The other night I heard a massed choir of more than 250 young people ages 10-18 sing “Give Us Hope.”
The key line in the chorus was “give us hope and we’ll show you the way.”
It was a lump-in-the-throat kind of performance as kids from seven choirs, with half an hour rehearsal together, made the walls of Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo, ND, shake.
In an era of gloom and doom, for many global reasons ranging from economics to politics to climate change, it reminded me that the older generations’ responsibilities include giving the younger ones hope.
Hope is a rare and precious thing, especially in the context of the nightly news.
We are certainly providers of problems, and (less often) attempters of solutions. Yet in the midst of our efforts, we need to keep an eye on that longer term picture.
Where is the hope?
Adults, mostly, go to work out of habit. It is what we do, and after years of all the problems reported and various responses to them, we are still here.
Our hope is therefore grounded in habit. We are here today, as we were yesterday. The worry we had yesterday about the world of tomorrow turned out to be not as much of a worry after all.
We have a sense of history, whether we understand it or not, because we are its embodiment. We are history, however old we are; the older we are, the more evidence we embody of the wisdom that “this, too, shall pass.”
My grandmother survived the Spanish Flu in 1918 and tuberculosis before antibiotic therapy. At 103, she reflects more than a century of realized hopes and unrealized disasters.
There is a point in all of our lives when hope is replaced by history, probably about the same time that potential is replaced by a resume of our experience.
Young people have promise and potential, not experience and product. Their lives are oriented to the future, not shaped by their past.
Even if their short lives are scarred with terrible trauma, there is the potential in time for the bad memories of those few years to be diluted or replaced by better ones.
As long, however, as there is hope.
In its absence, there is potential toward realizing a goal, but no accomplishment; travel, but no destination.
Caught between a future without hope or a future that denies the existence of the problems all around us, people recoil into hyper-consumption and self-focus, anxious, depressed, or escape into a video world where – with enough practice, game cheats and ammunition – you can advance to the next level of your quest.
Yet I hear that choir, and what lies behind the words:
Give us hope, not hockey lessons, I-Phones and designer clothes.
Give us hope, not great holidays or dining out.
Give us hope, not vague promises and illusions.
The problem, of course, is that to give hope you need to have it first yourself, and that’s tough for adults these days.
Hope is not wishful thinking. I hope to win the lottery someday – the odds are somewhat improved if I buy a ticket, though not by much. But this isn’t really hope, is it? The more money I spend on lottery tickets, the more my wishful thinking is replaced by desperation.
Hope is grounded in conviction, in faith, more than in reasons or evidence. After all, we are talking about the future – just because something worked that way before, doesn’t mean it ever will again.
In the midst of uncertainty, there is both comfort and escape in religious hope. The danger is when hope of something better beyond this world encourages us to do nothing while we are in this one.
Across society as a whole, hope is hard to sell. While it is oriented to the future, hope is actually grounded in the lessons drawn from history.
History sifts through the evidence of how people have chosen to live together and identifies what works and what doesn’t, what is good and what is bad, if we have the courage to look at it and to see things (and ourselves) as they really were – and by extension, as they really are today.
Hope without thought, however, is merely blind.
Our hope guides a selective reading of what is best for us, what is good for us to remember, not just allowing the bad stuff to overwhelm the possibilities that are present all around us.
In our world, we have witnessed the loss of group conviction, group belief, in the public sphere. By ourselves as individuals, we lack the resources, the insight, the knowledge, that past communities relied upon in difficult times to chart their course toward a better future.
Wisdom is expressed in community, because community is required to recognize wisdom, to marshal the shared intellectual, spiritual and practical resources of a group of individuals into a common purpose – expressing together a common hope.
It is therefore a cop-out to say we have hope in our young people.
We have hope that they will be more mature than we are, that they will see the world more clearly than we do, that they will resist temptations more effectively than we have resisted temptations, that they will be wiser than we were.
Why should they be? Are we wiser than our parents? Have we made better choices than they did, for more noble reasons? The argument would be no, or at least, not by much. This isn’t hope – this is just wishful thinking.
Add to this problem the ways in which our social and cultural structures exclude or disempower young people and their ideas, and you will see even wishful thinking fade away, as they don’t have the opportunity to act on what they understand.
We can’t expect young people to do it all, when we have the power to do a great deal and choose to do little.
We need to find expression of the hope within us or, in their turn, they will have no reason to hope.
They need hope from us, not the reverse.
They need hope, not political posturing or petty bickering.
They need hope, not reasons why things couldn’t possibly be done another way.
They need hope, not wilful blindness to the damage adults inflict on each other and on the planet.
They need hope, not excuses.
If we can give them hope, they will show us the way we can travel together.
Combine the wisdom and knowledge of the elders with the ingenuity and energy of the youth, and all things become possible.