The Lantern Waste

"Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate..."

There's a triumphant, stirring theme that wends its way through Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." I've skipped right to the end, because those were the lines that first came to mind. But I could have just as easily rattled off the first stanza - "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!-- / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem" - or the second - "Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal; / Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul."

I've been finding brilliant red leaves in the drifts of dead brown lately. Metaphorically, that is, since autumn is coming slowly to Pennsylvania. I mean that by keeping my ears open, by listening around the edges of the negativity, I've been hearing some things and meeting some people who are doing the kinds of things that give me... dare I say it? A little hope.

I was listening to an interview with Rebecca Solnit in which she talked about communities rising from the ashes of disasters, and I jotted down a thought.

The future belongs to the hopeful, who have the strength to see through the present reality to a possible world built not in spite of, but because of the tireless, daily work of flawed human beings who are, though aware of their shortcomings, nonetheless willing to try.

That's not to say that everything will turn out alright, not tomorrow and not ever. We have no guarantees. There's a darker side, too, because while some of us may hope for beautiful things, others hope for destruction. A contorted hope, perhaps, but there even so. For example, I've been reading about Germany in the Zwischenkriegszeit, the period between the two wars. Here is a "community," or at least a great mass of people, who rose up amidst the ashes of an angry, hurting nation, and they built something, realized a hope, but it was a twisted hope that gave birth to a dark world.

Yet it could have been otherwise.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes of how the elite were brought within the mass of the totalitarian movements, that they despised the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, and while they perhaps saw through the propaganda and the demagoguery, in their bitterness they wanted nothing short of complete destruction.

I have to admit that I have expressed similar sentiments: that sometimes I think it would be easier if the whole thing would just burn. If we cannot repair the mounting harms against each other, against the earth, then why not just let it all go before the remote justice of the meteor?

But there's something (forgive me, Rick) a little cowardly or even perhaps lazy in that sentiment. The elites may have been correct in identifying the rotten core behind the living face of society, but their willingness to commit an even greater crime hardly improved the situation.

"If we abstract from thick conceptions of courage that a culture may put forward in a particular historical period - whether martial valor or counting coups or maintaining a stiff upper lip or being true to one's conscience - and ask in the most general terms what it is about courage that makes it a human excellence, the answer, I think, is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence. [...] In different times, in different cultures, there may be different risks; but as long as we are alive and human we will have to tolerate and take risks. The courageous person is someone who is excellent at taking those risks. That is why courage counts as a virtue: it is an excellent way of inhabiting and embracing our finite erotic** nature." {Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear}

Hope is mere wishful thinking without courage, and courage is that virtue which does not back down in the face of the awful, the unimaginable. Courage keeps someone working toward the world they want to see by living, insofar as it is possible, as if that world were already the way things are. (This, by the way, is why the end cannot justify the means: we can never rise to the ideal if we live down to our present poverty.) But to do so is, of course, to take a great many risks. To live openly trans is to be subject to a social and too often physical violence. To simply be black or female is, as we've been so recently reminded, to live with consistent threats to our every attempt to assert agency in a world built out of entrenched hierarchies of power.

And these are my red leaves, made all the more visible against the backdrop of current events: that there are still courageous, hopeful people, finding practical ways to live the reality of a better world. Perhaps if we fix our sights on those beacons, we'll find our way back home.

** For anyone wondering what the hell that's supposed to mean: "By erotic I follow a basically Platonic conception that, in our finite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire for that which (however mistakenly) we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good."