Commentary

Probably because I’m a rabbi, a lot of people have asked me over the recent long months how to have hope during the Trump Era.

My answer depends a lot on what you think hope is.

If you think that hope involves maintaining the belief that everything’s going to be OK, with no major damage to anyone, that we’re all going to get through this together — well, then, no, I don’t have hope. The Russia story continues to unfold, but it seems unlikely that it will affect the status quo in the coming months — even if indictments are coming, they will take a long time to prepare, and the GOP doesn’t seem to be interested in impeachment at present.

And in the meantime, families have already been torn apart by ICE. Hate crimes have spiked since the election. Trump’s proposed budget involves cutting meals to impoverished children and seniors, heating assistance to the poor, and the House budget similarly looks to slash Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, and SNAP programs — if any of these components pass, innocent people will suffer and likely die. Preventable tragedies will continue to happen, perhaps to a great many people. The extent of the damage to our democracy and democratic process, and our voting rights, remains to be seen. Any hope that this story will go like a Hollywood movie, with no casualties to living, breathing human beings, is misguided and naïve.

But if you think of hope as something more primal, more feral, as the spark that prevents us from falling into despair at a time when despair is all too tempting — well, I have a few things to say about that.

A few years ago, my oldest child had a seizure at school. They called immediately, and I ran the few blocks over. When I got there, he was not very responsive. I held him in my arms and rocked him and kissed him and whispered that I would take care of him and we were loaded onto the ambulance together.

Was I terrified? Of course I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening, how serious it was, or what this meant for the child who owned my heart and soul. But in that moment my kid needed my strength and stamina, there was no space for anguish. I needed to hold him, both literally and figuratively, to send him signals of hope, to not wallow in my own fear and darkness. Later, when we were home from the hospital and he was resting, I could fall apart. But not while it was happening.

This? This thing that is happening? It’s happening now. It’s happening now and it might continue happening for a few years and what is needed of us — particularly those of us in the privileged position to be able to fight — is to bring our fortitude and resilience to the fore. We can have moments now and then where we allow ourselves to feel how scary this all is, sure. But right now this country — and the most vulnerable people in it — need us to hold up the light, to maintain our will to fight and to not give up, to not fall into our own personal terrors around this political moment. In other words: Get it together. This country needs you right now. Guard it with the fierce, focused love of a mama bear. And if you’re under attack, your acts of self-care and self-preservation are acts of both resistance and faith. Nourish yourself in every way possible — hold fast to the light.

What brings me hope is the way in which that same spark passed around these days, and the fact that it gets stronger the more we share it. The more of us that maintain that steadfast focus on those who need us, the more we all feel it. It’s the overflow of demonstrations and calls that have, God willing, killed Trumpcare’s passage through the Senate. It’s the explosion of airport protests the week the travel ban was first announced. It’s the communities banding together to create spaces of sanctuary for undocumented people. It’s every bystander interrupting hate and abuse. It’s millions of people who have turned calling their elected representatives into a new daily habit, as routine as brushing teeth. This is the spark of the divine, as far as I can tell, and it’s there at all times, waiting for us to access it. 

The Dalai Lama once told the story of a Tibetan monk who had served eighteen years in a Chinese prison. When he finally escaped, he went to see the Dalai Lama, who asked him what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison. As the Dalai Lama recounts it, what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese.

Even in a time of great oppression — for, one imagines, the monk must have experienced great suffering at the hands of his jailers — he held onto hope. Not a simplistic hope that he would emerge unscathed or that his country would easily be freed from persecution, but a steadfast belief that his heart and energy could, regardless of the circumstances, be inclined towards the good. 

Hope is the thing that can motivate us to action — to remember we can harness our power and band together to protest, to canvas for local elections, to build interfaith and intercultural bridges, to interrupt hate as we see it, to affirm and reaffirm, day after day, that what we do matters, and that even during times that feel dark, we can band together to make light.

For, as writer, activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel noted, “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.”

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