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Recently, Nelson Mandela turned 93, and his nation celebrated noisily, even attempting to break the world record for the most people simultaneously singing “Happy Birthday.” This was the man who, on trial by the South African government in 1964, stood a good chance of being sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Given life in prison instead, he was supposed to be silenced. Story over.
You know the rest, though it wasn’t inevitable that he’d be released and become the president of a post-apartheid South Africa. Admittedly, it’s a country with myriad flaws and still suffers from economic apartheid, but who wouldn’t agree that it’s changed? Activism changed it; more activism could change it further.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, who’d amassed a vast media empire, banked billions of dollars and been listed by Forbes as the world’s thirteenth most powerful person, must have thought he had it made these past few decades. Now, his empire is crumbling and his crimes and corrosive influence (which were never exactly secret) are being examined by everyone. You never know what’ll happen next.
About 1,600 years ago, Boethius put it this way in The Consolations of Philosophy, written while he, like Mandela, was in prison for treason: “As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face.”
Still, that wheel didn’t just turn. It took some good journalism—thank you, reporters of the Guardian!—to bring Murdoch to his knees. Just as it took some dedicated activism to break Mandela out of prison and overcome the apartheid era.
Everything changes. Sometimes you have to change it yourself.
Unpredictability is grounds for hope, though please don’t mistake hope for optimism. Optimism and pessimism are siblings in their certainty. They believe they know what will happen next, with one slight difference: optimists expect everything to turn out nicely without any effort being expended toward that goal. Pessimists assume that we’re doomed and there’s nothing to do about it except try to infect everyone else with despair while there’s still time.
Hope, on the other hand, is based on uncertainty, on the much more realistic premise that we don’t know what will happen next. The next thing up might be as terrible as a giant tsunami smashing 100 miles of coastal communities or as marvelous as a new species of butterfly being discovered (as happened recently in Northern Ireland). When it comes to the worst we face, nature itself has resilience, surprises and unpredictabilities. But the real territory for hope isn’t nature; it’s the possibilities we possess for acting, changing, mattering—including when it comes to nature.