On Hope and the Possible
“I dwell in possibility…” Emily Dickinson
“A thought, even a possibility, can shatter and transform us.” Friedrich Nietzsche
We all hope for a better world. Hope is ingrained in us from the time we are toddlers—we hope we will be praised when we do something good; we hope for a toy at Christmas; we hope that we hit a home run or score the winning goal, we hope we are allowed into the most popular group. When we become politically aware perhaps we hope for world peace, that the sick of the world are cared for and the hungry are fed.
But hope as a future-oriented wish or aspiration only goes so far. It can spur us to act or begin something new—but can also entice into a false sense of security or confidence that things will magically improve. It can encourage us to stop thinking and doing by asking us to realize an idyllic past or imploring us to imagine an ideal future, while constantly deferring or setting aside the suffering and struggle of the present. We hope for a new source of energy that will allow us to go on consuming without limits; we hope a green economy will be realized without any personal cost; we hope for a cure for Covid-19 so things can get back to ‘normal’ and we can continue traveling and indulging in a lifestyle we believe we ‘deserve’; we hope that technology will solve the problem of climate warming.
When this kind of thinking goes unchallenged hope ends possibility, and forecloses on radical or revolutionary change. Why? Because it appears to present us with what we ideally want rather than what we concretely need. When those on the left counsel that we must give people hope, or that failure to provide a hopeful vision ends up disempowering and immobilizing us, they are selling a lie, or what is worse, a fiction that is intended to cover over the stark and painful reality of a present truth.
By contrast, possibility is situated in the present—in what can be done right now, not in some imagined future time. It is a call to arms—provoking us to think and act in radical and revolutionary ways in the immediate present. Possibility is about choice—it forces us to take a stand based on an honest assessment of the way things really are, and warns us of the awful and inevitable consequences of inaction. By contrast hope sets truth aside in order to console, distract or comfort us. Possibility bears the weight of our despair and melancholia because it assumes radical change cannot happen without our direct action and involvement. Hope placates the impatient and displaces despair for an imagined future contentment. Possibility does not promise certitude or finality, but reminds us that the struggle for freedom and justice never ends. Possibility never lets us forget that we are finite and flawed creatures—admonishing us always to remember that we are individually and collectively responsible for the world we live in, and for uncovering the truth of what the world is over against what we think it possibly could be.
The very moment when we say ‘the situation is hopeless’, is the moment that possibility become visible.