The Scarcity of Hope in a Damaged World


Sleep dear children until the food is ready

In the early hours of morning the baby cries. Ear closely attuned, mother leaves her bed and hurries to the nursery. Picking up the frightened child, mother says softly: “Everything will be all right, sweetheart. Everything will be fine.”

In Arabic, the stone soup story (one of its versions) tells of a poor woman who lives in a tent with her young children. She has little money to feed them, and often fills up a pot with water and stones. Lighting the fire underneath the pot, she wants her hungry kids to believe that she is cooking. Sleep dear children until the food is ready. She stirs the pot.

If they wake up asking about the food, she tenderly encourages them to go back to sleep. She promises to wake them when the food is ready. But the day passes without the children being fed. Mom finally lays her head on the pillow, hoping that tomorrow will bring the money to feed the kids.

These two stories, one fictional and the other a common occurrence in everyday life, speak of the way being hopeful that things will turn out well is built into our human nature. We anticipate a “better day.” Even though we may not see evidence around us that should keep us “keeping on”, we usually get on with the activities of daily life.

Usually—but the RT News image of a Syrian woman with seven kids and another on the way huddled in a bombed out greasy garage in Lebanon indicate that malignant forces in the world can beat us up so badly that we want to give up. This woman tried to poison herself; she felt utterly forlorn and hopeless. Somehow she did survive. But she has no idea whatsoever how this new baby will be fed. For her and her bewildered husband and traumatized children, hope is as scarce a commodity as material possessions.

The Syrian woman and her family is a stand-in for millions upon millions of people in our damaged and deranged world. Their lifeworlds have been saturated with violence and evil deeds. Although the good and decent world desired by most of us has not-yet arrived, the sources for hopeful anticipation have been squeezed of fresh air. Hope becomes scarce; it seems impossible.

Although we appear to be a creature who hopes and can anticipate a “better world”, we are also are creatures that can be so wounded and battered that we do give in to despair and ennui. There are endless stories of humans keeping on amidst ruin and rubble, horror and unimaginable suffering. But too many succumb, hungry, sad, emptied of spirit.

How bearable is it to imagine living in the Gaza or some other ghastly refugee camp year in, year out? How bearable is it to look into the dark eyes of all those kids who stare out at us from rock piles and mangled old armaments? As one Palestinian kid said, “War is a small word with large consequences.”

In this meditative piece, I will try to probe into the sources of hope and despair present in the human condition. We will look briefly at the maverick Marxist Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1986, Eng.) to gather flecks of insight, grapple with the deep and often mystical thoughts of Martin Matustik’s Radical Evil and the Scarcity of Hope (2008) and Ronald Aronson’s solid thoughts on hope in Living without God (2008).

It feels like a Sisyphean task to role hope up and over the hill of the bleak cynicism and diminished expectations of our world. How strange: we usually consider the Middle Ages (pre-modernity) as haunted by death, its presence seeping into every corner of culture, the dark abyss nearby, just across the meadow, up in the attic, over the hills on the corpse-laden battlefields. No wonder sacred art (like Matthias Grunewald’s early 16th century Isenheim altarpiece) fixed its gaze on the crucified, pock-marked and tortured Christ.

Any hope offered to medieval humans was in the sweet by and by. Victims of the plague and disease believed that they would see Jesus and find happiness after their lives of sorrows. But how could it be that modern humanity (with its glorious heritage of the scientific and enlightenment revolutions) might become cynical and imagine that there is no alternative to what-is-imposed-upon-us? Didn’t these twin revolutions usher in the “age of improvement and progress”?

Ernst Bloch and the dream of the better life

Bloch is the philosopher of hope. His vast writings, often baffling and obscure, do shine a bright light on his central theme. He combs through music, sacred texts, literature, myths, fairy tales, yoga, dancing and stories and discovers “longings for a better life that is only possible in a different social world, and that this social world is coming into being” (R. Aronson, review essay of “The principle of hope,” in History and theory, vol. 30 (2), May, 1991).

This philosopher of expansive imagination thought that one could detect a warm stream of hope coursing through humankind’s history. We were the hoping creature and we longed for utopian fulfilment. Bloch’s famous upright human looked forward and was animated by an anticipatory consciousness. Indeed, humankind was the unfinished creature and history remained always incomplete, unfinished. We were always in process of becoming. Historical development could never become fossilized or deified. We couldn’t cave in to despair. The new world was on its way.

Human beings were on their own and on the move. Bloch thought that the traditional God of theism had vanished from our western imaginations only to be replaced by the utopian consciousness. Some theologians were captivated by Bloch’s philosophy of hope. They offered the world “theologies of hope” and tried to rewire Christian thought so that God was somehow imagined as the “One who leads and moves humanity forward to the new world.” For Latin American liberation theologians, God was the God of the Exodus: the One who leads out of bondage.

Bloch distinguished between an “abstract” utopia and a “concrete” one. Marx and Engels had decried abstract utopias in The Communist Manifesto of 1848: those dreamers who conjured the new world from gossamer without any trace of possibility for it breaking into history. Concrete hope, for Bloch, reached forward towards real possibility; one had to separate true from false visions of the just commonwealth. That’s what Marx and buddy Engels wanted, too; they were wary of specifying what the new world might look like.

In response, Aronson (1991) states: “The question is, what can Bloch’s celebrations of possibility mean if, as we now know to be true, utopia was not in sight when he wrote, and is today nowhere in sight? What becomes of the not-yet-conscious if no force is acting before us to make it conscious?” (p. 221).

One can delight in this quasi-mystical language of the forward-gaze. But this utopian language quickly becomes tarnished by the corrosive acids ripping apart the fabric of everyday life and future anticipations of a better world. As Aronson (1991) asks, “How do we account for the many negative, destructive, brutal, cruel drives of everyday life and contemporary history?” (p. 229).

Not easily, and now the experience of as “much terror as we can take” (Jean-Francois Lyotard) in the twentieth century and the “radical evil” of the decade and a half of the twenty-first leeches our spirit of all yearnings for the new, better, just world. Indeed, modern history’s cold stream is a graveyard of hope’s dashed. Although “marvelous possibilities” lie twisted and intermingled with destructive ones, Aronson bows his head and recommends that we see “how narrowly the window is open, how difficult and dangerous are the winds blowing in” (p. 231).

Aronson (1991) observes astutely that “Bloch’s fellow German-Jewish Marxist exiles Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse found it necessary to rethink and expand their starting points to the century’s catastrophe of hope” (p. 229).

Smothered words and muted hopefulness

Matustik (2008)’s book is infused with esoteric Jewish wisdom, a deep reading of Kantian philosophy and close-up querying of Habermas’s “disconsolate critical theory.” Indeed, he wonders if secular critical theory can speak before massacres like Rwanda and Darfur (and other forms of inexplicable radical evil) with redemptive intent.

Are our words destined to be smothered (S. Kofman, Smothered words [1998]) before forms of evil that press out beyond Kant’s moral categories? Matustik also desires to know if critical theory after the “death of God” has the capacity (or resources, spiritual and cognitive) to provide forgiveness and enable wounded men and women to move beyond the burning memory of traumatic suffering.

Matustik thinks that Habermasian-styled critical theory is contained within a rational framework; it is unable to find adequate language for “evil’s own excess of cruelty and lost hope.” How do we speak before “wanton mass annihilation”? Reason cannot reach into the demonic depths.

None of us can find words to speak of the barbarism unleashed by the US’s military actions in the Middle East. With the lid blown off governing structures in country after country, the religious furies were unleashed in monumental and zealous acts of excess cruelty and evil. Only tears may now speak.

The once mighty God of Christendom has hidden his face and appears wounded and powerless, like us. Matustik wonders if Species Human has rushed in to fill the emptied space like Atlas who thinks he can hoist the world on his shoulders. Beware of idolatry! Beware of imagining that we depend on no one but ourselves! Beware of hubris!

ISIS will re-create through blood and terror the Islamic Caliphate! The US will pulverize and reshape the Middle East to its malignant design!

Jean-Paul Sartre was right to insist that “hope now” is the heart of human flourishing. Matustik thinks that democratic and liberation theorists assume that “hope is always and already settled without considering it on its own terms” (p. 36). But hope can be stripped from us. The narrative of progress loses its grip on our imaginations. The ideals of the enlightenment falter as science and technology deform into monsters that destroy the foundation of our lives.

Matustik asks this agonizing question: “Are human flourishing and liberation all but impossible? Must the forces of counterfinality and inertia prevail over the projects of human flourishing in liberation struggles, in existing socialisms or democracies?” (p. 40). Must the last word be conceded to the impossible? Does inhumane scarcity roll through history like a kind of malevolent Buddhist wheel of suffering?

Our human species has failed to sustain human flourishing. Of this there can be little doubt.

But does this mean that our species is doomed to always lose what it has gained? “How do we come to terms with the past that has injured our sense of hope and how do we hope innocently, albeit not naively, at our renewed beginnings?” (p. 42). This Matustik asks.

Sober wisdom and critical insights

We remind ourselves that our species has kept on and survived for tens of thousands of years. Through those many years our cognitive capacities have expanded immensely to include the ability to “stand back and gaze forward.” We experienced the Axial Age in the period between 800-300 BC. Our species broke free (in Israel, China, Greece and India) from being chained to the world as it was to imagining the “better, more just world.” From that point onward, we had the capacity to learn from history and to develop the world and our own potential.

We stand amidst the ruins and dream of its beautiful reconstruction. We experience lawlessness and our friends and family are gunned down in the streets, yet we gather our kids in our arms and run to a safe haven. We will begin again. Our evolved reason can tell the truth from lies; it has faith that reasonableness can be recovered. Seeing the world without shadows is always possible. We are not fated to exist in miasmic fog and propaganda at the bottom of history’s hell holes.

Critical theory is not helpless in the face of catastrophe. The United Nations emerged from the rubble and ruins of World War II. We created a Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. We stood back and looked forward.

Matustik doubts that “humans are reasonable” (p. 63). I know what he means: material scarcity and nihilistic power politics destroys the plural world. Holy intolerance torches the very symbols (orderly houses, cultivated gardens and stunning art works) of beautiful hope. Yet I still argue that: “Rational criticism, learning, and communication are the greatest possible hope for the continual progress of the human race” (p. 77). Hope is lodged in our human speech capacity.

The universe does not have to be cold and unresponsive. We have built systems of law and dignity. We have developed infinitely vast knowledge systems and scientific medicine. We have demonstrated compassionate response to the call of the vulnerable other. The earth can be a home and cultures can interlink humans with each other so that no one is alone or forgotten. We are creatures of will, determination and action.

Aronson (2008) wonders out loud if a “secular outlook” offers fewer and less intense hopes for those whose God has disappeared into the suffering of the world. This penetrating question does speak to the sources of human hope. Religious citizens do imagine that the Absolute One has the last word and will not permit us to reside permanently in evil and cruel spaces.

But Aronson believes that hope can be cultivated through attachment to “family, or love, or community, or dignity, or principle—or history, or God—but also to nothing at all but sheer will to not give in. It lives alongside, and consistently overcomes, passivity, despair and gloom, knowing these intimately but never completely giving in to them” (p. 189).

Both Matustik and Aronson distinguish between “collective” and “personal” hopes. Collective hope embraces the big vision: “our unending efforts to create a decent world will one day pay off” (Aronson, 2008, p. 189). Food will arrive for our children. The baby will settle down and flourish.

Personal hope requires—as Cornel West once said—attachment and care for something outside ourselves (even a plant will do for a start). It demands self-reflection that can recognize our dependence, the uncanny manner in which hope arrives, our finiteness, and the incompleteness of our understanding of care for others.

Aronson worries deeply, however, that in our deranged and damaged world of rabid and violent consumer individualism, hope has been privatized. By this he means “that people are being encouraged as never before to abandon public and social hope, and to seek only their own personal well-being” (p. 194).

Our unhinged world is a manifestation of a hope limited to ourselves and our family alone. When this happens, hope shrivels. We lose the critical capacity to see and name the social structures of domination, inequality and oppression that thwart “things getting better.” We are not hopelessly fallen or sinful creatures. We can stand tall and walk upright. We can identify those who would kneecap us.

But Aronson thinks that historical events such as post-apartheid South Africa (in many ways it looks like the old South Africa: still unequal, still insecure, still impoverished) suggest that only “frail and limited hope [is] available today, and they are not be sneezed at” (p. 206).

He also asks his fellow secularists what they are willing to fight for. “After Auschwitz, after Marxism, after Progress—after apartheid—what sort of hope animates those who seek social change?” (p. 207).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.