Hunger for hope

Thursday, September 2nd, 2004

Read the words of Nelson Mandela, then consider the petty cruelty undergirding George Bush’s war.

“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black,” he writes of his 27 brutal years on Robben Island. “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred. … The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

Whereas the U.S. chose to wage a brutal, high-tech war of vengeance against lightly armed surrogate enemies in Iraq in response to our single day of national horror, Mandela and his compatriots emerged from the half-century-long hell of apartheid determined to forgive their enemies and heal South Africa’s wounds, not inflict new ones.

Was our grievance so much greater?

Such are the questions that began to push at me as I read Paul Loeb’s new book, “The Impossible Will Take a Little While” (Basic Books). Not only is this anthology of essays and poetry “A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” as it is subtitled, it is also, I can attest, a decent source of sustenance and fresh air amid the rhetorical gas leak of the Republican National Convention.

Reading it during this particular week certainly put the book’s purpose to a test: to “inspire people to keep on and persist.”

“The writers assembled here,” Loeb writes in the introduction, “have helped me maintain the belief that striving for a more human world is worth the effort. Again and again, they’ve satisfied my hunger for hope.”

This is a book for the ravenous, and it delivers with a broad and international array of writers, celebrated and unknown. My suggestion, however, is not to read the book passively, expecting inspiration on a platter. Read it with anger, even desperation — read it in your own personal crucible of frustration over 9/11, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, humanity’s spreading infection of violence and hate.

It is in this crucible, I believe, that Mandela’s words, and those of the other writers, whose wisdom is born of suffering and struggle, begin to glow. Hope becomes a vision of a humane future that is already under way, its infrastructure partially in place: Love thy enemy. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Stand up for what’s right. Revere life.

Such principles have practical application. Renewing one’s sense of this, in the ambiguous and murky reality of everyday life, is what hope is all about.

So Mandela stuns us with his humanity, which ripened in his long, hard imprisonment, and did not turn to bitterness. He practiced running a country by winning over his Afrikaner jailers — standing up to them, yes, but also patiently talking to them, undoing their prejudices. As I read his account, I felt my own small grievances against life fall away. Idealism plus courage equals history.

Alice Walker, in her essay called “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” dissects the rage and humiliation of the oppressed and notes that the “curse” in an ancient invocation — “by a person who would readily, almost happily, commit suicide, if it meant her enemies would also die” — is coming to pass. It’s called terrorism.

She talks about her own temptation to succumb to the curse-prayer: as a black woman, a veteran of the harrowing voter-registration drives in the Deep South in the mid-’60s, when intimidation was the norm and murder had official sanction. “We knew no one in white America paid the slightest attention to the deaths of such as us.”

But like Mandela, like every essayist in Loeb’s book, she transcends this temptation: “I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.

“Only justice can stop a curse.”

Hope is believing we will one day hear an American president mobilizing the country with such words.