With advent upon us, I thought I’d start December out with some words on light and hope in the face of darkness and fear. The nights are coming more quickly, and the dark is lingering on, but everywhere, people put out candles and fairy-lights to make the most of the darkest time of the year. The more darkness there is, the easier it is to see the lights, and the more powerful and beautiful the lights are. Its enough to make some choose this – the darkest time of the year – as their favorite time of the year.
In the face of sadness, fear, doubt, and powerlessness, maybe it’s enough to look on the bright side.
In his post, “Hope and Fear“, Christian Mihai points to hope as weapon against the darkness. It’s not some substantive thing that heads it off, but the mere anticipation that something will – or at least, that something could.
But at the same time hope is there as well. And we never, ever lose hope. Yes, at times we might lose hope in our own strengths, or our passions, but we never lose hope that something’s going to happen. Even at the edge of the dark abyss, we still hope that someone’s going to save us – we need a hero to save us from the hopelessness of staring into the abyss for too long.
The amazing thing about hope is that nothing actually needs to happen, and it still works. In fact, any single thing that does happen will fall short in comparison to the hope for what could, not just in potential, but in actual power. It’s why we tell stories of improbable triumphs, celebrate holidays and special occasions, and sing songs. We light tiny lights to bear down the inimitable darkness and make it something wonderful.
Even in her more pragmatic take on finding happiness, Nimue Brown seems to focus on situations and people with high standards, and on knowing what to do to keep things going, even when it may be difficult. It seems to be less about the resting point than the continuing trajectory, even if it isn’t always nice.
I can be really happy working for a focused tyrant who has a really important vision and demands the nigh on impossible of me. I like the challenge, the sense of purpose, and the things that can be achieved.
Even though it feels counter-intuitive, there’s happiness to be found in the most demanding situations – because there’s something to shoot for. The “things that can be achieved” are listed as equal to “the challenge” and “the sense of purpose” – not above them.
In Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine implies that hope is not just anticipation of the good that you wish to come, it is the reflection from the goodness beyond, reaching back to us in order to pull us along. He goes on at length about the various ways that even good things can disappoint us, because the evil in the world is so insurmountable tat happiness seems impossible. But he doesn’t just give up. As long as we keep our heads up and our eyes fixed on the far away light of God, even though we cannot see it directly but can only use it as a guide for where to look, the overwhelming darkness around us can’t swallow us whole. As soon as we drop our gaze and trying to grapple with the misery on our own terms, we get pulled into it.
Christian metaphysics aside, its tempting to think that even though the ills of the world – the sadness, the fear, the powerlessness – threaten to overcome with infinite vastness, if I keep hope, I’ll somehow be connected to something good, even if it is presently out of my reach. It’s a different vision of happiness than most people typically covet. It’s not always joyful or easy, but can be arduous and frustrating.
But it’s also weirdly freeing – in placing happiness in hope, Augustine removes from it the contingency of a model where happiness is found in some object, act, or even a person, so that even if I fail, or if circumstances fail me, I could still be happy, and still find a way to help others be happy where I can, even if my contributions are miniscule. It’s a vision of happiness that keeps me writing, even when I feel like I’ll never finish my story, that keeps me trying to fix things when I make mistakes, or when things fall apart, or when I just want to give up.
I’d like to think what Augustine says is true, and that the little lights of advent candles are more than just a way to find illusory comfort in the darkness. Let’s just say – I can hope.