of the world is today.

There’s a little book in the Cornell University library that was published in1895 made up of quaint epitaphs found on gravestone markers in New England cemeteries. Some give interesting details of a person’s life, how they lived and what caused their death, even with such irony as, “She lived with her husband fifty years/And died in the confident hope of a better life.”

If it didn’t make me laugh, it would make me sad. As a person happily married for over half his life, I am confident that one’s better self does have to be deferred. But I also have known plenty of people who despair, feel troubled, and are worried deep-down. They must navigate ocean-tossed lives and are grasping for anchors of hope for themselves, for nameless others nearby, and sometimes for their nation. They must wonder at times, does hope exist? Is it otherwise an empty, deceiving promise, not qualified for mention as a philosophical motif by the authors of great books? Where does the beloved community find hope today?

I don’t need to discuss why these doubts are present in our world or why they are magnified at this particular moment of our lives in America. My purpose is not to contextualize American history or offer scholarly analysis of recent circumstances in American democracy. I do feel obligated, however, to talk about the substance of hope and what it must inspire us to do.

While the text suggests an element of patience in order for hope to show up, it would be a terrible and cruel conclusion to draw that the substance of hope is postponed indefinitely, a Platonic form in a can kicked down the endless road. I have lived in some difficult history—tough times and tough places—so let me assure my younger friends that hope is not exclusively in the future. But it is definitely not buried in the past, as if a dormant memory can somehow revive and recollect it into something that it never was in the first place.

One of my favorite Canadian authors, Robertson Davies, has a durable line in Fifth Business, “The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to an idealized past.” I’m a reader and teacher of history—and I’ve got some news for people who want the past remade again. It isn’t and never was great, not for the “greatest generation,” and not for my own generation coming after. The idealized past is a false hope.

I received a Christmas card a few weeks ago from a 95-year-old friend, a woman who was among the first female newspaper journalists to cover politics on Capital Hill with her own by-line. She filed front page stories during the divisive McCarthy era. All the years I have known her, she has always been tough-minded and very careful with words. She signed her card this year, “Celebrate the brave past.” And that is different from an “idealized past.” The “brave past” is the source of our hope, not the backward delusion that the past was a toll-free easy street.

In an unpublished manuscript sermon I recently came across, Dr. King made a careful distinction between hope and desire and another distinction between hope and optimism. Hope can be a slippery word, especially if we confuse it with wanting something that is simply material or self-indulgent in its nature. Saying “I hope for a better GPA this semester,” or “I hope to get a job when I graduate” are expressions of desire and wishful thinking. Those impulses might resemble hope, but they are something else altogether. Hope that is seen is not hope.

Optimism may be an advance attitude that hopes things aren’t as bad as they may appear. It is a rational calculation that is assessing the risk or the possibility of improvement. Optimism runs all the probability equations, gives the over/under odds on the game. Optimism says, “I don’t think I will run out of gas when the dashboard indicator first flashes.” Genuine hope, on the other hand, is the core of our endurance when things really are as bad as they seem, as bad as they can be, and even worse.

Optimism may inform our expectations, but it lacks the substance to fulfill our hopes. Optimism can wilt in the face of trial, disaster, and failure. The arc of optimism swings like a slack pendulum. But hope sustains us in the depth of the hardest issues and the worst times. It brings us through to the other side. It brings us home. Hope is the refusal to give up. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life on Robben Island. Optimism would never have been sufficient, not for a single year or one day. Hope sustained him. It carried him beyond, not just over, his suffering.

In the tight sentences composed by the spiritual refugee Paul, hope is both a noun and a verb. It is both subject and object. But in either case, hope must not stand still; it must be doing and acting for its condition to be achieved. Hope suppresses ego, gets the problem of the self out of the way for a while; it is other-directed, so that hope, in equivalency, is the oxygen required by each breath, always and only, drawn outside ourselves.

When Dr. King quoted Josiah Royce about “the beloved community of memory and hope,” the emphasis in that phrase is on we, not I; on community, not individuality. Hope uses the parts of speech that take the third person, not the singular form. My own strong-willed personal ambition, mental powers, and inner resources are not enough to find realistic hope. Our only hope is to be part of someone or something that others also trust as beloved.

Martin and Coretta King only knew married and family life in their 20s and 30s. Shortly after having their first child, their home was fire bombed. They decided that it was not wise to travel together, so very seldom did they risk it, believing that it gave their children the best chance of having at least one parent survive whatever the world could do to them. In the sermon I mentioned a moment ago, Martin said, “You know I feel discouraged sometimes…Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged every now and then and feel my work’s in vain, but then [the Spirit of Hope] revives my soul again. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole’.”

What can you do when you feel discouraged? As we begin a new semester, I want you to know that in this community of social and intellectual experience, of making friends and facing personal challenges, there is the substance of hope. However, as Wynton Marsalis says often about jazz and also as an ancient letter-writer said to a ragtag minority in Rome, “you have to go to it,” because hope does not just drop in upon our passive readiness. Go to it and it will bring you through; it will bring you to a better place of your seeking.

You may not foresee or notice all the instances giving us a shared hope in a university setting. We can’t force hope upon ourselves, but its substance will and must rise within us. Let no one, whether teasing or adversarial about academic life, try to convince you that we live here in a privileged isolation standing apart from the issues of life and society. What you learn here may seem magical, at least I hope so, but it is also reliably real and realistic.

You will find hope, or perhaps find it again if you have lost it, by going to the big questions, right here, the questions about differentness and sameness in a human community, the questions about principles and plans, the questions about getting involved or walking away. The singular energy of our individual feelings, desires, and optimism will not bring the full measure of what you will need. But rather, in time, committing together to the initiative of hard work and intense study, shared in the bonds of belonging and listening to each other, we attain the hope we often in life cannot see.

Jesse Jackson was with Martin Luther King the night he died. Ever since, he has represented the unbroken line of prophetic voices calling us by our better angels.  For years, Jackson has ended his speeches, “Keep hope alive.” And I won’t argue with his soaring, signature admonition, but the longer I live, the more I realize the inverse is probably a larger truth about the substance of hope. It is hope that keeps us alive.