As I look out on the world scene, I marvel that anyone has any hope at all of a happy and secure future! Humanity is in a bad way – global terrorism, petty crime and violence, poverty and exploitation, global recession, drugs and alcohol addiction, AIDS epidemics and Zika virus outbreak, the proliferation of armaments and inevitable threats of war – need I go on? The earth itself appears to be going through upheaval, too – think of climate change, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes. Or perhaps better not think about them: it is not insignificant that the World Health Organisation has stated that the most prevalent health-destroying disease in the world, outstripping heart disease or cancer, or even AIDS, is Depression. With a capital D! To be a person of hope in the midst of this scenario is to risk marking yourself out as wilfully ignorant, blind or simply foolish. A ‘cup half full’ sort of person.
Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man (1733), has a line which has become an English proverb: ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast …’ Pope’s view was that human beings are constantly looking for a source of hope, for something to cling to, even in the darkest times. He even saw the Christian expectation of healing and restoration in the ‘age to come’ as part of the good which is hoped for in the future, but which is not present now.
Not all hope leads to sterile wishful thinking. So much good in the world has come from people who would not give in to hopelessness in the face of evil. Twenty or thirty years ago, there was a surgeon in the US who operated on serious tumours. There was a particular kind of tumour that until that time was considered untreatable, as it wrapped itself around the spinal cord and caused pain, paralysis and eventual death. It usually presented in children. The surgeon relentlessly pursued techniques and treatments to find an answer to this killer, and eventually he pioneered a laser-surgery technique which enabled him to restore full health and freedom to his young patients. He had killed the monster, as it were. When he was asked what gave him the inspiration and determination to pioneer his treatment until he hit success, he responded: ‘Well, I don’t accept children dying.’ I read those words in an article about him more than twenty years ago, and I still remember the thrill of joy that surged through me when I read his simple life philosophy – ‘I don’t accept children dying’. Here was a message of hope for the parents of those stricken children, and for other people facing seemingly hopeless medical diagnoses.
There is no doubt that many a tragedy has turned into a story of miraculous escape or deliverance, because somebody had hope in their heart that things could be different.
That hope energised and spurred them on to find a way out when there seemed none, so that they became the saviours of others as well as of themselves.
Now, at this time, in the light of the challenges we face in our world – challenges which seem to threaten the very existence of the human race – where will we find people of hope?
At one time, people looked to the elders in our society to give direction and leadership in times of disaster. Think of Britain’s Winston Churchill during the Second World War. He was over sixty years of age when he took up the reigns of government, but he constantly inspired the armed forces and the beleaguered British people that they could make it through, that they would come out of the perils and privations of war into ultimate victory. After all these years the British people still credit Churchill with winning the war for them. His seemingly unquenchable hope and faith were probably born partly out of his personality, which would not easily give in, but also out of his years of experience of both war and politics. He understood the strategies and psychology of conflict. So we could say that it is their experience that gives some people hope in difficult circumstances: ‘We’ve been here before, and we got through it then, so we can get through it again!’
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the optimism of youth. You could see this as a completely different source of hope. Not, ‘we’ve been through this before’, but ‘I’ve never encountered this, but my inbuilt optimism, lively intelligence and youthful energy say there must be a way through, and we will find it!’ This is, of course, a more dangerous source of hope because, although very inspiring at first, it could evoke disillusionment and cynicism if the hope turns out to be a false one. I sense that the current unease of the US electorate comes from a fear that the (comparatively) young, inexperienced, hope-filled President may not, in the end, be able to fulfil the hopes he has raised.
There is an old European proverb that says: ‘Age and treachery will always defeat youth and zeal’. Circumstances as well as people can be treacherous, which the young often do not expect. The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus shows the father, Daedalus, as a wise master-craftsman and strategist, devising a way for his son Icarus and himself to escape from the island of Crete, where they have been imprisoned by King Minos. Daedalus creates two huge pairs of wings out of feathers and wax, which he straps on to the arms of Icarus and himself. They then attempt to fly to Sicily by flapping their arms like birds’ wings. (This is a myth, remember!) Before they set off, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high, lest the sun’s heat melt the wax holding the feathers together. But Icarus, exhilarated by their successful flight, forgets the warning, and flies higher and closer to the sun. The inevitable happens: the wax melts, his wings disintegrate and he falls into the sea and drowns. Poor Daedalus escapes alone. The moral of the story is that youth may easily be carried away by self-confidence, which can turn to recklessness and cause disaster.
So where will we find people of hope? Perhaps they will best be found by uniting the generations, not simply listening to fresh voices rising from the new generation. The zealous hope of the young should have the energy and confidence to pioneer new paths, to find fresh answers, to solve ancient riddles. The wisdom and experience of the old see danger more quickly, and can penetrate the superficial picture more deeply.
J. R. R. Tolkien understood how to weave generational wisdom into his fantasy tale The Lord of the Rings. He has two grand heroes that fight the wars – the wise old ‘prophet’ (wizard) Gandalf, and the brilliant young king, Aragorn, whose other name is ‘Estel’, meaning ‘hope’. (Of course, it is the ordinary hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who, through courageous perseverance, destroy the enemy’s power.) It may not be a coincidence that Tolkien was writing his epic during the years of the Second World War.
A similar theme is seen also in the Old Testament Scriptures, where a young king, Jehoash, facing a desperate situation, goes to see the old prophet Elisha on his deathbed. Together they shoot an arrow, which is symbolic of the victory that would be won over the invading armies. The young king provides the strength to shoot the arrow, while the old prophet indicates the direction of it.
Perhaps this is how a new generation will bring hope to the world. Not by slavishly following the old ways, because that may not be the answer. We need scientists, philosophers, politicians and lawmakers who will think fresh, creative thoughts. As the difficulties and challenges loom up before us, we should expect to see the Estels of this world leading the way. As Pearl S. Buck wrote: ‘The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.’ But if they are wise leaders, we will expect to see the Gandalfs behind them and beside them, to help them overcome the greatest pitfalls and perils.
I have a dream of multigenerational respect and cooperation from both Baby Boomers and Generation X and Millennial alike. ‘Let not the old man glory in his wisdom, nor the young man in his strength …’ J. B. Priestley wrote: ‘There was no respect for youth when I was young, and now I am old, there is no respect for age. I missed it coming and going!’ Let’s not miss the opportunity to forge a people of hope out of the raw material of imperfect humanity, irrespective of age!