Radical Hope

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I am at a Solstice party talking with a former yoga student about the election. We are sharing our fears and confusion. “I’m trying so hard not to be cynical,” she says, “but the future looks so bleak right now.” She looks at me and I see the desperate pleading in her eyes. “What do you think?” she asks, “Do you have hope?”

I pause. I feel the weight of her question. I have asked myself this many times in the last month, and I am still discovering my answer. I begin by sharing that I have faith in Martin Luther King Jr.’s sentiment that the universe bends toward justice. Despite everything going on, I still believe that most people, at the core, have a moral compass that guides them toward kindness. I believe that with enough time and with more information and education, justice will win out. With enough time… The biggest unknown right now, and my deepest fear, is indeed whether we have enough time left on the planet for the arc to complete. With a president-elect inciting conflict with China and with a climate change denier poised to head up the EPA, we are faced with the very real possibility that the time we have to complete the arc may be shortened, and possibly shortened by too much.

How do we hold this potential dark outcome in front of us and still proceed with hope? It is perhaps the most potent question of our time.

I go back in time a couple of years, to when our children moved in with us. They were seven and ten years old and had lived with seven different families before us. They didn’t, with good reason, trust care providers. To stay. To provide. To protect. To not do harm. In the early months, we were told vehemently and repeatedly by our oldest, “I don’t want to live with you!” We did our best to answer not the words, but what we believed was a deep fear of abandonment and rejection as we [in our best moments] calmly replied, “We’re sticking with you.”

“Do you really love me?” our youngest used to ask frequently and fearfully. Sometimes she twisted that around. “You hate me!” she would scream and then shut out any attempt to tell her anything different. On more than one occasion one of the children asked, “Will you throw me out on the street?” I know that this is a question that many children ask in some form or another. But our children actually meant it.

To say that our first year and a half of parenting was challenging would be an understatement. We bounced from one crisis or meltdown or outburst to the next like ping pong balls with no time to rest or recover in between. It was hard to imagine that it would get better, and in those early days, we were propelled forward solely by a combination of naivete, blind faith, and stubborn will.

They break, you know. This was the title of an article I read during that time. It was written by a social worker about a child who got lost in the foster care system, a child who was moved over and over, who never found a forever home, and who came to a tragic end as a teenager. The social worker wrote about the inevitable harm done to children when they are moved from home to home to home, when they never find a place to settle and stay. They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break. The author of the article wrote these words as a plea for her readers to care, to do something before it was too late. But in my most exasperated, exhausted, and cynical moments, her words echoed in the back of my mind like a church bell tolling at a funeral. In those early days, my deepest fear, buried beneath a blanket of guilt for daring to speak it, was that we were already too late.

Once I held this stark fear in front of me, I wondered how I could possibly proceed. What if we were indeed too late to change the outcome of our children’s story? Because in that first year and a half, there were often more indications of impending doom than of fairy tale endings. I often thought, what if we spend the next eight plus years putting in time and love, and one of our children runs away anyway? What if, in the end, she rejects the opportunities we put before her and instead chooses a life of drugs or criminal activity? What if one of the children ends up pregnant as a teenager or ends up becoming an alcoholic, or both? These outcomes were, and are, very real possibilities, and there is something in me that needs to keep them out in front of me. Yet, how do I keep a check on reality and still go on, still put in the love and the time and the effort that the kids need and deserve? How do I continue to believe in them and hope for the world for them? And the answer that came back to me was, and is, simple: I just do. I put in the time and the love, and offer presence and patience because it’s who I want to be and it’s the only meaningful way to respond. I put in the time and the love because the kids need it, and they deserve it. I put in the time and the effort because I love them. I have radical hope for their futures because they are amazing in so many ways and truly could each change the world. I will fight for them even as they fight against me.

And regardless of the outcome years from now –  and there are many, many possible outcomes, some tragic, some inspirational, some rather mundane – regardless of the outcome years in the distance, right now, in each moment, we are participating in a weaving, a weaving of our lives into a beautiful, complicated, raw, and intricate tapestry. It is colored by pain and by loss and by longing that are a part of our individual pasts, but it is also created from the moments we share together now – it is singing and dancing and gymnastics and swimming lessons, music, games, cuddling, and nighttime bed stories.

We are intertwining our lives into relationships that, though frequently tumultuous, help us withstand some of the darkness and trauma. We cannot erase the things that happened to our kids before they came to us, we cannot start over. But we can start here – in this chaotic, unstable mess. We have entered this fray with them and we can face the hard stuff together. We can stand it with them and not shrink back. And whatever happens later, whatever choices they make, or whatever unpredictable things might happen to them, we will have this story. And it is beautiful, powerful, and full of adventure. And when all else falls away, what sustains us is our stories. In the case of my children, more than two and a half years into our journey together, the story has changed dramatically. There are now far more indications of healing and wild success than of impending doom. It turns out that consistency, structure, boundaries, love, hugs, conversation, respect, kindness, play, and laughter do shift the narrative. We still don’t know the end. But we do know that we are in the process of writing a story that gives depth and meaning to all of our lives.

And, as we sit here now on the precipice of a government that poses significant threats to civil rights and democracy, I look back and draw on this time when my husband and I moved forward with hope despite so many signs pointing in the other direction. We are collectively sitting in a time of chaos, of unknown outcome, of potential destructive end. I choose to move forward once again by creating a narrative filled with radical hope.

Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice, wrote author Junot Diaz in a recent New Yorker article. We cannot possibly know where our country and world will be four or ten years from now — but we can practice radical hope in how we write the story itself. Narratives themselves have power to save us, though that may require that we adjust our understanding of what being saved means. While laws and governments can take away our legal power and civil rights, they cannot strip us of the agency to live and tell our own stories. Together we must create a narrative of kindness, of justice, of a courageous fight for the world we dare to imagine. And while I cannot promise you a final outcome, I can promise that consistency, structure, boundaries, love, hugs, conversation, respect, kindness, play, and laughter will shift the narrative. We need to offer and practice these things on both a local and a global scale, day in and day out, and not waiver even in the face of tantrums and setbacks.  The hope is not in where this narrative leads us. The hope is in the layers of the story itself.

As Junot Diaz wrote: Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.

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