About ten miles south of us is a town called Middle Hope. There is no Upper Hope, Lower Hope, East Hope, South Hope, North Hope, or West Hope. In fact, there is no Hope. I don’t know the history of the town or how it got its name, but there it is: Middle Hope.
On the main street is a shop called “Selections Unlimited.” The sign reads “Shoes, Bags, Gloves, Accessories” and then some faded words that I can’t read because the sign is old and weathered. The shop has been abandoned and empty for years. Today there are not even limited selections. There are no selections. It may deserve the sign that Dante says (in his Divine Comedy) hangs over the gate to hell. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
The new year and new decade is now a week old, and I’ve been wondering just how to get my hopes up for the coming year and years, wondering what to hope for, realistically. I couldn’t live with myself (or probably anyone else for that matter) if I assumed the coming decade is going to be hell. There has to be some hope, and something to hope for even if our selections are limited.
I remember the beginning of the 1960s when I was 16 and the Kennedys were using a popular and gooey song called “High Hopes” as a campaign song. The song gave examples of an ant and a ram doing impossible things because they each had high hopes. The obnoxious refrain was, “He had high hopes, he had high hopes, he had high apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.” The song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, which makes you wonder how awful the other songs were. Frank Sinatra made the song popular. People liked Sinatra. He was a friend of John Kennedy. Kennedy won. And at some point thereafter, the 60s began—the cultural 60s I mean, the era that changed everything. Or so some of us who went through the 60s like to believe. (I’m not in the mood for the old joke that you should never ask people who lived through the 60s what they were like because they can’t remember them. Whether we remember them or not, we can still imagine them.) In spite of the tragedies of that decade, and there were many, there was a feeling of hope, at least among some of us who were young, prosperous, foolish, and on fire. The world was before us and we had selections unlimited.
Jump a half century later.
It doesn’t feel to me that anyone today has high-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes. And no one, mercifully, seems to sing that song anymore. But it doesn’t seem like we stand on the brink of hell either. Times are hard, and for some people much harder than they have ever known in their lifetimes. The first decade of this century knocked the ground out from under a lot of people: financial ground, job ground, security ground, and hopeful ground. A mood of exuberance often begins a new century or at least a sense of “whew!” the world didn’t end as some cranks predicted. But whatever exuberance we had ten years ago has been greatly tempered by the events and realizations of the last decade.
So how do we walk the line between hope and hopelessness? How do we know where to draw a line in the sand that we will defend to prevent despair from crossing over to our side and telling us there is no hope? How do we distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable hopes?
I had a spiritual teacher back in the 60s who was a model of moderation. His favorite jingle was, “Be not the first by which the new is tried, nor be the last to lay the old aside.” I really got sick of hearing this. Obviously it didn’t appeal to someone who was young, prosperous, foolish, and on fire. Looking at it fifty years later, though, it seems to have some merits. It’s not too far from the “middle way” espoused by Buddhists. It’s often the principle that results in the compromises necessary to move progress a little farther along, inch by ever-slow inch, foot by ever-slow foot.
In this part of New York State where I live there’s a history of New England settlers who were headed for the Midwest and were stymied in the swampy, marshy land that you can find here or by the mountain ridges that were too steep for them to cross. So they stayed here in New York, and they found a strange way to hang on to their hopes and dreams of going to the Midwest. They gave places Midwestern names. The result is that I, who grew up in the Midwest, am now living in New York near a town called Ohioville and from my front porch I look straight across the road to a large ridge called Illinois Mountain. I often wonder if those settlers saw their own hopes for a new life in the Midwest dashed, or whether they were content just to get this far away from whatever they were fleeing back east and call their new homes Ohio and Illinois. Obviously there’s no answer to that question that would explain all of them. Like us today, some of them probably held on to their high hopes, some may have despaired, and some may have had what we might call “middle hopes.”
I thought maybe writing this would help me figure out just how hopeful I should be in the coming year, but it hasn’t. I did make a New Year’s resolution though. I also wove a new braid to tie around my ankle. As I said earlier, I can’t live as if the future is going to be hell.