by Diana Rahim
“Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them.” – Rebecca Solnit
I know you will believe me when I say I had a hard time figuring out how to write this letter. It felt absurd that I have to write about hope in these times. On the other hand, it is precisely in these moments when hope becomes far more real, far more threatened, and far more precious. It’s not simply a topic that I can discuss with an intellectual distance anymore, but a real source of motivation that I am struggling to understand and hold on to.
Sometime back when I had been obsessively thinking about the concept of hope, I had a strange dream. I was having a conversation with someone when they suddenly asked: “What if everything from this moment on stays exactly the same? From now on, nothing changes, nothing improves anymore”. Immediately things began to fall apart. The lightbulbs began to burst, things began to malfunction, and even the walls began to crumble. I woke up the way we usually wake up from nightmares, suddenly and with immediate relief. Relief that things were not (physically, literally) falling apart around me.
The message of my dream was that our present reality and what happens right now is dependent on the conviction we hold for our future. If we give up on the future or believe that things will never change, we determine that things will fall apart. More importantly, the loss will not only be felt when we reach the future–It will be felt immediately. Relinquish the future and you relinquish the present.
Rebecca Solnit had discussed this difficult tangle that is hope in her book Hope in The Dark. Her book was written during the Bush administration, a context in which the US government had invaded Iraq but also when the world saw the largest ever protest against that very war with 600 cities protesting in unison on February 15, 2003, numbering an estimated of 6-11 million people. It was a moment of great international solidarity, and yet it seemed as if they (we!) failed. The troops had been sent in anyway. But this resistance was still necessary. Solnit wrote that those months of protests delayed the eventual invasion of Iraq, which gave time for civilians to evacuate or brace for onslaught. She added that protests also successfully deterred the Bush administration from using the “shock and awe” saturation bombing in Baghdad. These may seem like small wins in the face of the larger loss that was the eventual invasion, but these “minor wins” translate to thousands, possibly even tens of thousands of lives saved if the US government were allowed to proceed as they please.
To have and to move with hope is to move and act without the need for the certainty of pure victory. It is to understand that we are acting not just for specific results, but out of a larger principle that will not be quashed even as we are met with defeats. Every move, action, and attempt matters because no matter how “small” a victory seems, a life is a life, and it is always worth it to have avoided the worst possible outcome that would have happened if nothing was done.
A lot of the times, the people who are dismissive about attempts for change are people who are not oppressed by the realities of the present. They are not as invested with change because they don’t see the need for it since their state of affairs will remain undisturbed anyway. But if I may quote Zadie Smith from her book of essays Feel Free:
Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighbourhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
But of course, it’s not only the privileged and obnoxious who turn their noses away from attempts for change and the courage to hope. Some are allergic to attempts for change not because they are comfortable, but because they are traumatised. They have suffered deeply and they believe that to give whatever little energy you have left to a cause that they believe is doomed to fail is not worth it. Personally speaking, I have felt burned-out many, many times while engaging with the issues I care about. Does it matter that we do this? Will things change? Many times I have felt utterly dispirited and defeated because I do not see any tangible returns that reflect the amount of mental, emotional, and physical effort that I’ve given for the causes I care about. I know many others share this feeling.
But what use is this despair at the end of the day? What kind of life will we lead if we carry with us this feeling of inevitable doom? Is there a way to understand the reality of pain, difficulty, and brutality so endemic to human life, in understanding that the arc of justice and peace has always been long, uncertain and non-linear, while also refusing to cave to totalising despair? And even if we do despair, can we harness the energy of this anger and sadness into a force that makes us move against oppressive forces in our world, instead of consigning ourselves to immobility and defeat?
Ronald Aronson had written in the article “The Privatization of Hope” for The Boston Review about how Hope is something we understand primarily as something we need to have for ourselves. We have our personal hopes, but what about collective ones? It seems that there has been a dwindling of collective forms of hoping and this is due to seismic shifts in social systems that have privileged individualism and the dismantling of collective forms of living and relating. He explains it as so:
We have not lost all hope over the past generation; there is a maddening profusion of personal hopes. Under attack has been the kind of hope that is social, the motivation behind movements to make the world freer, more equal, more democratic, and more livable.
Not only does this privatization weaken collective capacities to solve collective problems, but it also deadens the very sense that collectivity can or should exist, as the commons dissolves and social sources of problems become hidden. This leads to pathologies that, according to a sociologist Edsall cites, “undermine solidarity as the glue of social life.
Individual hope may be powerful, but it is limited, especially when confronted with failure. When we hope in individual terms, we suffer in individual terms too. Social and structural failures are subsumed into an individual who then has to bear all blame and cost. We already see this in the way the individual is often made to bear the mark of personal failure for things like poverty, depression, and other forms of distress that have in fact been deeply aggravated by our current unequal systems.
Recently, as we are all going through this pandemic, I’ve seen an article telling people that it is a great time for upskilling. Even in a pandemic made worse because of our extractive, capitalist system, the logic of personal responsibility and pushing ourselves to be more productive workers for capital still manages to slip in. We don’t need to upskill to be better workers. We need to be treated as human beings whose basic needs should be met regardless of our capacity to meet the ableist demand to be “productive” in a way that is compensated and understood by a capitalist system. The social systems that have aggravated this crisis need to be radically changed. The way we relate to each other needs to radically change.
What does collective hoping look like? It looks like making demands beyond the fulfilment of individual needs and towards collective betterment and liberation. It is not enough that if I were to get sick, I can have enough money to access healthcare. No, that is merely a personal hope. To hope collectively means that we want healthcare, and a host of many other basic human rights, to be accessible to all unconditionally. It is not enough that I can survive, I want us all to survive.
Here then, at least to me, is the answer: I know for sure that I have been able to keep moving despite the burnout I sometimes feel not just because I understand I am moving for something beyond myself and beyond the pleasure of immediate returns, but because I have received care and solidarity from friends and others. We move, act, try, and celebrate incremental victories when they come because we understand that we do all of these things for something beyond our individual self and needs, but we are only able to sustain ourselves when we have each other’s support.
This is not a romanticisation of heroic self-sacrifice for the “greater good,” this is understanding that moving collectively and in solidarity is a far fiercer, sustainable, and far-reaching force than individual hope. This is understanding that the burden of trying, of demanding and creating change, is not something that we shoulder individually, but together. To refuse isolation, to practice care for each other, to refuse advancement in individual terms as we are conditioned to, is to move in a disruptive way in a neoliberal, capitalist society.
It seems we are in terrible times now, just as humans have always been hit with terrible times. More uncertainty and suffering will come as we will confront the reality of climate breakdown. But what I am certain of is that to hope stubbornly together, we are already making the life we want right now in the present, bit by bit. We refuse the despair of the present by believing in bringing the future we want right here, right now.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu