A correspondence on hope: Letters between a student and a professor

“When it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me.”

Sean O’Casey, the great Irish playwright, once wrote this on how to maintain hope in dark and dangerous times. That is the subject of the following correspondence between the two of us. One of us, Henry, is young and desperately wishing to resist a fall into cynical hopelessness. The other, Ed, is aging and continuing to rebel as he tries to be, in the words of Albert Camus, “a man who says no but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.” Each in his own way sees his face and his fate in the other’s eyes. Together they are searching for sources of hope to resist the coming “plague.”

8/23/16

Ed,

I have just finished your article on Hillary Clinton and Libya. My apologies for the delay, it has been a chaotic couple of weeks. After reading this, I have but one question for you: How do you remain hopeful?

After being a front-line soldier in the failed cultural revolution of the 1960s, after several decades of researching the extent of the deep state’s depravity and power, after exposing unspeakable evils article after article with seemingly no end in sight and no public reaction, how do you still have hope? How would anyone? It is so easy for someone like me to develop a cynical world-view after just a few semesters of amateur digging. Where do you find the strength to remain so fortified?

I know you have not voted since the infamous election of 1972—and I can’t blame you. This year I too have lost what little remaining electoral faith I had. The channels of power are already in place and those who look will see that Clinton will undoubtedly be the next president of the United States. Knowing this, I am sure you will not cast your vote come November. Nothing has changed since 1972, so why would you? It seems to me that you have lost all hope in the political process—and again, I cannot blame you.

If this is the case, why hasn’t this discouragement spread to the other facets of your life? Nothing has changed since 1972; and yet, you continue to write articles exposing the elites, calling for justice, calling for a change—a change that has been actively suppressed by those in power for what seems like the entirety of human existence. You educate and inform many young people of the power elite, discussing the various nefarious acts they have orchestrated. Sometimes in class you seem more pragmatic than hopeful—like last semester when you declared Clinton the unequivocal victor of the general election long before any one of us had lost hope in Bernie Sanders. You were not wrong. If there is no chance of change, I suppose it is better to live a life in truth than in lies. Regardless, one thing you never appear to be is cynical, or discouraged, or hopeless. Why is this? How is this? Where do you find this extreme mettle? It is something that I greatly admire about you, something that I have been wondering for quite some time.

Anyway, we will be heading back to class in a couple of weeks. I look forward to your JFK class; and I hope you are enjoying what little summer we have left!

Your student,

Henry

8/24/16

Dear Henry,

The question you ask me is a very important one. Over the years I have been asked it in passing conversion but never as eloquently as you put it. Usually I’ve been asked why I don’t get depressed, writing and teaching—doing what I do. I’ve usually said, “I don’t know; I just don’t.” Not much of an answer, right? But you’ve put me on the spot and I have had to think deeply about it.

A few months back I wrote an article about finding hope in offbeat places, and I have recently been thinking about a certain existential hopelessness I sense among a large part of the American left. No doubt this is true across the political spectrum as well.

I do think the electoral system at the national level is a hopeless situation. I may cast a vote for Jill Stein, but I am well aware she has no chance of winning. I hesitate to do even that, since by voting I am giving legitimacy to a corrupt system. I think the system is rigged by the power elite for the power elite. It is structured that way so that no one who challenges the system will be allowed in. JFK was the last one to do so because after being elected—after getting in—he underwent a spiritual conversion and turned toward peace; so they killed him. His conversion was miraculous. He is a true martyr for peace.

I find great hope in his example, despite his assassination. He inspires me by his example, as do others such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, and Robert Kennedy. Of course they were all killed, but killing a man doesn’t silence him and can’t eliminate the power of the spiritual force he brought into the world.

What I’m saying is that though the political world situation seems so bleak, it isn’t totally so. There are great people alive today and others who have gone before us to inspire us. One who has inspired me was Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who died in the spring. When I attended his funeral in NYC, I felt the power of his inspirational witness in all the great people who were there. And there were many of them. People who care for the world; fight injustice and war and carry on and on. They don’t give up. Let’s call it truth power. I believe it’s the most powerful force in the world. I think it’s spiritual and is contagious.

I get discouraged, for sure. Everyone does. I get down. But I believe with Gandhi that God is truth and truth is God, and I feel the spirit of God in my life. I always have. That’s me. I know there are others who may not believe in God or are agnostic, who also feel the same way about being inspired by others who fight the good fight. But you asked me why I don’t lose hope, and God is the primary reason why.

There are other reasons as well—my family and my obstinate nature being two. I have always felt the need to fight against bullies and injustice and have been a rebel from a young age. Since I was very young I have been obsessed with truth, and I have come to realize that it was God obsessing me and to be true to my deepest self I must never give up or give in to hopelessness. Also, I enjoy living what I believe is my vocation. It energizes me. I feel I am responding to a call.

Ed

8/27/16

Ed,

I truly do not know where to begin. I have read your email a few times now and on every read I catch something new.

You are really considering voting for Jill Stein? I’m surprised! That’s a huge deal. It’s true that no third party candidate has a chance of winning. The two party system is designed to stifle outside voices and anti-establishment rhetoric. A great example of this is how both Johnson (at 8.4%) and Stein (at 3.2%) hold a larger percentage of the polls than Ralph Nader in 2000; and yet, neither of them will be eligible to participate in the presidential debates. The move to a 15% polling threshold in 2000 is one of many tactics the power elite uses to suppress outside change.

Your words on truth and God really resonate with me. It reminded me of that famous Henry David Thoreau quote: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.” Like you, I too feel that hunger.

I find that most people have a strange relationship with truth; which is why I find it to be such a noble yet difficult pursuit. Rather than the objective truth, I feel like most people prefer to live their lives according to their own truths: comfortable truths that they choose and use as a way to refuse coping with cognitive dissonance and avoid anything that challenges their way of thinking. I think this is because people are uncomfortable with—or even afraid of—anything that doesn’t immediately jibe with their preconceived notions of how things are and ought to be. We crave consistency. And when our deepest convictions are challenged, it is far easier to dismiss opposing views as false as it is to consider contradictory information—to consider dealing with the stress of uncomfortable inconsistency.

So I absolutely agree with you that there is something spiritual and contagious about the truth, about truth power. It allows us to challenge our own beliefs, to open ourselves up to new experiences and opportunities for growth on entirely new levels. I believe this to be a necessary part of the human experience.

Like you said, it is so easy to get distracted with the dismal side of politics; especially when those fighting the good fight are not widely publicized. I can’t imagine what Father Daniel Berrigan’s funeral must’ve been like. To be surrounded by all of those like-minded people! In a community like that I bet it would be hard to lose hope. It’s incredibly inspiring to read what gives you hope and to know who inspires you. In doing so, it gives me hope.

Sincerely,

Henry

8/31/16

Dear Henry,

Your Thoreau quote is perfect. I suspect that he has fallen on hard times in the current cultural atmosphere. I read an article in a prominent publication trashing him earlier this year. I love him.

I am wondering about your friends and fellow college students. Do you think your generation is hopeful, and if so, where do they find that hope? I am often perplexed by their obsession with social media and the shallowness of their reading and thinking. Not you, of course, but so many others who can’t seem to focus or concentrate and seem to me to be off somewhere else when you talk to them. Are any of them religious, spiritual, etc.? Are they politically active? Where do they find hope?

Ed

9/8/16

Hey Ed,

You are absolutely right when you say that Thoreau has fallen on hard times. Many of my peers consider him and his writing a joke. But I love him too.

I have been thinking about your questions for quite some time now, ruminating on the nature of my generation’s relations with hope. I, of course, cannot be the objective spokesperson for my entire generation. Rather, I can only speak subjectively through my observations, my experiences and conversations with friends, fellow students, and colleagues.

What interested me most out of your entire first response was the hope you find in God. I know you grew up Catholic. I also know that despite distancing yourself from The Church as an institution, you kept your religious beliefs. Even though I know all this, I was unaware of the extent religion affects your life. Honestly, I was taken aback. I was not so much surprised, I mean, it makes sense completely. I just found it very powerful. It took me time to fully digest the scope of what you had said.

Religion is most definitely not a source of hope for the majority of my peers. This may be why I was fairly surprised when first reading your response. I struggle to describe the magnitude of millennial anti-religious sentiments. I see most of my peers putting their faith in the scientific theories of life, rather than religious ones. Most young people do not hold any religious values; in fact, I often see them holding contempt for those who do, equating The Church and a belief in God with dated values and a staunch lack of intelligence. We are the first generation to be raised in a cultural climate where the most accepted intellectual/spiritual belief declares that humans are nothing more than irrational animals existing in an impersonal, morally neutral universe. Despite what this scientific theory of life offers, it lacks any element of metaphysical meaning, leaving us to fend for ourselves. In previous generations, people would look to The Church and to God for providing life’s purpose; however, with the negative stigma people my age hold towards institutionalized religion, that is not the case. This leaves us to find our own sense of purpose, our own existential meaning, our own source of hope.

As you know, finding meaning in the lives we live is a difficult task, especially on your own. I was raised Protestant; and although I no longer identify as such, I still hold my own system of spiritual beliefs. I am not advocating for increasing the prevalence of institutionalized religion; I have just noticed that the lack of a religious crutch makes this generation’s search for purpose, search for hope, exponentially more onerous. I could guess that this is a contributing factor in the existential hopelessness you sense within the American left, especially because those on the left are far less likely to possess/teach their children religious beliefs. The meaning of life is no longer thrust upon us by The Church; and if one does not create their own meaning, they then often feel that their life has no meaning altogether. That is why I believe that a strictly scientific system of beliefs can often nurture a deep sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and can ultimately lead towards chronic nihilism.

This nihilistic aura is an extremely noticeable symptom of hopelessness in young people’s lives. I have observed it through the increased interest in nihilism among my peers and in the popularity of “nihilist memes:” where young people’s underlying dread of a meaningless existence is expressed through a cathartic, humorous medium. People my age have grown up in a world lacking inherent meaning, lacking hope: a war-torn world where human life has little value. For instance, I have been alive for 20 years, 15 of which the United States and its allies have been waging war in the Middle East, with no conceivable end in sight. My generation has come accustomed to a world where we send soldiers to kill and die and accept that little change will come of it. We have been raised with a desensitized awareness to the destruction of life. It’s all we’ve known and we have little hope of change. I think that the combination of this devaluation of the human experience, coupled with the misconstrued sense of metaphysical meaninglessness has made it increasingly difficult to value our own existence. And from what I can gather, we have learned to act in accordance to this; and therefore, will often indulge in hedonistic and egocentric behaviors in an attempt to cope, to distract ourselves from our existential hopelessness.

The prevalence of social-media can be attributed to this. You said it perplexed you. But when seen in the cultural context I have laid out for you, does it not make sense? I think that social-media serves as both a vehicle for self-praise as well as an endless source of instantaneous distractions, mental relief from the hard search for meaning.

Do I think my generation is completely hopeless? No, of course not. I think many of my peers find hope and meaning in political activism, fighting for a positive change in the world. When—key word when—my peers are active in politics, they aspire to do great things. For instance, look at the Black Lives Matter movement, or the millennial power behind Bernie Sander’s campaign. Many young people exhibit extreme hope in their belief that they have the power to change the nation—the world—for the better.

It is far easier to submit to the more common nihilistic view of existence than it is to hold out hope of changing it. But you have helped to show me that there are still hopeful enclaves, waiting to inspire great movements for the future.

You gave me so much to think about. I could write so much more about this.

See you Monday,

Henry

10/5/16

Dear Henry,

Your passion for hope gives me hope. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Your student,

Ed

Edward Curtin is a sociologist and writer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and has published widely.

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2 Responses to A correspondence on hope: Letters between a student and a professor

  1. Emanuel E. Garcia

    What a pleasure to read such a civil and eloquent exchange.
    Would many more such exchanges occur among those who purport to be our political representatives. Kudos to these two thoughtful and -hopeful! – correspondents.

  2. Calvin Coolidge once said, “Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil; our great hope lies in developing what is good.” What we believe in matters. I am proud that my son is so thoughtfully engaging with his professor on important ideas and questions. The importance of actively choosing a life of meaning can not be underestimated. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world. I wish both Professor Curtin and my son Henry continued hope and joy in the search for truth and meaning. Both are important, so too is love. I think it may have been Che Guevera who said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” May it be so.