Kelly J. Baker reflects on Rebecca Solnit’s refusal to let despair win.
2016 has been a hard year. Beloved celebrities, like David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Natalie Cole, and many others, died. In June, a shooter killed 49 people and wounded 53 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This shooting became the deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in U.S. history as well as the deadliest terrorist attack (on U.S. soil) since September 11th.
As of July 2016, police have killed 532 people, including many who were unarmed people of color. We learn about some of the victims when there’s video footage from a cell phone or body cam. Some of their names become a litany of hashtags that grows longer with each passing day. Sometimes, their deaths are only marked by an increase in the number of dead. Say, tweet, or post their names. Try not to feel hopeless or lost.
In Dallas, a shooter killed five police officers, and in Baton Rouge, another gunman killed three police officers. Claims of retaliation appeared in news stories and on social media. I wondered if this summer was the tipping point, a point of no return, but still we manage to trudge forward.
There’s the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President. The white supremacists that I study seem to love him, and why wouldn’t they? He is a master at divisive and harmful language pandering to white nationalists and stirring up hate. Hillary Clinton’s website set up an app that lets you “Trump Yourself” to see how exactly Trump would insult you based on your Facebook profile. I don’t have the heart to even try.
2016 doesn’t just feel like a hard year; it feels like the hardest year. The year when everything finally went awry in ways that seem irreparable. Friends on Twitter regularly describe 2016 as a “dumpster fire” with accompanying gifs. Gallows humor is rife and expected. Some even suggest that we might be living in a dystopian futures that novels and films warned us about for years. Yet, we didn’t seem to heed their warnings. The world seems bleaker, more brutal than ever before. The future appears no longer bright, but dim and fading fast. The world as we know it appears as one calamity after another. In my most pessimistic moments, I find myself wondering if doomsday prophets, past and present, would find joy in interpreting our horror as signs of the end.
The encroaching new world order seems less like a revolution and more the result of what happens when we resolve to let things falls apart on a large scale. Dystopia, after all, offers much chaos and little hope. It convinces us there’s nothing we can do to change the inevitable fall and the resulting terror. It wants us to submit to the increasingly awful status quo. It wants us to sit back and watch the end. It never wants us to leave our couches. It wants us to forget that we ever had the ability to act.
The horror of 2016 weighs on me. My shoulders droop. My back bends. I cross my arms over my chest tightly, and I look at the ground because what lies in the distance is too much to bear. I want to feel hopeless. Like the world we’ve made is irreparably broken and none of our efforts can fix it. Like averting my gaze means that I can avoid the slow-moving disaster around me and stay sane. Like if I look at that the suffering, violence, and pain for too much longer that I won’t be able to get out of bed each morning. Like the future is so dark that there are no more glimmers of the light to be found.
Yet, I still look for the light. I don’t entirely feel hopeless. I refuse to let despair win.
Instead, I scour around for hope, even smallest spark will keep the increasing darkness away. What I found was Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books: 2016). Originally published in 2004 after President George W. Bush was re-elected, this small, powerful book offers a rousing defense of hope. Though most of the essays are from over 12 years ago, Hope in the Dark feels timely, prescient even. It is a necessary book for 2016, a primer in why we need to remain hopeful especially in the moments that feel trying, bleak, or hard. In this third edition, Solnit provides a new introduction on the importance of hope for our time, especially in the hard years like this one. This collection of essays is not a fluffy defense of hope that veers toward unfounded optimism, but rather a careful consideration of hope’s power to change the world as we now know it. After all, Solnit is a historian, activist, and writer. She’s has written 18 books, including Men Explain Things to Me, and contributes to Harper’s Magazine. She’s a remarkable, unflinching analyst of contemporary culture, who always makes me reconsider what I previously imagined to be true about the world we happen to share. She emerges as a staunch advocate of hope, who gives readers reasons to remain hopeful too.
Hope in the Dark shifts from past to present to examine how change occurs, how revolutions start, how victories go unnoticed, how environmental thinking once considered radical becomes mainstream, and how the future is always unknowable to us even when we want to pretend that it isn’t. Solnit’s activism appears present in the histories she tells, and her historical sensibility present in her activism. She refuses to compromise one for the other. There’s an urgency to her writing. An acknowledgment that we need hope now more than ever. A plea that we continue to hope and never give into despair. A desire for us to see activism as a continued struggle without a clear ending and history as a more complicated story that encompasses victories and losses bound together, not so easily demarcated.
Hope in the Dark attempts to change the stories we tell ourselves about the world by showing what we’ve gained in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries rather than getting mired in only what we’ve lost. We tend to dwell on the losses and dismiss the partial victories. Solnit wants to tell “a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and the worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation.” Gains and losses show us the potential of hope as well as the destructive allure of despair.
Like so many others, I understand the temptation of despair. I understand the desire to claim that the future is out of our hands. I understand the ease of malaise and the hardness of activism. And this is why I keep returning to Hope in the Dark. In this shitty year, perhaps the shittiest year, I need hope about the future, and Solnit makes the case for hope. I first picked up her book in April when I needed someone to remind me that hope was better than hopelessness. Solnit did. I read it again after the video-recorded murder of Philando Castile by the police. After the murder of Korryn Gaines last week, I reread it again because I needed someone to assure me that the future was far from settled. And Solnit did.
With wit and compassion, Solnit is sort of a modern day prophet, but not of doomsday, never of doomsday, but of humanity and human potential. She prods us to reconsider the popular visions of human nature as violent, brutish, and selfish, and instead, to “redefine human nature as something more communal, compassionate, and cooperative.” she’s not a prophet, though Her words feel prophetic; she’s our guide to recognizing the altruism, kindness, and cooperation of humanity when we so often only focus on the violence, destruction, and brutality. She’s trying to convince us to widen our gaze rather than narrowing our focus. She wants us to grab onto hope and never let it go. Maybe she has hope for all us. I tend to think she does.
Hope is a crucial component to Solnit’s vision of humanity, which, at first, might strike you as strange or overly optimistic. Hope has a bad rap, often dismissed as a serious emotion and rendered instead as fanciful. It’s portrayed as an example of positive thinking gone haywire lacking any attention to how the world functions. It appears detached from reality. After all, we place our hopes in the possibility of things that might never come to pass. We get our hopes up, and often, they come crashing down. We, then, assume that hope lacks purpose or focus. We hope for something, passionately or desperately, and it might not happen. There’s no certainty attached to our hope, which appears at first glance to be the death knell of hope. We have it, but we aren’t actually sure that it does anything useful.
While others might imagine hope to be tragic or misguided, Solnit finds revolutionary power: hope motivates us to act. She writes that hope “is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine” nor it is “a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative.” Instead, hope is the notion that “we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Hope admits that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. We can’t really know what will happen or rely on the importance or unimportance of our own actions. Hope emerges as “the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand” (emphasis mine). Hopes encourages us to choose to act anyway, no matter what the results. Having hope means we have to learn to live with the fact that life is not predictable, certain, or guaranteed. Neither is the future.
Certainty is the enemy of hope. Hope requires ambiguity and flexibility. Hope admits that we cannot know, but we can act anyway. Solnit criticizes both optimists and pessimists for their insistence on certainty. Optimists and pessimists claim to already know how things will turn out (positively or negatively), so they both refuse to act. They assume they can’t change what lies ahead. They assume that their actions don’t matter. They assume the future is already decided. Solnit shows again and again that the optimists and pessimists couldn’t be more wrong. Actions matter, even if we can’t know what change they’ll bring.
But before we can act, we have to be able to imagine. Solnit writes, “[C]hange that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination.” We have to be able to imagine different futures, so that we can change our world. We have to think of change first, and then, we embody it. If we think the future can’t be changed, then we refuse to work to change it. Solnit wants each of us to that we have the ”power to make the world.” Hope gives us the nudge, or kick in the pants, we need. Hope requires us to learn to the embrace uncertainty over certainty, to recognize that the future is unknowable, and to admit that we have the power to change the world if we choose to act. The future is not set in stone, but it is malleable, porous, and shifting. The future contains a multitude of possibilities, some of them wild and not quite realized yet and some beyond what we can imagine right now.
Solnit insists on this power of hope again and again. Our actions matter, and she shows us page by page how much they do. The future is always in progress; our actions can shift what the future holds. We can remake the world if we choose to. “The world,” she writes, “is always being made and never finished.” We have more power than we know or care to admit it. That it is easier to slide into fatalism than about our world than to find hope is a great tragedy. It is easier to find the world broken, irredeemable, or harmed beyond repair. It is easier to ignore the problems that seem structural, unwieldly, or somehow unfixable. It is easier to give up rather than engage. It is easier to imagine that the broken, violent world is all that we will ever have and learn to live within it without question. It is easier to exist than to put in the hard work of change. “People,” Solnit explains, “have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.” Imagining ends are always easier than imagining and working toward a better version of our world we have now. Doomsday is fatalism dressed up by pronouncements of prophecy.
And yet, Solnit shows us that we all have the ability to bring about change, but that change might not end up being what we imagined it to be.
Change, she reminds us, is unpredictable (which is something we tend to forget or maybe even ignore). It can be hard to tell what exact actions bring about social, cultural, or political change. Was it the actions of grassroots organizers? Was it the work of one tireless environmental group? Was it a march, a protest, a sit-in, or some other direct action? Was it a news article that explained the stakes in way we haven’t seen before? Was it legislators, the courts, or even the President? It’s hard to say. Which changes brought us what future? What changes gave us the present, which used to be a future once upon a time? It’s hard to say. Historians try valiantly to explain how and why events unfolded as they did. Some historians seek the clarity and certainty that history supposedly brings. They map out how things happened without recognizing that the path might be more winding and circuitous than they claim it is. Who gave us the future we inhabit now? There are some answers, some paths, some directions, but it’s still remains hard to say. Who first imagined the social, cultural, and political changes that we now have in the twenty-first century? It is hard to know.
Solnit explains that all the changes that now make up the status quo happened because people acted. Hope is forward-reaching, but based in how we understand the past and present. Change takes time. Some stories aren’t finished in days, weeks, months, years, or even decades. Some stories seems to remain perpetually in progress. For instance, Solnit notes that “shifts” in “the status of women” are often “overlooked by people who don’t remember that, a few decades ago, reproductive rights were not yet a concept.” People forget that this is a victory for women’s rights because we come to assume that this was the way things always were. Cultural victories become the status quo; the struggle to become the status quo goes unremarked and unnoticed. This becomes the way things always were, and the struggles get erased. We no longer remember the battle for what is commonplace.
Maybe that’s the real tragedy of hope that it spurs action in ways that aren’t obvious or apparent. We fail to notice how hope guides the actions of people in the world. We fail to notice it’s power, even as we act on it. The future relies on how our actions manifest. Hope spurs our action. We conveniently overlook the process. We continue to hope, act, and do. We don’t always notice.
Whether we notice or not, hope remains defiant and deft. Hope also doesn’t deny the realities we inhabit. Hope recognizes what we are up against and chooses action anyway. Our current moment feels dire and dystopian. Other moments have too. Solnit notes, “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time.” Hope and horror exist together. Potential and nightmare stuck endlessly side-by-side. The potential for change always rests uncomfortably beside the nightmares of income inequality, police brutality, constant surveillance, terrorism, gun violence, hate crimes, unending war, abuse, harassment, sexual assault, climate change, and environmental disaster.
The world appears broken; hope tells us we can make it less so. Hope doesn’t tell us that the world can be repaired perfectly. Hope doesn’t offer visions of utopia, a nowhere that was never really possible. Hope knows that destruction and devastation won’t go away, but they can be reduced. Solnit writes, “A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”
A better world, yes, but not a perfect one. The world still limits us, but it can’t keep us from acting. Hope encourages us to work toward that better world. To reduce the nightmares. To act. To do. To change the world. The future is dark, but also uncertain. And there’s our chance for new possibilities, for a more humane and equitable world. Uncertainty is our opportunity, and we can’t afford to waste it. With hope, we act. Will we change the world? We can’t know, but that should never stopping us from trying. I have hope that we will.
Feature image is of Rebecca Solnit.