Remedy for the Left’s ‘Substance Problem’: Anger Born of Hope

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – Emily Dickinson

…America isn’t eastern Ukraine, Afghanistan, or Yemen, but nonetheless we are a lonely, frightened people who have lost hope in the future…a dangerous place to be. We risk losing our ability to think clearly or experience life completely. We lose our vitality and sense of direction….

Mary Pipher, It’s Possible to Balance Despair with Joy, NYTimes, 6/30/22

[fr. 12th century monk Joachim of Fiore] “an anger born of hope…”

Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances

The political so-called left, that stood traditionally for justice, equality, and the underdog, has a pronounced “substance” problem. No, this is not about prescription pain meds, cannabis or alcohol abuse; the much graver problem on the liberal left is lack of substance, lack of what it is that makes a person solid, implacable, “mensch-like” on behalf of ideals. All one has to do is read about the Jan 6 hearings grinding on, going nowhere, or Senator Manchin derailing his own party’s climate agenda to see a lack of substance in (non) action.

It seems to me that, especially for white people, social consciousness and unassailable self-confidence are incompatible. In examining this problem I’m not really interested in helping out a moribund left, if by “left” we mean Democrats. I’m interested in the root of the problem so well phrased by W.B. Yeats, as to why “the best” (the “best” being, let’s say, those who think about the welfare of social others) “lack all conviction.” I found a clue to this perplexing question in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. He writes that according to the “mythology” of a market society “getting….is the mark of a substantial person…the hero [in such a society] is “self-possessed,” “self-made,” while giving (that which gifted people, i.e., artists, do), is “powerless to make a person substantial.”

Simply put, in capitalist society, substance is a matter of wealth. Hyde’s words impressed me as an explanation for why I struggle continuously and without ever any sign of victory, with feelings of worthlessness (insubstantiality). But they also explain why those who fall under the sway of liberalism, under its banner of concern for rights and freedoms, its sympathy for the oppressed, its tendency to want the government to level the playing field, lack the self-confidence and will of those who, for instance, are now the majority opinion on the Supreme Court. Just as the artist’s gift cannot assure her of her substantiality, “bleeding heart” concerns do not provide substance for their liberal champions in a context that perceives only one kind of substance.

This lack of self-confidence, of conviction, more even than love for bourgeois values, is what has erased the difference between the two parties in the eyes of so many of us. The charges against liberals of “elitism,” of entrenched establishment power decried by Tea Party insurgents and Jan 6 rioters, the exceptionalism that liberals themselves do not see, are valid enough. But they do not point to actual substance. Liberal power and influence, that is, is the result not of conscious will to be the power brokers but of a lack of will to be the peace-makers. This failure is not alone the failure of the feckless leaders beholden to monied interests, but of those they represent – us.

The matter of substance conjures to my mind the 1998 movie Bulworth starring Warren Beatty as a liberal U.S. Senator whose moral convictions weaken as he gets caught up in Washington politics. In a cameo role, poet Amirai Baraka played a guy going through the garbage on the street. He utters one line, for me a memorable one, advising Senator Bulworth to “Be a spirit, not a ghost.”

The difference between spirit and ghost is one of substance. Though not seen, substance is nonetheless real. But moreover, in our society where substance is a quality of exceptionality, of those who’ve “earned it” – no other kind of substance exists. Thus, to gain substance is to be unseen. Only by the fruits of the spirit – one’s gift – will my substance (that which I often call my “otherness”) be recognized as – a spirit – or a mensch; only by the gifts, that is, that are given for the intrinsic worth of doing so can I be more than a ghost.


It is extremely difficult, in these acutely anxious times, to consciously and non-fatuously hope. Indeed, hope is that “thing with feathers!” However, the fragile hope of 2022 C.E. is not just what it has traditionally been. Once, hope “hoped” despite the wickedness or folly of men, the cupidity that has culminated so fully in anthropocenic/capitalocenic disaster, and despite disease, accident, and effects of indifferent nature. Today, severed from belief in “things unseen,” disconnected from spiritual reality in an age of scientific positivism, most hoping is some wishful hoping the worst will not come to pass. However, hope born of anything less than utopian hope, peace hope, is fraudulent, essentially hoping for myself as if I were – as if it were possible to be – existentially separate from the rest of humanity and the earth home. The ego’s lie of separateness has it that the transcendent “Oneness,” though a whimsically pleasing idea, is unfeasible in the serious world of “grown-ups.” On the contrary; utopian interdependence is body truth that must be re-found, re-created out of the depths of one’s being, lived and put into words, not merely hummed along with, a matter of substance which makes the gift of it profoundly political.

That hope one manages to muster against the worst happening doesn’t only give convenient relief from TMI about climate catastrophe or likely fascist insurgence. It serves a status-conserving purpose, closing my eyes so I do not see – apologies for the violent imagery – the gun that is, existentially, already pointing at my head. To be clear: this is not the gun many are fantasizing will be aimed at them in the era of lawlessness, mobbism and fascism they see approaching. (That fantasy, it turns out, is a useful tool for strengthening Democratic Party loyalty. Radio station WAMC, our regional NPR news source, advertises a fundraiser featuring author Malcolm Nance’s book, They Want to Kill Americans.)

Rather, the existential “gun” I’m talking about stokes no partisan fears. It comes with birth, entering awareness earlier for some than others, often not in the form of a threat but a beckoning into body truth. Its concern is the “long body” (mine or yours) stretching between birth and death in which nature has intrinsic interest, and about which nature’s voice via mythic imagination informs us. In soul-based, poetic awareness, hope is not “hoping” that death or catastrophe, in one’s own case, can be averted. Nor, from soul’s perspective, is the soldier’s or the fire fighter’s courage to face death the only courage. Rather, hope is courage for life; its “lion’s heart” serves neither king, nation, nor the “God” of exceptionalism, but that ultimate good of inclusive peace that begins in and has its reality in my own embodied heart first.

And that is how I imagine Joaquim meant the words I borrowed for my title: the hope that gives birth to anger is hope in “things unseen,” the hope that knows what must be defended, which are the conditions for life in common, of abundance not scarcity, of peace and its behaviors of respect, forgiveness and reconciliation, etc. That is, hope is in the society that has never been, real as dream only, but real. Anger born of this hope is inherently political.

Is it too late to find our courage for life, and the hope that sustains it? Is it too late to defend the necessary conditions for human life in its essential plurality? These questions, like false hoping, come from the defended ego. The despair now being widely felt is older than our current crisis. It comes from awareness of the indifference of the universe to one’s own particular living and dying. Entering this interior “room” of despair is sufficiently terrifying to paralyze a person in her tracks (hence mythological references to being turned to stone!). But for the person fortified with mythological awareness, mind partnered with heart, it is possible to escape paralysis, to think right alongside the terrifying apprehension of non-being! This “razor’s-edge” thinking, so uncommon in our time, is the thinking that comes of substance. It allows escape from the horror of non-being at a price. That is, for the courage to challenge the ceaseless threat of being “turned to stone” – either paralyzed in neurosis or encased in dogma, liberal or otherwise – one must be prepared to be devoted to this kind of active thinking as the process of your life.

What I describe here is a relationship with the embodied soul. Here, in the seat of imagination is where hope may be achieved, not found for free. The task is nothing less than to “resubstantiate” that which we treat as insubstantial. In religious language, the task, if we are to put bodies – the in-common substance – behind our anger, is incarnation, as political as it is religious.


The Christian nationalists/fascists, knowing liberal impotence so well, can be confident our outrage will lead nowhere. Knowing as they do our bottom-most, non-negotiable line is not our ideals but our fear of losing our way of life makes liberals an irresistible enticement for any bully! However, the rightwing’s solution – to restore a monarchical political arrangement that will turn back the clock on freedoms and human rights – is completely morally repugnant to those of us on the left. Might we then, at long last, change our political bottom line? Might we concede that the very basis for political contest must be changed from “beat the Republican candidate” (meaning, find “electable” candidates, “lesser evils,” etc.) to “defend the real Dream” of solidarity? To do this would require individuals extricate ourselves from liberal reality and its bourgeois (inherently exclusive, exceptionalist, and consumerist) way of life.

Over and over the faith of the liberal class shows itself to be not in the utopian dream, but in a way of life materially ample enough, the illusion of substance provided by our goods and technology. It has left a social vacuum, a vacuum of will, for fascism to fill. Anger born of hope in the utopian dream, on the other hand, being substantial anger, says No to predatory corporate capitalism in the most powerful way it can be said, an enormous and resounding NO to the lie that substance is the property of wealth and the wealthy. The powerful NO is to the relative value assigned to human beings and to our health and strength (substance) that depends upon the full relatedness with each other, beginning with “the other” in the soul, extending to all human others, and to the earthly commons.


I’m not going to tell you from what “must-haves,” and “must-dos,” etc., you “ought” to refrain in order to take up this embodied resistance. Advice of this sort – which many intelligent, informed friends give us – leaves the question of substance untouched. More specifically but without naming specifics the NO is to the way of life to which we hold ourselves hostage. Anger born of hope, thus, is freedom as well as substance.

Though she may still drive a gas-fueled car, use her iphone, eat factory-farmed meat or live in an all-white suburb, to the extent shes take up embodied resistance the liberal will forsake the ethical caginess, the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do forked tongue. Feeling her insubstantiality, as she must, she will yet have confidence, fed her by means of the creative work that keeps her in the utopian dream and its hope. That is, she will fear (as in respect) more the inclusive Reality upon which her courage depends than a plunging stock market, a fascist’s gun or the political threat of the theocrats.

And there is a particular way by which this poetic, in-common “Godness” may be identified. He/She is the One in whose “hands” even I am included – in which, that is, even I am called to contribute, make gift of, my creative self. The “even I” is the I necessary for this transformation into substance. Because of its genuine humility, even I overcomes the ego’s tyranny that demands I count for something in neoliberal reality, that treats creativity as exceptional, not common. The “even I” is the call for wide-spread shamanism, common mysticism, a shaking up of the system by means of the in-common human gift of creativity. This understanding that “even I” am called, as mythologist Joseph Campbell taught us back in the 1980’s, has one defying the context of exceptionalism by “following one’s bliss.” “Even I” is the door to legitimate hope, effective hope, courage-for-life hope. The anger born from it is, warrior-like, protecting something precious/priceless the liberal world does not now have; that is, the life-giving dream reality of Utopia that starts in the soul’s bottom.


In Utica, the inception of our Cafe, celebrating its 20th anniversary this Friday (7/22), resulted from a struggle with that call that can only be answered by “even I.” In this case, it was even Orin and I, who were called. Unbeknownst to most customers, though they may be aware we’re “more than a business,” the energy that keeps the Cafe going in an environment inhospitable to the small, local and common, is political resistance. Unlike the sacrifice he and I make for for our art, the work of keeping the business going does not make a return in anything resembling “bliss!” However, the Cafe generates the intangible known as goodwill; the gift and its return call for a real celebration.

I’d wager few of our customers give it a thought that the Cafe was made to be a place for the very utopian feat of transforming stranger into friend. More “church-like” than business-like, this task which churches largely have failed, perhaps falls now to the small local businesses led by the dream of utopia rather than solely the dream of profits. Lacking the collective messianic ideal offered by the church, the charm of the urban coffeeshop is its utopianism, an expression of the substantial anger born of hope, spirit not ghost, hope in which the customer is included and by which, though she may be unconscious of it, surely she is beckoned.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: