Title: Hope in the Dark (3rd edition)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: The publisher gave the eBook version away for free in mid-November
When I saw Arrival last November, it floored me because its central message — that despite knowing how dark things can get, it’s still worth it to create something, even if that creation gets destroyed — was antithetical to my own emotional state at the time.
Specifically, I wrote this:
When I look at the world, at the mass die-offs of animals and the climate change tipping point, I ask myself this: is having a child irresponsible? Am I doing them a disservice by bringing them into a world so close to the edge through no fault of their own? What if they grow up and hate me for having been alive now, when things were good, and for my complacency in not working hard enough to make things better for them?
In the shadow of the election of Trump, these questions have intensified. What if I have a kid, and then a huge war starts? How can I protect them?
In Arrival, the protagonist knows the awful truth about her unborn child’s impending death, yet soldiers on anyway because that pain is commingled with love. And that hope has absolutely floored me, because I wonder if I am that brave.
I’m still not over that sense of fear. I still don’t have any answers. But Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is helpful — it shines a light and shows proof for some optimism.
The history and timing of Hope in the Dark‘s publication is a bit curious. It was first published in 2004 in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, re-issued within a few years of Obama’s entry into the White House, and then re-issued again in the spring of 2016.
Thus its initial publication traces out the timeline of an arc of hope — from despair over the meaninglessness of the Iraq War, to jubilation over the election of Obama, to eagerness for that positive change to continue.
Then Trump happened. Now, at a time when it’s so easy to despair, this book feels more necessary than when it was originally published.
Hope in the Dark traces the success of various activist causes over the past five decades, from nuclear disarmament to the rise of the Zapatista movement. Solnit’s argument is simple: hope, rather than being a luxury that activists can ill afford, is actually key towards the success of the progressive movement. Moreover, small, incrementalist victories are as important as big, media-friendly ones.
Hope is social glue. Disasters bring it out in force. Two of her key examples of this are based off of American catastrophes: Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. When the towers fell, people in New York and across the country scrambled to help, whether it involved actually digging through wreckage, pulling people up from off the ground to help them run away, or donating blood. When Katrina receded, people from across the country travelled to New Orleans to try and rescue people stranded on roofs, in houses, on the streets. What else is hope than the idea that you can help despite being in danger?
The mainstream perception of activism is that it has to go big or go home. I know that I’ve thought this — that the only acceptable victory is total victory, a complete vanquishment of evil. But small acts are just as valid. You may not be able to drain the entire city, but you can pull a child off a roof into a boat. You can donate blood. You can talk to a stranger and build a connection and make them feel less alone.
This realization is one that I still haven’t quite gotten through my skull. In the past two months, I’ve been in a near constant state of fear. I have done small things to try and allay that fear, but my actions haven’t been very systematic, as they haven’t been focused on one overarching goal. Instead, it feels like there’s a new, ever-more-urgent political issue demanding my attention every day. Sign this petition. Call that politician. Read About Situation X in the U.S. that is About to Get Royally Fucked Over and Signal Boost for the Cause, Even Though I’m Canadian and Can’t Do Anything About It Myself.
It gets exhausting, especially without a strategy. It feels like trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble — the ocean will always win.
Hope in the Dark, as well as Solnit’s writing online and her Facebook posts, which I now follow, are constant reminders that this effort isn’t pointless, even if it is small. We’re bailing out not the ocean, but a boat. Sure, the boat is huge, and it may be increasingly listing to one side, but it possible to right things if we’re capable and dedicated enough.
This is a hard lesson to remember. One of the things I do to overcome this is write down everything that I’ve done to advance some cause — every petition I’ve signed, every mailing list I’ve joined to stay on top of issues, every public consultation that I’ve contributed my thoughts to, every donation I’ve made, every politician I’ve called and left a voicemail for. Eventually, over time, the list gets longer. It gives me some solace, even if it’s temporary and it feels like there’s so much more left to do.
I haven’t written about the book much. I recognize that. But I believe that in documenting my own attempts to recognize the value of hope, I’m staying true to its message. Hope is not a form of foolishness or naiveté. Like bread and muscle and breath, it’s essential to our continued survival.