I have been reflecting lately on cynicism and hope. I recently had a chance to visit with my daughter and a number of her friends who are spending a year before college doing community service work in Ecuador with an organization I have come to love called Global Citizen Year.
As I chatted with these Global Citizen Year Fellows in the small, rural town of Mindo, Ecuador in early March, I was struck by the wonderfully positive energy they had, despite having endured some difficult months in a foreign country, learning a new language, living in a different environment, and being exposed to a world many of them never knew existed. I was also struck, I must admit, by a slight tone of cynicism. In their seven months in the country, they had learned enough to realize that good intention is not enough; that creating real and lasting change is not something one can do in a brief time; that promises made by well intentioned bureaucrats are often broken; that commitments by well intentioned philanthropists often have unintended consequences; that advice provided by well meaning experts often doesn't translate to action on the ground. In short, that in spite of our best efforts and intentions, the world remains a fairly messy, often unjust place.
When one sees up close the challenges of creating positive social and economic change in a foreign country, it can lead to some fairly sobering reflections on one's motivation and one's own contribution to the challenges that the communities in question face.
I have been wondering, then, how to acknowledge the validity of some of the cynic's observations without losing the sense of joy and purpose found in the commitment to doing what you can to make a difference?
I've been reading a wonderful book by Paul Loeb1, and in it re-encountered a couple of authors whose words help me overcome this sense of cynicism while avoiding the naiveté of simple optimism. One selection comes from Václav Havel, the playwright and former President of Czechoslovakia who writes in Disturbing the Peace that:
The kind of hope I often think about...I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do now.
I believe Havel is pointing to a profound truth here for anyone who wishes to do good in the world. That hope is a deep seated conviction, an "orientation of the heart" that prods us to engage. Not to engage with the naive optimism that our singular efforts will make the critical difference in a situation, but rather with Havel's sense of certainty that to do something "makes sense" - regardless of whether or not we succeed. Hope is that "orientation of our heart" that insists we try. There is meaning and purpose in that orientation and that intention. I have also found there is openness in that orientation. It is not a pig-headed determination to impose one's will on others, but rather the acceptance of an invitation to engage, to act, to partner with other like-minded individuals who wish to do their part to honor their own sense of hope.
The more who are willing to try, the less lonely the journey becomes, and the less prone we become to cynicism.
1. Loeb, Paul (2007-03-21). The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (pp. 183-186). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.