A few years ago, I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at a Los Angeles benefit for a South African project. He’d been fighting prostate cancer, was tired that evening and had taken a nap before his talk. But when Tutu addressed the audience he became animated, expressing amazement that his long-oppressed country had provided the world with an unforgettable lesson in reconciliation and hope. Afterward, a few other people spoke, then a band from East LA took the stage and launched into an irresistibly rhythmic tune. People started dancing. Suddenly I noticed Tutu, boogying away in the middle of the crowd. I’d never seen a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still less one with a potentially fatal illness, move with such joy and abandonment. Tutu, I realized, knows how to have a good time. Indeed, it dawned on me that his ability to recognize and embrace life’s pleasures helps him face its cruelties and disappointments, be they personal or political.
Few of us will match Tutu’s achievements, but we’d do well to learn from someone who spent years challenging apartheid’s brutal system of human degradation, yet has remained lighthearted and free of bitterness. Any clear-eyed view of the world recognizes that grave threats exist: war, environmental destruction, the runaway power of corporate greed. To make matters worse, those in power often take advantage of real threats, like terrorism, by exploiting fear and feelings of vulnerability for their own gain. Today fear so dominates our society that Americans hesitate to speak out against the very actions that make other people hate us, worried that they may be deemed unpatriotic or simply ignored, marginalized. When people begin to silence themselves, democracy itself is imperiled.
The antidote to such fear and silence is hope: defiant, resilient, persistent hope, of the kind that Tutu embodies. In this vision, we act no matter what the seeming odds, both to be true to ourselves and to open up new possibilities. As Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical social justice magazine Sojourners, writes, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Another way of expressing Wallis’s sentiment is that hope is a way of looking at the world–more than that, it’s a way of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories of those who, like Tutu and Nelson Mandela, persist under the most dangerous conditions, when simply to imagine aloud the possibility of change is deemed a crime or viewed as a type of madness. Consider former Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose country’s experience, he argues, proves that a series of small, seemingly futile moral actions can bring down an empire. When the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe was first outlawed and arrested because the authorities said their Frank Zappa-influenced music was “morbid” and had a “negative social impact,” Havel organized a defense committee. That in turn evolved into the Charter 77 organization, which set the stage for Czechoslovakia’s broader democracy movement. As Havel wrote, three years before the Communist dictatorship fell, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”
Even in a seemingly losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who could go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks’s husband, Raymond, convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, the initial step on a twelve-year path that brought her to that fateful day on the bus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks involved? And why did that person take the trouble to do so?