A Treasure Map to Buried Hope: Rebecca Solnit’s Revitalizing Thoughts on Despair, Resignation, and How to Grow Hope


“Hope is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair, and through digging tunnels, cutting windows, opening doors, or finding the people who do these things.”

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Artists are those immutable souls who pick up the burdens we’ve shirked, who move them forward when we cannot, or, at least, sit next to them, watchful. They employ words, color, tone, harmony, and dissonance to create what Picasso called “the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Poets rely on metaphor, like Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” in which she imagines hope as a delicate, constant force:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops—at all
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet—never—in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of me.

In this inaugural week, ceremonies of new beginnings and passing stewardship, regardless of political affiliation, profession, or opportunity, never has so much been pinned on hope.

In the maelstrom of change— promised, threatened, or otherwise—don’t we all want a warm hand, a guiding light, something bigger and better? I do, and when I hear the words “I just can’t…” followed by something that indicates the speaker has withdrawn from the conversation, from the effort, from the fight, I know others do, too. And never has hope seemed so distant.

Rebecca Solnit—activist, writer, essayist, and flag bearer of the human march towards expanded consciousness and empathy—takes up the cause of hope in her timely and timeless Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Except, unlike Dickinson, Solnit doesn’t tell us what hope is; she draws us a conceptual map of where it is, and how to find it.

“I wrote this book in 2003 and early 2004 to make the case for hope. The text that follows in some ways of its moment—it was written against the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq. That moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have to dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginable magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense.”

The most powerful tool Solnit gives us is a new present-state narrative. Today’s status quo is yesterday’s revolution, a notion we should all mentally abide. Solnit reminds us of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the last of the laws criminalizing gay and lesbian sex, arguing it was not the court decision that preempted change but rather a society that demanded “we all count,” to which the courts finally assented. Solnit emphasizes: “We are not who we were not very long ago.” How exciting—how enthralling—it was this past election to see hundreds of women, pilgrims of sorts, peacefully, purposefully placing “I voted” stickers around Susan B. Anthony’s grave or the millions of women marching on this very day. All being present, counting, taking active part in a world enabled through Anthony’s hard work.

We owe more to Solnit on this front than many realize. Solnit coined the term “mansplaining” in her 2014 book Men Explain Things to Me. This phrase was seminal—I can’t believe I existed without it. Finally, we had a word for that moment (because it is a moment, not just a pattern of speech or set of words, not even a personality). It is a moment that crushes female psyche and power. A moment when a soft lecture by a paternal male is preempted by a concatenation of words that essentially reads: “Look, you wouldn’t know this because you’re not a man or of my world, which is also the world, but don’t worry, I’ll tell you how it is…” That moment has happened to me, us, frequently. It makes us the outsider, the other, the dependent. And I finally have a word for it. I can talk about it in a common language—as a way not to diminish and dismiss but to communicate and enlighten. To spread hope.

And we need to. Although we’ve come far, we’re not there yet. It is ridiculous that I have to explain why we should all be feminists (thankfully, someone much more cogent and literate has done this, so now I direct people to writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists). Or maybe I’ll buy them a T-shirt—just this fall, Dior, the most lady-like of all fashion houses, had models march in “We should all be feminists” T-shirts in its summer 2017 runway, beating the much-needed point that femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive.

Things are changing, things have changed.

Solnit argues that hope abounds, but it also has limits, and she advises us to parse out its nuances and be aware of its vulnerabilities. Hope is built on the tangible, the happening, on facts and outcomes, yet it has a necessary but often invisible corollary: faith. Faith, Solnit reminds us, “… endures when there’s no way to imagine winning in the foreseeable future; faith is more mystical.” Faith is what it takes to reimagine the future when confronted with the reality that

“Activism isn’t reliable, it isn’t fast, it isn’t direct, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets […] the terrain of their action is usually immaterial, the realm of the symbolic, political discourse, collective imagination.”

Solnit encourages a return to faith as a way to nurture hope. But faith alone is not enough either; it must be coupled with action. Brainpickings.org’s creator and fellow Solnit follower, Maria Popova, in a January 2017 On Being interview, suggests that faith and critical thinking bridge cynicism and hope. She argues we must apply ourselves—through curiosity, uninterrupted intimacy with our own thoughts, and patient connectedness with others—to making things better.

The interconnection is critical because it unlocks hope’s most enduring aspect: its ability to grow exponentially. I’m reminded of Maya Angelou, a woman who experienced unthinkable cruelty, which might have been her legacy had James Baldwin not urged her to chronicle her experiences. In her seven memoirs, Angelou extends herself and chronicles a message of compassion, tolerance, and equality. Her lasting effect on humanity is not just living her own life; it is teaching others how to live theirs. Her lasting effect is growing hope.

As times march and things change, or don’t change, Solnit’s most subtle but overarching point is hope (like love) is a verb. To find it and grow it demands work, careful treading, and extreme patience. Solnit returns to her work on the anti-nuclear-testing movement in Nevada, a cause she’s influenced through much effort.

“A few years ago I went back to the Test Site or another spring action, and there I met several students from Evergreen Collect in Washington who had decided to come down because they had been reading Savage Dreams in class. If you’re lucky, you carry a torch in to that dark.. and if you’re really lucky, you’ll sometimes see to whom you’ve passed it, as I did on that day.”

When I contemplate hope, it appears as a buffalo. Earlier this fall, you might have heard about buffalo roaming the Indiana prairie for the first time in a century. You might have imagined them bewildered, having traveled from Wyoming, surprising a few Hoosiers but soon settling in. The reality is, the returned presence of buffalo has been the long, hard work of local stakeholders and The Nature Conservancy (an organization my husband and I enthusiastically support and for which we fundraised when I hiked the Appalachian Trail).

This is what hope looks like: twenty years of sustained effort and collaboration, buffalo on an Indiana prairie.

We are neither defeated nor helpless. Solnit lifts our chin to redirect our gaze from wherever it has rested of late: our tired, worn hands, our myopic navel-gazing, or just at the dirt in despair. She reminds us that hope is in front of us, to keep that chin up, and to believe, as Dickinson promised, “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.”

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Rejuvenate your tired feelings of hope and love by reading Maya Angelou on extending our generous hearts, and Ana Deavere Smith on being connected to others. A finally, a further note of the importance of solitude and reflection in times of shouting.



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