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“A Prisoner of Hope”

January 14, 2009

We live in a culture that has made optimism parallel with naivete, ignorance and disconnection. In a world breaking apart with hatred, greed, war, extremism, disease, drugs, cruelty and economic breakdown, most people would say there is nothing to do but hop in the hand basket that we are all going to Hell in. Why, in the middle of all this crap, would you even bother trying to look on the bright side?

I turn on NPR or flick through the newspaper and my heart breaks when I see what is going on the Gaza Strip. Desperation causes people to do terrible things because quite often, they feel like there is no other choice. It’s hard to be optimistic in days like these.

But even in all of this, I have come to see that optimism isn’t just about turning a blind eye to despair and focusing on the cheerful, peppy, happy stuff. It’s not walking down the street, ignoring the homeless people and empty storefronts, while whistling and picking out shapes of puppies and unicorns in the clouds. I think optimism, or what some might call hope, is knowing that this darkness, this bone-cracking, heart-breaking mess we live in, does not have the last word.

Where I live, we are all shivering and chattering through an extreme cold spell right now. It’s probably about 5 degrees outside my window and over the past few days, the city and other organizations have been banding together to help take care of the homeless in our city. Looking under highway overpasses, in parks, on street corners, making sure that no one is turned away from a warm place to sleep. I appreciate so much that these people and places are working together to care for the homeless at a time when they are so vulnerable. At the same time, it still bothers me that it takes subzero temperatures for some (read, not ALL) people to stand up and do something and for the public to take notice of it. I think about all the organizations and people in the city who are fighting every day for the voiceless and helpless, these human beings that have stories and hearts and lives, who no one seems to notice. I work at a local nonprofit and see (and make) these sacrifices on a daily basis. But then I  remember, whether people notice us or not, the point is that we are there and no matter how seemingly small, a positive difference is being made.  We give even when we are barely making ends meet because we have seen through the myth of wealth and self-entitlement and found it to be empty.


When the world seems chock full of the wrong kind of people, we can hold firm that there are still people who are willing to work and struggle every day to make sure that their stories will be ones of redemption and hope. A ragtag band of lovers and sinners, ragamuffins and screw-ups, who push on through the roadblocks and heartaches, some following this barefoot homeless carpenter from Galilee and others just following the nameless call in their hearts. We have looked and the tomb is empty. We are infected with reckless, limitless hope.

If we live in this mindset, arrange our lives around this idea that the last word belongs to a God that is good and is Love, then we will find that what comes out of our lives is much more powerful than we could have imagined. If we believe that we have been rescued by a Savior who is recklessly in love with humanity, who sacrificed Himself so that darkness would never outlast the light, then how can we say that cynicism is even an option?

Cynicism breeds inaction and apathy — people assume that there is too much wrong with the world to even bother to try and fix it, so it’s easier just to concentrate on making their own lives better. It’s frankly a damn lazy and selfish point of view and we’re all guilty of it. (Even the lifelong, rough ‘n’ tough optimists like me.) But even if cynicism seems to come the most naturally, it is not the only choice. In fact, if you consider yourself a true follower of the resurrected Christ, it’s not an option at all. If you take hope and redemption seriously, then I can’t see how you’d have any other choice but to stand up and DO, even if you are being knocked about by a storm that never seems to end.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, theologian Cornel West said this:

“The categories of optimism and pessimism don’t exist for me. I’m a blues man. A blues man is a prisoner of hope, and hope is a qualitatively different category than optimism. Optimism is a secular construct, a calculation of probability…Hope wrestles with despair, but it doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended. I am a prisoner of hope. I’m going to die full of hope.”

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Mr. West about the qualitative difference between hope and optimism (I have to think about it more), but something important is there — once the true meaning, the real story, of hope takes hold, that’s it. It’s a daily struggle to be sure, to make the choice that to do something is better than to do nothing, even if that “something” is nothing but a drop in an ocean. The world is full of people doing small things and it is those small things that are changing everything.

People who move to Morocco to start a business that provides jobs and skills to young men who might otherwise turn to terrorism.

People who tutor inner city kids after school to help them get to the level of reading comprehension that they need to succeed.

People who feed the hungry when they are having a hard enough time feeding themselves.

God doesn’t ask that we ignore pain and despair. My dear Mr. Lewis wrote, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We need to listen to the deep, guttural cries that our world wails and shakes with, yet not be overcome by them. They are only symptoms of a deeper disease that can be treated with nothing but the love of God and His hands and feet. Wars won’t solve it, policies and legislation can only go so far — more than everything else, we must first be changed by the unconditional love and hope of God before we can expect to change the world.

Jim Wallis and Sojourners have some good thoughts on this too.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    January 14, 2009 12:28 pm

    “…others just following the nameless call in their hearts.”

    What a great line. I was amazed when my eyes were first opened to this possibility, and it’s still a fascinating thing for me to think about.

  2. Caroline permalink*
    January 14, 2009 12:44 pm


    It’s a really complex thing to consider, yet still I can’t get away from it. We should talk about this more — I’d be interested to hear what thoughts you have.

  3. James permalink
    January 14, 2009 10:14 pm

    Just some quick thoughts after reading…

    I guess when I think of optimism and hope, I see optimism as more of a tendency of perception. It is a way that one views the world; the things they see, and the events that happen.

    Hope, on the other hand, does not involve perception (which ebbs and flows with moods and weather), but resilient belief. Hope is powerful. I equate hope with endurance.

    I have been guilty of being a cynic.
    At times, the actions of human beings can be far more bitter and cold than any bite of the wind.

    But one person that becomes filled with hope and love has the ability to shelter thousands.
    Selfless acts, I have found, are one of the most inspirational actions one can take. Not because of the change that is made by the action itself, but the change that is made in the people involved – the ripples of that drop in the ocean.

  4. Caroline permalink*
    January 15, 2009 8:16 am


    You know, when you explain optimism and hope that way, it makes sense to me. And I think you’re right.

    All of us are guilty of being cynics at times, but the beauty is that we have the ability to lift each other up as much as we do to knock each other down.

    Madeleine Albright once said, “I’m an optimist who worries a lot.”

    I think her and I understand one another.

  5. this0side0of0the0truth permalink
    January 17, 2009 4:33 pm

    Hey, where did you find that picture of that inscription in the cement?

    Unless there are more…its in SF!

  6. Caroline permalink*
    January 18, 2009 7:59 pm

    I found a picture of that inscription on Google images — I think I just searched “hope” and that’s what came up. It’s in SF? Yay! 🙂 I love what it says…people need to be reminded of that.

  7. this0side0of0the0truth permalink
    January 19, 2009 12:15 am

    Its cool,I actually saw it in a drawing by an guy named Paul madonna who does a comic strip for the Chronicle sometimes. He just put out a compilation of his comic strip, its called “All Over Coffee”. You should look up it, you would probably really like it. It has gotten a lot of hype here and I suppose its for good reason. He captures SF really well anyways and draws obscure areas and detail of the city, there are a lot of them. That makes the hipsters dig him a whole lot anyways. They essentially are always trying to do that with their fancy cameras. You know, snap shots of little flowers in sidewalk cracks. So profound. So decadent.

    Anyways he can get a little emo too for my taste, but over all its worth checking out.

    Have fun in D.C!

  8. Matt permalink
    December 5, 2009 4:57 am

    What a great piece of writing. Really gets you thinking, and it’s actually a very inspiring piece. Thank you.

  9. April permalink
    December 6, 2009 1:23 am

    I came across your blog, and one of your pictures would work great for my college presentation on Hope. I was wondering if I could use the picture of the little girl reaching out for the heart shape balloon for my presentation. I will give you full creat for your work! Thank you!

  10. April permalink
    December 6, 2009 1:32 am

    I ment I will give you full credit.

  11. Caroline permalink*
    December 6, 2009 12:18 pm

    @ Matt — thank you! I appreciate you reading and pray you find this season of Advent full of hope. 🙂

    @ April — Please feel free to use the photo. It’s actually just one I found elsewhere, so the credit does not need to go to me — it’s actually a painting by the artist Banksy. The credit should go to him.

    Maybe I should start crediting the photos I use as to not confuse people. Thanks for getting me thinking on that! 🙂

    Grace and peace to you both!

  12. April permalink
    December 7, 2009 3:32 am

    thank you for the helpful information! I will give credit to the artist!

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