Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.


Hope in a Time of Bleakness

Published on Friday, December 15, 2017

Hope in a Time of Bleakness

Since my last blog, I flew to Florida to visit my son and family over Thanksgiving. In fact, the family that gathered in Boca Raton was my oldest son, Brian; his fiancé Michele; and his two teenage “little ones” to celebrate the holiday and also to gather for the first (and last) time before Brian and Michele were to be married in the coming week. We had a festive Thanksgiving feast at my hotel (shown in the lead photo), and just generally enjoyed being together for the first time since last summer.

I had stayed at this hotel – The Waterstone Hilton – once before. It's a lovely place that offers all kinds of amenities like “free” daily glasses of champagne between 4:30 and 6 p.m. – glasses that you can sip while sitting on the deck by the Atlantic Ocean and muse about the meaning of life or the sorry state of our country’s political scene at the moment. (See second photo below.) Whatever. There’s also a lovely park about five minutes’ walk from the hotel, and every morning I would leave the hotel grounds, spying all kinds of little lizards along the way (next photo), and head off to the park to get exercise and enjoy nature (next two photos).

Anyway, on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving I awoke to a text from my son asking, “Mom, could you marry us tomorrow?” Uh, I, uh ... “Sure, my joy, my pleasure!” Turns out Brian’s 13-year-old daughter, Becca, REALLY wanted to be at their wedding and couldn’t come back once school started up again in Durham. And I was there and family had gathered, so ... why not!

To make a long story short, we gathered the next day in a nearby park – the one where Brian and Michele had their first date. The wedding was strictly a family affair, with Michele’s mom and dad (with her dad walking her “down the aisle” toward me as I waited with Brian on a park deck overlooking a small lake), her sister, Becca as flower girl, me as Officiant, and the bride and groom – all gloriously, giddily happy as we gathered for this big event.

Afterward, after many, many photos and a stroll around the park, we all headed back to Michele’s parents’ town house for pizza, champagne, and then cake! After multiple more photos were taken, and then a swim in the pool, we all headed out for our respective destinations ... and a wedding dinner later that evening.

Backing up a bit, as I presided at this ancient ritual with the exchanging of vows and rings, what was so clear and palpable was not just the joy at the occasion, but running underneath all the joyful emotion was hope ... a hope for the future that this blending of two lives and two families would bring forth blessings and life-giving happiness, no matter what lies ahead for the two of them – for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death tears one of them from the other. When you get right down to it, marriage is not only a leap of faith in the future, but is the quintessential sign of the hope that we carry within us: hope that life will be good, hope that our lives will end well, hope that the promise will be kept.

So we all (most of us at least) hope against despair, hope that our lives will turn out well in the end, that “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” In my book Flourishing Life (2008), I devote a whole section of one chapter to the meaning and source of hope in our lives. I say “poets and scientists alike have grasped for hope’s essence, what hope consists of, what leads to it and what it offers humans as they traverse their lives.” Skipping for now the neurological, brain-base of hope that I cover in that section of the book, I point out that on the psychological level, hopeful expectation seems to predict “resilience in the face of trauma, as well as better physical health outcome in a number of studies.” What is hope’s source? Nurturing parents in early life, but also supportive mentoring and educational opportunity later in life. Additionally, hope doesn’t blind us to the reality of our situation. That is, hope isn’t mere empty wish or self-deception. “No, those who hope look unblinkingly at reality and still cling to what is not yet seen but positively anticipated – some good, some light to appear in the midst of the dark, some golden glimmer at the end of the tunnel.” (p. 86)

Hope does face truth embedded at times in darkness. Hope for survival of community and freedom rose from the ashes of the twin towers after 9/11. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after thirty years behind bars gave hope to millions. Barrack Obama’s rise to the presidency – whatever your political persuasion – gave hope to blacks in this country and to peoples around the world that individual achievement is honored and prejudice itself has lost sway in the free world. (p. 84)
When my dear friend Karen learned that I was going to write about hope in this blog, she sent me a link to the recent National Book Award speech (see last photo) given by Annie Proulx as she accepted the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. So let me end by citing this wonderful piece where Proulx described, in horrifying detail, the state of our world today, a “Kafkaesque time” to use her expression. From hurricanes to forest fires to destruction of the environment, to nuclear threat, to sexual and political escapades, we live in everyday bleakness.

And yet still, somehow, we “still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth – an indescribably difficult task. ... But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do. ... The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on ...”

Proulx ended her remarks by quoting from the poet Wislawa Szymborska's work titled “Consolation” about our longing for the happy ending:

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.
And so too, my son and his new wife embrace an unknown future, filled with hope as they move on the rest of their life’s journey together. In this Christmas season of peace and hope, bless them and wish them well! Amen.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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