Rebecca Solnit on Hope.

In a crisis, it is easy to despair. ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ is a good mantra in such situations. Mourning has its place, but our response should be neither blind despair nor blind hope. We need to understand the objective reality and to build our hope from a sound base. We must mourn, analyse and organise, oppose and propose, critique and build.

Another much quoted mantra is Gramsci’s: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. This offers a good warning against both wishful thinking and resignation. But as the writer Mike Marqusee pointed out in a 2012 piece, ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ should not be seen as being opposites. Relentless pessimism can be debilitating but excessive optimism can compromise intellectual clarity. We need rational grounds for optimism. To make hope real we need to invest in it and, in Mike Marqusee’s words, engage in ‘a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable human society, a better human future which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.’

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliantly lucid contributions to understanding the threats and opportunities of our current crisis are great example of this approach; constantly snatching hope from the jaws of despair. Her extraordinary and beautiful ‘Hope in the Dark’ (Original written in 2005, updated third edition in 2016) is just what we need; now and in future.

The hope it describes is not unfounded wishful thinking or “the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine” but a hope grounded in a clear-eyed understanding of what we face and have faced, as well as the possibility of what we could create based on our new awareness.

The dark we are in is not a total absence of light. In fact, there is enough illumination to perceive all around us the elements of different and better ways of doing things. The hope “is in the dark and the edges, not the limelight of centre stage” but it can be detected.

Listing some of Rebecca Solnit’s definitions of this form of hope creates a kind of poetic catalogue of praise for thinking, understanding, imagining, learning and acting in the world and for the world:

Hope…

is a forward-directed energy

is a power you don’t have to throw away

is an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists

means facing realities and addressing them

is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable

demands things that despair does not

is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair

is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities that invite or demand that we act

is an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings

is a basis for action, not a substitute for it

is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point

requires clarity; seeing the troubles in this world … and seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable

is the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand

gets you there; work gets you through

is only a beginning

See also:

What coronavirus can teach us about hope – Rebecca Solnit (Guardian 07/04/20)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

Young people between hope and despair (December 2013)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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