Every night before bed, my two year old son Atticus offers up a list of people he would like me to pray for. His prayer list tends to be made up of people he has played with that day: Momma, daddy, his friends Gavin, baby Eve, the Chik-fil-A cow. His nightly prayers reflect his interest in his new ball, or the shoes his grandparents gave him, or whether his neighbor friend will come out to play.
For now, Atticus plays and then prays accordingly because he has not yet been made to feel responsible for the state of the world “out there.” He has not yet gotten caught up in national politics or world events.
It would be shocking if my toddler’s prayers displayed a vested interest in what is happening “out there” in the world. If his prayers exposed a political acumen that rivals that of the pundits and a heart that bleeds with the activists you’d probably already have seen him on Ellen.
All he knows is that he wants his parents, his friends, and his favorite fast food mascot to be happy.
But one day Atticus will rightfully begin to think outside of himself, and his world. He’ll join his parents in our heated discussions—the three of us will commiserate with one another about racial injustice, how dangerously close we seem to be to nuclear war, or how frustrated we are at some Christian leader’s blunder.
Soon after he gains personal self-awareness, he will gain cultural self-awareness. He will want to be “part of the solution,” and in those moments, he will imagine that he can help in “some small way,” to solve problems that are bigger than him.
That widening of interest is a reflection of personal growth and maturity. It’s a sign that we’re willing to accept a broader responsibility as citizens and human beings. And more importantly, it’s a sign that we see our role in the world, and that we believe we can be a true force for good.
He will be filled with hope. Or at least, I hope he will.
How to Lose All Hope
Of course, these days, as quickly as hope is sharply realized it is dulled down, eroded away by the steady drip of bad news and cynicism.
The conditions that allowed cable news and social media to thrive have left us in a downward spiral of shared despondency. Even those of us who criticized our parents for their steady diet of the news network venom find ourselves crafting our own communities that remind us every single day of evil’s work on earth.
But we aren’t simply over-indulging in modern media—for many of us, the temptation goes beyond a lack of moderation: it veers into idolatry. Active involvement on Twitter often feels like starring in our own action movie—we participate in the rush, all the while convincing ourselves that we are helping to save the day.
We partake in a curated liturgy of headlines and pull quotes, and at sundown we give ourselves marching orders: let’s do it all again tomorrow. Sure we may pray about these things, but the real prayers are offered up to one another daily through Facebook.
Remember. Resist. Thoughts and Prayers. Do Something. How Dare They. Why Don’t They. It Won’t Matter. Nothing Matters.
There’s something about the kind of schadenfreude we’ve begun to take part in that gives the impression that our key cultural players are asleep at the wheel, if not actively driving us off a bridge. So we gawk, proving there’s a momentum to these misfortunes, a kind of churning self-fulfilling nature to them that can only result from a collective turning of the head.
Stake our hope on the grand gesture.
Looking “out there” has taken on the role of a nearly universal hobby. And ironically, by giving the outside world a more prominent place in our life, we have trivialized it. We have grown accustomed to natural disasters, deaths, terrible leaders, and corrupt government.
Of course, to say we have trivialized these things is not to say we are without outrage—we are not as desensitized to constant evil as we might believe. But what constant confrontation with all this reality has done is leave us feeling as if our individual lives are more impotent and meaningless than ever.
We feel hope slipping. To many of us, it feels nearly gone. We eventually come to accept our limitations, or even assume them when they may not be true. “Our place” in the world becomes a rigid box rather than an open field.
Those who do speak from a posture of hope seem almost blind, naïve to the realities we enlightened, culturally-aware seers have come to accept. The charge to look to God and his promises can often seem pat and incomplete, like telling someone whose brakes had stopped working that they should look forward to waking up in heaven as she veers into oncoming traffic.
Sure, “God’s promises” are good after the wreck, but we want someone to stop the car, a new development now to help us see that things will right themselves. We want a conviction, an impeachment, or a revelation to institute justice—something, anything to slow the momentum of this broken, unfathomably evil world. We want societal reassurance that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
We are right to want these things, and right to be angry when they do not happen. But these days, we hunt only for justice’s grand gesture amidst the onslaught, and it’s numbing us.
We have, as a whole society, built up habits that allow our hope to be dismantled.
Find the hope that’s been here all along.
What we’re missing is the mundanity of hope—both receiving and giving it to others can feel like a non-event. As David Foster Wallace put it in his unfinished final novel, The Pale King, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t for your entertainment.”
When the newness of our communities and the relationships within them wears off, we’re left with the rough edges. Real relationships, unlike the Chick-fil-A cow, aren’t always entertaining and they always require work.
But Atticus’s namesake, that supporting character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, demonstrates that there is more potential in our day-to-day interactions than any manifestos or speaking out we may muster. Big public gestures have their place, but they are modestly effective in the face of acts of courageous kindness and intentional intimacy with those around us. These are the habits that build hope.
To hear Atticus Finch tell it, real courage has less to do with thriving than it does with continuing on anyway: “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Boy. That’s just all of us at this point, isn’t it?
Courage then, it’s the local, the flesh and blood, the church we attend, the people who annoy us, who represent our most acute opportunities to make a difference. They are our place in life. And it is our presence, not our reason or passion that persuades those closest to us.
It’s a maddening paradox, then, but hope is most crucial when it seems the most foolish and misguided. When we pour ourselves out to no avail, when we give ourselves up to sacrificial, or even worse, mind-numbing, unsatisfying, unspectacular patience, that is when God is working in us to sow hope in the dry soil of our world.
Cover image by Glen Gauthier.