12 November 2008

Hope is a four-letter word.

Hope is a four-letter word.
by Sawbones
11/12/2008, 2:11 PM #

Yeah, I know, you're over it. The word is used-up, tired, utterly spent from constant use by Hopey McChangeypants (sorry but I can't remember who I stole that one from) and his army of brainwashed drones. Empty slogans and sugar-coated platitudes don't substitute for policies and experience, you say, and you have a mighty good point there. The waters are getting choppy, the skies overhead are darkening, and the gods of thunder seem intent on making good on their ever-louder threats. Any rational sailor would tie down everything not already bolted and just ride it out - only a fool would unfurl all sails and plow ahead into this thing.

But there's the problem: we are not rational people. I like to tell the man in the mirror that he's a level-headed, reasonable guy who makes his decisions based on cool logic rather than emotion or instinct. In my more honest moments, I admit that I'm really the guy who carries an extra needle with him when he prepares to do a spinal tap (the superstition being that if you have it, you won't need it), won't ever use the word "quiet" to describe work for fear of changing that condition, and has ruled out several children's names for future use based solely on experiences that have forever linked those names to horrible diseases. I've had years of training to think scientifically and rationally, and my rational mind recognizes the disconnect, but that doesn't stop me or most of my colleagues from collecting our own idiosyncratic arrays of totems and superstitions. Most are harmless, a few are not, but it will only change when humans' fundamental nature changes - not anytime soon.

I've got to be honest, it's not just Obama or the election that has me thinking about the tension between hope and reason, but it does seem like a useful moment to extrapolate to a national level what each of us does every day. The act of stepping out your front door is an expression of hope, the idea that today has something to offer that yesterday didn't. Getting into an elevator or an airplane is a statement of tremendous optimism; you're saying that you trust the workmanship of a man or woman you've never met to protect you from the unfortunate interaction of heights, gravity and hard surfaces beneath. We invest our money because we have hope that there will be a tomorrow when it will be needed (it is telling that spend-it-all-now materialism is most prevalent in those parts of our culture where hope is most difficult to find). In fact, our entire financial system is at its heart a faith-based enterprise, with the economy of the United States (and by ramification, that of the rest of the world) depending on the hope that the U.S. will have the ability and willingness to honor its debts. Our very home in what is now known as the Western Hemisphere was "discovered" by men who sailed ships, based on science and reasoning leavened with a heavy dash of faith, into areas of the map where cartographers had previously just drawn dragons or sea serpents.

If we are all currently groping our way around the sea-serpent areas of the map, I may be a little further out to the edge than most. In seven months I will be moving back to a city that three years ago was underwater. We have bought a house there in New Orleans on the hope/faith/prayer (and the assurance of our realtor) that our house in St. Louis will sell. Hell, my whole career is predicated upon the hope that our healthcare system stays intact long enough to pay off my loans (down to $163,000 now, due to be paid off in 2033) and those of my wife. My entire damn life is predicated upon taking chances; some of those are calculated risks (the house, the career), while others (the move to NOLA) are irrational throws of the dice based on the belief that the consequences of misplaced hope are less than the second-guessing after passing on the chance to do the right thing.

Lying next to my wife last night as she was drifting off to sleep, I had my hand on her ever-expanding preggerbelly when I felt a thump that shook my hand and opened her eyes. If there is a more exuberantly irrational choice than bringing a child into a world that appears to be so utterly fucked, I don't know what it is. And while I need to start working on curtailing my usage of "fuck" and other four-letter words, "hope" is not one of those. I see no need to apologize to myself or to the cynics who see hope as an illness, a ready punchline, or just another four-letter word emptied of its meaning. It meant something yesterday, it means something today, and it always will. And as little as you may want to admit it, your world depends on it as well.

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