hope is (and is not) the thing with feathers

Emily Dickinson, mythological heroine of recluses everywhere choosing to locate themselves precisely nowhere, once wrote, “hope is the thing with feathers.” And then she looked longingly out her single attic window and concluded, “eh.”

Dickinson wasn’t wrong (nor would I be so foolish as to claim anything definitive about her or her poetic visions). Hope is the thing with feathers. It’s also not the thing with feathers. Hope is believing both statements and neither of them at the same time; it’s courting paradox and then making all sorts of nasty love to it. It’s a procreative act that goes on regardless of results; there’s plenty of pleasure in the activity itself, no other justification necessary.


In a poetry class I took in college, our teacher invited us to begin our analysis of any poem with the question, what prompted the utterance? In other words, we started with a leap of empathetic imagination. Why now? Why this voice? Hope is never the wrong answer to this question, and it’s also not entirely right. Still, let’s take its rightness as a given. Behind any artistic endeavor is hope: you know it might not make a difference, and yet you know it will always makes a difference somewhere to somebody, and so you act with a sense of futility and necessity (even urgency; your voice is needed right now and never). I’ll take it a step further: behind every bit of communication is hope. Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. Behind every human act is hope. You waking up in the morning, even if it doesn’t feel chosen nor consequential, is hopeful movement. Your day might not amount to anything, and yet by virtue of your participation in it, it’s already and always everything. Good for you for waking up, and good for everyone everywhere. Getting out of bed is defiance. It’s resistance. To what? To all the negative energy out there that would restrain you, to all the negative energy out there that promises to end you (that will, in fact, succeed in ending you at some point). Every breath is a mockery of that energy. You breathe positivity. No matter that it goes into a void because it also penetrates substance and creates fullness. Hope is willed awareness, an activity in itself that inspires other activity. Hope denies nothing and affirms everything. Yes, suffering is there. I see it and act both with it and against it. I will never, nor would I ever, choose to destroy it. This I cannot do, and why would I want to? Suffering is in hope as much as hope is in suffering. If hope is both the cause and consequence of my breathing, I can’t wish it away any more than I can wish away suffering. In hope, there is everything; in suffering, there is nothing. And there it is, the pure play of paradox dancing before consciousness. Let it be there. You don’t really have a choice anyway.

Hope is not absolution. It is not abdication of responsibility, but recognition and acceptance of just how responsible you are, and then the corollary of action that must follow awareness in order for that awareness to matter. Why see if you don’t plan to move? How dare you think of going back to sleep, consoling yourself with the illusion of vision. Your awareness is a glimpse of what might yet become, but nothing is possible without action. Change is inevitable; the particular change is not. That comes, at least (and always), from you.


Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for the hope you’re already giving me, and I’m only a few chapters into your work, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. I now share a taste of your manna with any readers I’m fortunate to have:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.

Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented , as though we are starting from scratch , when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing alternatives . What we dream of is already present in the world .

“ Not everything that is faced can be changed , but nothing can be changed until it is faced , ” said James Baldwin . Hope gets you there ; work gets you through .

The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable , inevitable , and invulnerable , and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view . In other words , when you don’t know how much things have changed , you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change .

None of the changes were inevitable , either — people fought for them and won them .

Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution . Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long – dormant seeds .

We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision . And yet , and of course , everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous , pointless , or criminal , unless it is far away , was long ago , or , ideally , both . These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep .

And so we need to hope for the realization of our own dreams , but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations .

All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination , in hope . To hope is to gamble . It’s to bet on the future , on your desires , on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety . To hope is dangerous , and yet it is the opposite of fear , for to live is to risk .

Hope just means another world might be possible , not promised , not guaranteed . Hope calls for action ; action is impossible without hope .

To hope is to give yourself to the future , and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable .

Although she defined what follows within the context of George W. Bush’s re-election, it feels relevant in our present reality of Donald Trump. It is a call to hope and action, not the trapping despair of “the Conversation.”

vowed to keep away from what I thought of as “ the Conversation , ” the tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything was , a recitation of the evidence against us —

but hearing people have the Conversation is hearing them tell themselves a story they believe is being told to them . What other stories can be told ? How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers , not just listeners ?

And back to hope itself as galvanizing political force:’

“ The test of a first – rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time , and still retain the ability to function , ” but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other , and since it is not all good it must all suck royally . Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is , “ One should , for example , be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise . ”

[hope is] an ability to work for something because it is good , not just because it stands a chance to succeed .

Inside the word emergency is emerge ; from an emergency new things come forth . The old certainties are crumbling fast , but danger and possibility are sisters .

The government and the media routinely discount the effect of activists , but there’s no reason we should believe them or let them tally our victories for us .

Such speech aims to tranquilize and disempower the populace , to keep us isolated and at home , seduced into helplessness , just as more direct tyrannies seek to terrify citizens into isolation .

Despair demands less of us , it’s more predictable , and in a sad way safer . Authentic hope requires clarity — seeing the troubles in this world — and imagination , seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable .

if they are doomed to lose , they don’t have to do very much except situate themselves as beautiful losers or at least virtuous ones .

Fire , brimstone and impending apocalypse have always had great success in the pulpit , and the apocalypse is always easier to imagine than the strange circuitous routes to what actually comes next .

There’s a kind of activism that’s more about bolstering identity than achieving results , one that sometimes seems to make the left the true heirs of the Puritans . Puritanical in that the point becomes the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results . And puritanical because the somber pleasure of condemning things is the most enduring part of that legacy , along with the sense of personal superiority that comes from pleasure denied . The bleakness of the world is required as contrasting backdrop to the drama of their rising above .

Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism . And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful , alienated , and isolated , joy is a fine initial act of insurrection .

Let us then experience joy in the act of seeing truly, not away from it, which is then not joy but a chimera of happiness. Let us live in hope, which sees truly and reaches the conclusion of purposeful, necessary action; despair sees truly and reaches a conclusion of inevitable surrender and paralysis. To the question, “what’s the point?,” despair might say, “there is none,” and then choose to do nothing. Hope might agree that there is no point and then choose to do something anyway; indeed, it may choose to do something because there is no point. Since there’s no point – no end, no purpose – we are free to make one. What a dreadful, glorious liberty we have in existence!

We get to be what we will, so let’s be honest and careful about what we will. Hope brings us into our will. Any act is an act from its sturdy foundation. We don’t need to know that to act. As Albert Camus ultimately claimed in the wake of Sisyphus as metaphor for the truth of being, “the point is to live.”

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