Hope is a Thing with Muscles
Last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” included a sketch in which Emma Stone played an exhausted, postpartum Virgin Mary who’s annoyed with Joseph for inviting visitor after visitor—shepherds, magi, a llama (not of the Dalai sort … )—into the stable where she’s just given birth to Jesus. The bit plays up Mary’s fatigue, her frustration with gifts that are useless to a new family—frankincense and myrrh instead of diapers or blankets—and her low-grade depression.
In the sketch, Mary’s depression stems at least in part from disappointment that the “Here I am, Lord” she had so famously offered to the Angel Gabriel when he announced she had been chosen to bear the Son of God hadn’t worked out at all as she’d imagined.
“Sorry,” Mary says to the unwanted visitors, “I guess when I found out I was going to give birth to the savior, I just assumed it was going to be nicer. That there would be a real bed, and I don’t know, like a doctor and no sheep poop on the floor. But everybody’s looking at me and I feel puffy and I feel gross.”
Apparently, SNL Mary’s lament struck a chord. Moms all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds lauded the piece as, in the words of one friend, “the first honest Nativity story ever told.”
Whether you’re a mother or not, the skit was both funny and moving. It acknowledged the lived complexity of all sorts of situations that are held up as symbols of great celebration and hope—getting married, buying a home, and, uh, electing a president—but often turn out to laced with everything from ambivalence, to uncertainty, to fear, to outright dread. As the poor, 14-year-old mother of baby Jesus understood—pressed as she was by unjust political demands to give birth in the least humane of circumstances—scraping out a bit of hope in what can feel like pretty desperate moments is something of a challenge.
Unfortunately, the way we’re often encouraged to face such challenges is by accepting false hope and cold comfort that merely paper over our real and legitimate distress. This certainly has been the case since the election for many people, as even the sitting president and the winner of the popular vote have encouraged Americans to “give the president-elect a chance” and to “wait and see” what will happen once the new administration gets formally underway in the new year.
But many of us have already seen enough to believe that some of our worst fears are likely to be realized in the coming years. And each tweet-filled day of the pre-inauguration season only verifies and bolsters our anxieties. We’re exhausted. We’re depressed. We’re frustrated almost beyond expression. We feel gross. So, how do we find hope in this season of waiting for what is unlikely to be a joyous new birth?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions the past few weeks. How can I be a person of hope without being a Pollyanna? How can I find the optimism and energy to work for positive change without ignoring the dangerous winds of hate that stir all around us? How can I stand up and speak out for truth and justice without becoming a relentlessly droning Cassandra?
I confess, I’ve been a little paralyzed and sometimes silenced in the face of the challenge of hope these last few weeks. I’ve avoided. I’ve hidden out. I’ve taken to watching “The Voice” and “The Amazing Race” rather than CNN or MSNBC. Lots of days, I just don’t want to know what’s going on.
Still, it’s also happened that hope has found me despite my best efforts to hide from it. For instance, one of my friends has become what I’ve come to refer to as “The Curator-in-Chief of the Resistance” on Facebook. With a vigor and earnestness that amazes me, she posts throughout the day about how the new administration is unfolding, what issues are being brought to light, and what kinds of action might impact both public perception and government policy. Maybe I’d rather hide under the blankets for four years, but she’s just not going to let me.
Another friend spent days writing to news outlets—dozens of them—to demand that they stop domesticating and normalizing white supremacy by calling it the “alt-right” and stop sanitizing full-on lies by calling them “falsehoods,” “untruths,” “counter-factual,” or other insufficient euphemisms. While such actions may seem like small things, words clearly shape the way people view reality, and the aggregate efforts of lots of people like my friend seem to be making an impact. News outlets have begun to shift their own language—boldly calling a lie a lie in headlines and articles—and interviewing practices. They also are hosting conversations about how best to confront the wanton mendacity of the president-elect and his surrogates—not only within journalistic realms, but also in the public square.
Other friends have inspired me to join them in donating to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign, Earth Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and other national and local groups that will work on the issues of greatest concern to me during the coming administration. My friends and I are not alone. Donations to organizations that fight hate and injustice have surged since the election.
I’m glad there are people in my life, virtually and locally, who are staying active, staying focused, staying engaged in the political process—and letting me and everyone else how can know about it. Their actions give me hope.
Now, it’s not an easy hope. There’s no silver lining hiding in it. Which brings me back to sad, frustrated SNL Virgin Mary. Her savior son eventually brought forth all kinds of hope through his radical critiques of corrupt civil and religious power, his compassionate care for those on the fringes of society, and his vision of a world freed from self-serving greed, exploitation, and want. But it is important to remember that all of that came at a cost. Remember: the hope we are about to celebrate, via pretty packages and bows, was imparted not by a banal gift-giving, good-times, miracle-working savior—like the one race car driver Ricky Bobby delightfully memorialized in his (in?)famous “Tiny Baby Jesus” prayer—but instead by a troublemaking resistance leader who challenged those in power.
Thus, the hope that we get as we wait through Advent—as we hold out for the painful, inconvenient, emotionally-exhausting divine incarnation so celebrated at Christmas—is a challenging hope. It is a hope that calls us to value small gestures of resistance; a hope that urges us to lift our voices for justice and compassion wherever we can; a hope that offers comfort only to feed our strength for the fraught journey ahead.
Hope, it turns out, is not Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” singing in our souls. Hope is, instead, a thing with muscles. It is the thing that moves us to act, moves us to speak, moves us to gather with those who are doing the hard work of caring for a world during times of unprecedented risk.
Sure, we’ll all need moments of respite, words of comfort, episodes of “The Great Holiday Baking Show” and “Project Runway” to gather our hope. But, in the end, I think President Obama got it right: “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”