Drew Miller, my friend and former Habit Podcast producer/editor, recently told me, “The seeds of hope are in ignorance.”
I’ve been pondering that idea and trying to unpack it, because a) the news of the world has been chipping away at my naturally sunny outlook, and b) willful ignorance, it seems to me, is a huge part of the reason the news of the world is as bad as it is. So how can ignorance be the seedbed of hope?
We live in a culture of catastrophe. More to the point, we live in a culture of catastrophizing—the spinning-up of despair for profit and power. A lot of people make a lot of money by convincing us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, for real this time. I don’t wish to suggest that we should ignore or downplay the very real societal, political, economic, environmental, and interpersonal dysfunctions that confront us. But the weaponization of our legitimate fears and concerns does not make us better able to address our problems.
As I begin to tip over from fear and concern about the future into rage and despair, I find it helpful at least to consider the possibility that the messages that send me down that whirl hole are have been crafted by clever and well-resourced people who benefit from our rage and despair. The anger and hopelessness feel like they’re bubbling up from somewhere deep inside. But that’s how the most cynical marketers and flim-flammers do their work. They feed us ideas and convince us that the ideas were ours all along. When I was in junior high, I was pretty sure that the desire for Nike tennis shoes was bubbling up from somewhere deep inside me.
I consume a lot of media. It feels good to be informed and enlightened. When I “do my research,” things feel a little less out of control. I am a sucker for think-pieces that help me understand the forces that will shape the future. Taking my place among the well-informed, I say, “Oho! I see how this will end!”
But here’s the thing: I don’t know how this will end. Neither do you. Neither do the writers of the think-pieces. That ignorance is cause for hope, not despair. To repeat something I quoted from Patrick Curry a month or two ago,
Despair is for people who know, beyond any doubt, what the future is going to bring. Nobody is in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but also a simple mistake, because nobody actually knows. In that sense there is always hope.
Drew Miller meant something similar when he said that the seeds of hope lie in ignorance. The point is not to be willfully ignorant, but to acknowledge the simple and straightforward fact that, being finite humans in an impossibly complex world, we don’t know what the future holds. All of our efforts to predict the future, to manage risk, to know what to expect are gestures toward a life that doesn’t require hope. Hope comes to us, must come to us, from outside the self, or else it is something besides hope.
“Hope goes all in on the unknown,” Drew has written, “because if any party is going to interrupt this ceaseless repetition of despair, it’s going to have to come from the outside, from beyond the scope of my imagination. It’s going to have to come as a surprise.” Drew has been thinking a lot about these things because he is writing and recording an album of eight songs that explore “hope’s subversive interruption of despair at the frayed edges of our imaginations.” (The album is called There Will Be Suprises. Check out his Kickstarter here.)
The sweet spot of storytelling, as I often say, is “surprising but believable.” A satisfying story ending is one you didn’t coming, but which, in retrospect, couldn’t have ended any other way. That is the shape of hope. It’s also the shape of the world we live in, where we constantly try to game out the future, and where we are always surprised.