Is Hope Absurd?

“I believe in the sun

even when it is not shining

And I believe in love,

even when there’s no one there.

And I believe in God,

even when he is silent.”

-Found on the wall of a German concentration camp

I went hiking in the rainforest recently, and what I learned is that the century-old Ceiba trees are completely unaware of any threat of nuclear war. The pit vipers, dangerous in their own right, seemed oblivious to tragedies of guns being used on innocent children in schools. And the sloths kept moving at their usual pace, seemingly unhurried by changes in the markets or reports of Russian interference. Miles away from CNN or Fox, I found a corner of the universe mercifully absent of the ruminations of human-kind’s demise.

I laughed out loud as I realized I had come to hike on the edge of a volcano to escape the stress-inducing eruptions of the news feed at home, that likely pose a greater danger to my health than the actual pools of lava meters beneath my feet.

There, in that place where nature’s majesty and awe are on full display, I have no trouble believing in the sun, in love, or in the transcendent dimensions of reality. Maybe you’ve had some kind of similar experience looking up into a starry sky, or watching the sun set over water? There’s a certain unspeakable quality to some places, one that quickly puts you and your troubles back in their places in the universe.

While I can’t begin to compare anything in my life to the horrors of a concentration camp, I think this poem evokes a universal human recollection; of moments when the sun is not shining, and love, or anything beyond the immediate circumstance seem non-existent. We may not have suffered as others have, but most of us can recall a time in our own lives when darkness, absence, or silence seemed unbearable. To believe in anything at those moments, let alone to have hope, seems absurd. It can be hard to feel you have permission to complain about middle-class life after writing the words concentration camp earlier in the paragraph. To critique such comfortable and convenient lives that many of have can feel ungrateful at best, and unsympathetic of the great suffering so many others have, at worst. But there are illnesses that affect so many of us in modern technologically advanced cultures, specifically related to the cultures themselves and the rapid changes our brains have not been able to adapt to quickly enough.  Our technology is immersing us information and alerting us to potential dangers in ways we haven’t figured out how to deal with.

I find myself longing for those moments on a beach or in a rainforest when I come back to “normal” life particularly because of the ease those places provide in allowing me to believe again and be hopeful. They are not just escapes from reality, but perhaps reconnections with the other side of reality – the side that testifies to goodness and beauty of life.  Immersed in North American culture and lifestyle, I find myself caught in an undertow of things to be sad about, people to be angry at, and dangers headed my way. Again, I laugh out loud as I recall the signs on the beach warning of dangerous riptides from the ocean’s currents, but nobody warns you that watching the TV screens in the airport lounge can suck you into an emotional vortex and drown you before you’re on the plane ride home. I laugh because my “civilized” urban life has made me more anxious of the natural world, while the familiar information technology of my regular life might be crushing my soul with it’s pervasive despair. What seems dangerous – hiking up an old lava flow – might be the very thing that could save me from a data immersed life in which hope seems so difficult.

I suppose we can’t always expect that change of location or circumstance will make it easy for us to believe again.

Perhaps this is where the profundity of this poem strikes us so deeply. Even in the worst circumstance imaginable, the poet seems to suggest that it is possible to find hope, to believe in things like love or God, if we are able to remember what we have experienced at some other point in our lives. Having seen countless sunrises and sunsets, we are able to believe in its return, even in the darkest and longest of nights. Having experienced love, we can believe in its power, even when it seems absent. And having experienced transcendence (regardless of what name we use for it) we can hold on to the possibility that there is more than what we can sense in this particular moment. I wonder if whoever it was that wrote these lines, scrawled them on that camp wall to remind themselves of what we all so easily loose track of.

I’m sure that we all need regular experiences of wonder that re-orient us to beauty and goodness. But for those times of despair and isolation, perhaps memory is our most critical resource. We need to recall where love and sunlight and transcendence have broken through in the past. This brave poem teaches us that it is our recollections of the other side of reality that can transform hope into an audacious belief, rather than an absurdity. 

Whatever you are facing on this gloomy winter’s day, may you remember the sun, the love, and the transcendent experiences of life.

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