hope and darkness

You, darkness, of whom I am born –

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines ….

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours I.11, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

In her powerful book about activism for social change, “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities”, Rebecca Solnit explores the question of how social change happens. She asserts that future time is “dark”, in the sense of “unknown”. She says:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 2016

In this work, hope is a capacity for human beings to maintain resilience, through an openness to the way in which effects may unfold or emerge over time.

As with any step taken into darkness, hope is courageous. It means learning to do difficult things. Namely to tolerate uncertainty and to be present to pain.

To explain this further, hope is understood through Rebecca Solnit’s work as a specific orientation to realities of contemporary existence that hurt : inequality, injustice, poverty, violence, climate emergency and worsening environmental crises. To be hopeful is to be able to see clearly the injustice, destruction and grief; but at the same time to assert that the future has an inherent openness which means that positive change is possible. And Rebecca Solnit makes a clear distinction between “possible” and “guaranteed”. She says that “you hope for results, you don’t depend on them”.

Hope, described in this way, is not optimism, which can be blind, letting us shy away from the courageous act, and obscure or deny the realities of past or present exploitation and injustice.

Rebecca Solnit also describes hope as an “orientation”, and this is helpful because an orientation is a direction rather than a location, which means that we can give up on an attempt to locate hope as a personal quality or possession. It can be there, regardless of where we are right now, or how we happen to feel on a given day, what thoughts are present. Instead, the emphasis is on hope as a personal and collective struggle to face in a certain direction.

And hope can be understood as a daily practice, so a verb rather than a noun. It is incremental, giving us room for a series of micro-actions (including thoughts and words), which hold within them the possibility for change. Hope emerges in Rebecca Solnit’s writing as both a call for, and the condition for, meaningful action.

Sources & resources for further research and reading:

Rainer Marie Rilke : Rilke’s Book of Hours : Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books.

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books, 2016.

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