Hope Is The Thing That Is Left To Us

By Nasri Atallah
25 April 2019
Amidst unpredictable times, hopefulness is a virtue worth embracing

In a recent article, one of the leading authorities on Arabic literature – M. Lynx Qualey – recounted a speech by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous on World Theatre Day in 1996. Wannous was the first Arab author to give the address, and in it he famously uttered the phrase, “We are sentenced to hope”. On first reading, this seemed to me to be an odd and almost haunting invocation. How could he view hope as a form of punishment?

For a while now, it has felt as though we are at a troubling crossroads. On the one hand, we are dealing with increased uncertainty in our personal lives: erratic career paths, income insecurity, shifting patterns of belief and spirituality. And on the other, there appears to be a derangement of the world: political instability, a resurgence of ideologies that had been dormant for decades, catastrophic climate change, inequality, an epidemic in anxiety and depression.

All of these are amplified and exacerbated by the very thing that was supposed to make our lives more convenient: technology. But all it takes is to spend a few idle minutes on your social media feeds and you realise that Wannous’ words gain clarity. We are condemned to hope, because there is no other solution.

All it takes to find hope is to look in the places we aren’t encouraged to look very often.

In her seminal book, Hope in the Dark, activist and writer Rebecca Solnit describes the world as theatre. We are all transfixed by that stage, which is where the powerful perform politics and manage society. But that stage is also where tragedy unfolds. It is why the news cycle is so exhausting. The real source of hope she contends, exists in the audience sitting in the shadows. It exists in many of you reading this right now. Away from the stage. In the place where millions of people go about their day trying to make this a better place.

Fred Rogers, the beloved American children’s television host, said something that echoes this search for hope in the dark. It is a phrase that now emerges as a meme whenever something unfathomable happens in the world: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

We are indeed sentenced to hope. Divorced from it, we are incapable to make our way through life. Without it, our critical thinking amounts to nothing more than cynicism. And a life lived on that basis is unbearable.

Solnit suggests our era is dramatically different from the past thanks to the incremental and imperceptible changes which constitute progress. We live at a time that is demonstrably better than any time before it.

But the information we get about the world, especially through the news, has had a clear negativity bias for at least a century. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ goes the adage. It’s so engrained that I remember being in Geneva once and a headline that exclaimed “Revelation: Fondue proven to be from Zurich”. It was jarring. News was meant to be about mayhem, not fun little rivalries over a national cheese-based dish.

On an individual level, we are also contending with a mental health epidemic that challenges our very ability to hope. According to the World Health Organization, globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, and 260 million suffer from anxiety disorders – many live with both conditions. This might seem like grim reading, but yet again, hope is our solution.

A recent paper in a Croatian medical journal discussed hope as being absolutely central to the recovery process of mental illness. Recovery depends on the notion that a patient desires to get better, making hope the route by which it occurs. 

We are prescribed to hope. It is through its prism that we envisage a better life, and effectively the only way to achieve it.

In 1973, the American author E.B. White received a letter from a man who had lost his faith in humanity. In his letter back, almost 46 years to the day, White responded, empathising – saying the human race had certainly made a mess of life on this planet, but that people probably harbour seeds of goodness and that the characteristics that make us ruin things are also those that will allow us to claw back towards a world with more sense. But there is one line from the letter that is imprinted forever in my mind: “Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.”

We are sentenced to hope, certainly. But we are also liberated and elevated by it. Hope is not punishment, it is release.